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Project Syndicate: Obama’s Tightrope

Author: Joseph S. Nye
March 8, 2011

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Joseph Nye writes on the delicate balancing act the Obama administration must perform in negotiations with changing governments in the Middle East.

According to a United States State Department official, the concept of “smart power” – the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called “hard” and “soft” power – is at the heart of the Obama administration's foreign-policy vision. Currently, however, Obama's smart-power strategy is facing a stiff challenge from events in the Middle East.

If Obama fails to support the governments in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, he may jeopardize important foreign-policy goals such as Middle East peace, a naval base in the Persian gulf, stability in oil markets, or cooperation against Al Qaeda terrorists. On the other hand, if he merely supports such governments, he will antagonize those countries' new information-empowered civil society, thus jeopardizing longer-term stability.

Balancing hard-power relations with governments with soft-power support for democracy is like walking a tightrope. The Obama administration has wobbled in this balancing act, but thus far it has not fallen off.

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