The most recent presidential debate made clear that no matter who sits in the Oval Office in January, the President will have to deal with the problem of how to exert American influence in a world of dwindling resources, increasing ambivalence, declining order, and intensifying competition for regional and global leadership. At a time when the United States has much to lose from retrenchment, an Obama or Romney administration will find the United States with few effective non-military instruments of power. Both candidates skirted around the problem of how to exert such power. The fact is, post-cold war America is not good at it and this is not due, solely, to diminished resources. It is because the United States lacks a concept of operations that applies our economic and humanitarian assistance - our so called instruments of “soft power” - competitively.
The United States operates in a highly competitive political and diplomatic arena. The continued unrest in Egypt, the violence in Libya and Syria, and the populist Chávez-led policies in Latin America are examples of the contest taking place by state and non-state actors to shape the political future of countries and regions around the world. Most of our adversaries, or erstwhile friends, are actively engaged in such contests, from Iran, to China, to Russia, to Saudi Arabia. Yet the United States is failing to keep pace.
The Obama White House and State Department regularly talk about the need to prevent atrocities, encourage economic growth, and help innocents. Yet everything from the building of a girl’s school in Afghanistan or a health clinic in the Sudan is a political act that affords power to one group over another. As the head of the Australian government’s aid agency put it: aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political. Unless this competitive landscape is deliberately considered, ability to achieve our foreign policy goals will remain fundamentally limited. A new approach of competitive engagement would require the recognition that we operate in an environment in which new ideas, economic strategies, civic action, and humanitarian aid are contested by vested interests and ideological and political opponents
The current administration, in elevating the value of America’s so called “smart” or “soft” power has failed to understand that being “attractive” is never enough. The internal contests in places of strategic interest to the United States directly impact the ability of Washington to promote human rights, advocate for better treatment for women, improve rule of law, and assist with economic reforms. Any injection of American aid or resources involves us in a cauldron of ongoing competitions. One reason behind the arrest last spring of individuals supporting civic groups in Egypt was because leaders there viewed such assistance as a direct interference in these contests.
Competitive engagement is hardly a foreign concept. America is a competitive nation. Competition is the cultural trait that drives our markets and allows the most talented and hardest working individuals to rise to the top. Yet aside from America’s “hard power” institutions - our military and intelligence agencies – most of our government lacks the culture and organizations needed to think competitively about desired outcomes. Our military and intelligence agencies routinely assess who their opponents are likely to be once they hit the ground - or at the very least, who are least likely to welcome them. This is not a dominant way of thinking within our civilian agencies. America’s ability to shape economic development, increase accountability, improve public health and build allied coalitions would be more effective if our civilian agencies consciously considered the competitive interests that impact these arenas.
The strategic culture of our adversaries – or occasional partners - appreciates the competitive nature of the diplomatic, political, and economic landscapes. The post 9/11 period made clear how an enemy employed a mix of political, economic, and security measures to achieve their goals. The Chinese, Russian, and Iranian regimes actively pursue their long term objectives through networks of partners, surrogates, and proxies. While the United States cut back, the Chinese announced they are putting billions of dollars into public diplomacy, creating radio and TV stations throughout Africa. Around the world, China has more consulates than the United States and Beijing uses its aid policies - such as debt cancellation and a “no strings attached” approach - to cultivate friends and greater influence. Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance actively reaches out to Shia communities around the world, promoting Iran as a champion of those who oppose the West. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have spoken openly of Iran’s “octopus like” expansion and its desire to exert control, partly by actively spreading its ideology. Russians have sought to develop a more systematic approach to the relationship between hard and soft power by intermingling the attractive and the coercive; the Russian expression for this is to “coerce into friendship.”
As a start, the adoption of a competitive engagement approach requires three elements. First, there must be a cultural shift within U.S. civilian agencies. The word “compete,” or variations of it does not appear in USAID and the State Department’s most recent, comprehensive strategic planning efforts. A shift in the prevailing mindset would recognize that the use of civilian tools to shape, build, or influence will often encounter some opposition. As U.S programs are developed they are rarely the first effort to “fix” a particular problem or improve a situation: vested interests exist and need to be accounted for from the start.
Second, a cultural shift poses distinct information requirements. A competitive engagement approach requires the creation of serious mapping capabilities in civilian institutions. “Intelligence” is, for the most part, anathema in the non-military domains. Yet information grounded in history and the political context of any engagement effort is critical. Successfully shaping outcomes require a serious inventory of political actors in the formal and informal domains. Who are the local leaders? Which external actors are backing local groups? Who matters, and why? What are their interests? Some of this information is learned on the ground, but a shift toward competitive engagement would equip our civilians at the outset. Our military is equipped with information about who they will encounter in the field because that information is seen as critical to success: the same should hold true on the civilian side. Yet the civilian agencies in charge of most of these “soft” programs do not have such capabilities. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, for instance, provides broader political analysis, not the kind of information used routinely by practitioners on the ground. Organizations on the front lines of our democracy promotion efforts, such as the National Endowment for Democracy or the International Republican Institute do not have in-house, mapping shops, even though their entire mission depends upon a deep understanding of the political landscape in which they operate. Absent such systematic information from the start, the United States is at a great disadvantage.
Third, civilian organizations must be given the flexibility to respond to events as they unfold and change - this will happen, inevitably, due to the injection of American programs and persons. In the military sphere this is often referred to as “shaping the situation through action.” It basically acknowledges that the character of a conflict will unfold in unexpected directions, since U.S. actions generate responses. Another military concept, called “mission command,” acknowledges that authority should devolve to the lowest possible level, in order to respond to changes on the ground in a timely way. Civilian agencies need to develop parallel concepts and train their practitioners to think competitively and to provide them the authorities and the resources to prevail.
A competitive engagement approach is not entirely new: it is rooted in several American diplomatic traditions and approaches (particularly from the Cold War) such as political warfare and strategic communication. The new aspect of competitive engagement is that even absent overt conflict or hostilities it accounts for the fact that contests are taking place at the local level. U.S. civilian agencies must become adept at defining our political objectives, identifying obstacles and opportunities that either obstruct or accelerate progress toward achieving those objectives, and then take action to overcome obstacles and exploit opportunities. This new mindset would acknowledge that America’s “softer” objectives are shaped by competitions. The playing field is not, and has never been, neutral. America has tremendous, innate advantages in its political, economic and cultural instruments of power. But just as the military consistently hones its skills and constantly seeks to improve its instruments, so too must we improve our ability to use America’s non-military power, smartly.