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Call Them Sticks and Carrots, or Direct and Indirect, or Hard and Soft Power Approaches

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Call Them Sticks and Carrots, or Direct and Indirect, or Hard and Soft Power Approaches: Either Way, We Are At A Strategic Inflection Point

Robert Sharp

Since September last year, I have traveled to Yemen, Qatar, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan, the UAE, and Palestine (Ramallah and Jericho) in my capacity as an associate professor at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies.  I have also been involved in several NESA Center programs in Washington, DC where at least six times a year we gather two representatives from each of the NESA region countries over a period of two weeks to brainstorm security issues and - under conditions of academic freedom and the Chatham House Rule - discuss and share experiences.  NESA then produces feedback for our respective stakeholders derived from participant comment.

Our region broadly covers Central Command's area of responsibility.  In most of my overseas engagements, I have been involved with security sector development and reform through professional military education.  Throughout my travels, I have reflected on the sticks-and-carrots, direct and indirect, hard and soft power approaches that we employ as tools of our foreign policy executed through the military instrument.  As we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have come to the conclusion that our sticks - hard power - executed in general direct approaches are becoming increasingly lethal and that our carrots - soft power - executed in general indirect approaches are limp and looking a little rotten.  I sense that we are at a strategic inflection point.   Now is the time for us to boost our carrot-indirect-soft power engagement; if we do not our global influence will further wane.

Consider the case study of the so-called Arab Spring.  In my view, it is not strictly Arab, nor is it a season, much less a spring. My travels and reflections convince me that we are witnessing a worldwide human transition.  Put in Huntingtonian terms, it is a clash of "haves" and "have-nots".  Mass protests in parts of Europe, Turkey, Brazil, and the U.S. Occupy Movement, demonstrate that this is not just Arab.  In Western democracies, where rights are backed up with the value of human dignity, the transition is occurring under the rule of law and is generally peaceful.  In the Arab world, transition is being managed in some cases very intelligently by what I would describe as benevolent monarchies.  In the less benevolent monarchies, the issues are more about power, resources, sectarianism and standing in the Islamic world rather than the "haves" and "have-nots".

The Arab republics have experienced the most unrest and are the ones where the most work is needed and the most change can occur.  Most remain very vulnerable.  Good governance provides the solution in all cases, but in most cases, good governance is merely an aspiration.  It is not just that good governance is a new idea in some of these countries; it is also that there is a lack of government capacity and capability.  In my view, there will be many more revolutions and counter-revolutions to come.  My point here is that our engagement has been less effective than we would have liked and I suggest it is because we have actually reduced or at least appeared to have reduced our ability, competence and capacity to engage and gain trust indirectly with carrots as soft power.

U.S. foreign policy is seen by some in the region as a key catalyst to the so-called Arab Spring, particularly among those who do not like the outcome.  As furloughs, sequestration and the drawdowns indicate, the U.S. Government will be expected to do more with less.  Most Americans are war-weary following Afghanistan and Iraq, and our financial woes, as reflected in our current governance challenges in Washington, have somewhat bemused colleagues from overseas. Add to that the leaks and exposures derived from naïve or malign actors such as Assange, Manning and Snowden, and you draw the strands together very quickly of substantially diminished trust and thus influence. Many in the region are crying out for our support but we cannot and will not deliver enough, as far as they are concerned.

At the NESA Center, we are concerned with the educational line of development. As such, we are warriors of the mind and our weapon is critical thinking ultimately leading to counterterrorism which is carrot-indirect-soft power.  Building relations and regional partner capacity, we employ professional military education to shape the conceptual and thought process for key partners.  Using learning techniques like Andragogy (adult learning), Bloom's Taxonomy (for learning objectives), and Socratic Questioning techniques (for critical thinking), we are constantly fostering these educational approaches because we believe that our regional partners will benefit.  It is the carrot-indirect-soft power approach, all done on an annual budget that is equivalent to what it costs to buy just one F-16 fighter jet.

Our military is the most-used instrument of stick-direct-hard power.  But our forces are being restructured for drone and cyber war with an emphasis on strike through precision-power projection.  Much of our soft power capacity is being stripped out as budgets compress, despite the evidence that this move is unwise.  I posit - a point counter-intuitive for policy makers, I worry - that the more stick-kinetic, direct and hard we become in focus, the more we need to significantly increase our carrot-indirect-soft power complementary approaches.  The origins of the so-called Arab Spring suggest that solutions rest in soft, not hard, power.  It's about people.  Ultimately we need both sticks and carrots to remain relevant, but both applied in the right hard-soft, direct-indirect balance.  As our sticks become more lethal, our carrots need to be ever more tasty.  I believe we are at a strategic inflection point right now and urge a re-think of the stick-hard-direct, to carrot-indirect-soft power balance of investment.

Unless we resource our soft power - as a tasty carrot to balance our stick of hard power - our influence through trust will further wane and others like Russia, China, Iran and the Europeans will step in.  Our fixation on kinetic strike is not the right basis for our engagement, although I accept that the sole superpower needs credible sticks.  Boosting our indirect engagement is the key to successful balance for U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

About the Author(s)

Robert Sharp is an Associate Professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center, National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.