Small Wars Journal

Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence

Mon, 11/05/2012 - 3:28pm

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.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, where she identifies strategic issues that warrant further attention from the U.S. policy community and manages and develops programs and projects related to these issues. She has helped to create grant portfolios on key topics, including improving the U.S. military’s approach to stability and reconstruction operations; building and strengthening networks of moderates in key Muslim-majority countries; understanding the challenges posed by Islamist radicalization; and challenging traditional approaches to foreign aid and development by emphasizing models that recognize the importance of local actors. She served on the Defense Policy Board from September 2006-June 2009; and is a full member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Certainly the use of non-military tools of influence is competitive in many environments. It has to be, as there are many other parties in every country, both local and foreign, who also seek influence. It would be a huge mistake, though, to see this competition as the kind of head-to-head zero-sum win-or-lose competition that characterizes military engagements. It's more about looking for win-win arrangements, realizing that the other competitors also have legitimate interests and a right to be represented and to make their influence felt. Too much influence in a foreign country is as bad as too little: nobody likes the perception that their country is under a foreign thumb, and too much influence is likely to generate a dangerous backlash.


Fri, 11/09/2012 - 5:12pm

In reply to by Move Forward

I don't personally believe that aid is effective as an adjunct to armed nation-building or as part of an effort to install a government. The lesson, to me, is that these are ineffective devices to start with, and that they should be avoided to the greatest possible extent. It may be necessary to use armed force in war-torn or failing states, but that doesn't mean we have to try to install governments or build nations.

Move Forward

Thu, 11/08/2012 - 6:09pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M said:

<blockquote>As Dr. Schadlow pointed out, we used to have a strategy for employing other than military elements of national power to achieve political ends during the Cold War, and we did it very well in most cases.</blockquote>

Recall that we offered extensive aid to Iran during the days of the Shah prior to 1979. We also helped Afghanistan during the 50s/60s era of Little America in Helmand valley. Likewise, Cold War aid provided to Egypt reversed the prior trend of close Soviet influence. How did all that turn out in terms of influence? It was only Islamic radicalization and the Arab Spring that have made it difficult to provide aid safely to exert influence.

It is in that respect that I agree with Dayuhan that reconstruction of Germany and Japan was different. The earlier two appreciated the help and the Japanese were only suicidal during the war out of desperation. In current suicide and other attacks, extremists were religiously and culturally motivated to reject modernization and Western infidel values. Some also felt singled out by coalition victories that removed them from power.

Bill M then goes on to note:

<blockquote>One can only imagine how much smoother (smoother, not smooth) our stability operations would have gone in both Iraq and Afghanistan if the military transitioned from a leading role to a supporting role to competent civilian agencies that actually knew how to compete politically with "smart power" for influence with various actors to achieve stated objectives.</blockquote>

Bill then goes on to say that no competent civil agency stepped forward, and that is reinforced by this anecdotal USAID example in an article with internal links that Madhu (hat tip) posted in the SWJ Council.…

From the link a key quote:

<blockquote>A 64-mile stretch of road from Gardez to Khost in Afghanistan was shoddily constructed and is still incomplete after three years of construction. As of May 2011, the project was expected to cost $176m, two and a half times the initial budget. As with most wartime aid, much money went to security – including to a local warlord linked to the insurgents – which did not prevent 108 roadside bombs that killed 19 workers.</blockquote>

This illustrates how difficult it is for COIN “build” to occur in many war torn lands without adequate security...and apparently without route clearance capabilities to safeguard workers from IEDs. Security alone is cited as representing $43.5 million of the $121 million spent on the Gardez-Khost highway as of the May 2011 link within the article.

Because we overspent on contract security, a South African company was able to sub-contract security to others who in turn further sub-contracted with each taking a cut. A local warlord named Arafat was apparently initially a key security sub-contractor although some of the money paid to him was for a thousand invisible security contractors. Instead, protection money allegedly was going to the Taliban and Haqqanis to ensure fewer attacks and support their war effort. Attacks often coincided with contract negotiations with some 364 attacks including the 108 bombs occurring killing many Afghan workers.

Nevertheless, rebuilding the ring road was very successful in early OEF and could be in any conflict with military security and perhaps a military capability to lay asphalt with contractor assistance. Perhaps early ring road efforts were more successful because the terrain was flatter and more conducive to observation vs. this particular windy mountain road and because IEDs were not yet being used extensively in early OEF. US forces also created roads or went cross country in some areas using line charges and due to the better mobility of some trucks and terrain. Is this an example where helping a host nation also assist the military in its resupply and ground access efforts?

I recall another article where a contractor attempting to finish the ring road in the north was kidnapped and was forced out of the business of finishing the project after paying a ransom. So clearly, both articles indicate that only contractor security was available. If the military was uninvolved in aid, how would USAID or NGOs provide security and oversight of projects in an effective manner in war zones?

Another key quote from the Guardian article:

<blockquote>Second, recognize what the last decade taught us: there is actually a great divide separating development and defense. Announce that henceforward aid is for poverty relief and only for poverty relief, not for supporting military operations. Build a firewall between USAID and the defense department. Let defense run its programs or counter-insurgency, but don't be misled that this has anything to do with aid.</blockquote>

The article argues that more aid should go to nations that are not war-torn or failing because then security is less of an issue. That’s kind of obvious, but does not address that the military is only likely to be used in war-torn or failing states. So if civilian agencies and contractors cannot effectively offer aid in such an environment who will if the military won’t?

Bill M.

Wed, 11/07/2012 - 11:55pm

I don't know if we have been ignoring or neglecting this aspect of national power. We definitely give it enough lip service with all the articles on "soft" and "smart" power, but in general we have no concept on how to apply this type of power to achieve objectives. We often resort to simply conducting random acts of kindness such as development and assume that will result in the desired poltical end.

As Dr. Schadlow pointed out, we used to have a strategy for employing other than military elements of national power to achieve political ends during the Cold War, and we did it very well in most cases. At that time we understood we had an adversary that we were competing with for influence, and we took that contest seriously. She correctly points out we still have competitors for influence that in some cases are adversarial such as Iran, a number of terrorist organizations, China, etc.

One can only imagine how much smoother (smoother, not smooth) our stability operations would have gone in both Iraq and Afganistan if the military transitioned from a leading role to a supporting role to competent civilian agencies that actually knew how to compete politically with "smart power" for influence with various actors to achieve stated objectives. Since competent civilian agency personnel did not step forward, the military tried to compel political change through the use of coercion and carelessly distributed incentives. This clumsy approach all too often gave our competitors the upper hand in gaining more influence.

Dr. Schadlow may be giving the military too much credit in some regards. I think a case can be made that our security cooperation program at times can be rather aimless. Sometimes we conduct exercises because we always have, and while there are always some benefits derived from these activities, they are often not conducted in a way that maximizes return. We to need to approach security cooperation in the spirit of competition also, and not assume others are not competing to replace our influence. What the author wrote below applies equally to the military.

"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. Unless this competitive landscape is deliberately considered, ability to achieve our foreign policy goals will remain fundamentally limited."

Great article, hope to see follow up articles along this line.

(cleaned up some significant grammar errors)

Dr. Schadlow addresses critical issues here we seem to be conveniently ignoring and, like the crazy uncle in the attic, only invite down for special reasons. Nadia hits the nail on the head and we can only offer up sound bites by ignoring her sage advice. - Dave D.