Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Smart Power", the Military, and Public Diplomacy

As a part of our PD class readings this week we had to look at strategic communication, and more specifically, at AFRICOM. Seib's piece on the "mission" does a great job in discussing the various complexities involved, and does not seem to shy away from criticism. And although the Africa Command might seem a great application of Nye's "Smart Power", it might not only prove ineffective, but also counter-productive in the long run.

Smart Power essentially constitutes a complex combination of soft and hard power, which, working together, are supposed to make the attainment of state interests smoother and easier. So, the military, along with its actual "hard" tactics, also decided to take on aid and development missions, since those are among the fundamental parts of the "soft power" component. Although well-intentioned (in a sense), such projects should be dealt with great caution, since military will always stay military with their short-term goals and interests, as well as the inherent ability to cause and attract distrust, disapproval (especially from the perspective of the "receiving" side), and aggression.

In a post written in December on the development efforts (and arguably, the failure thereof) of the US military in Afghanistan, I touched upon some of the reasons for their unpopularity with the local people. Although papers and books can be written on the subject, particularly pertaining to fighting extremism and terrorism (and I really hope I will come across more of such materials as I delve deeper into the field), I will try and put out some ideas in a single blog post.

Certainly, the challenges in the 21st century are well captured by Kaldor's "New Wars" framework, which acknowledges the changes brought by asymmetric warfare, globalization, and the ICTs revolution. She also suggests that the breakdown in social systems and sustained instability cause lawlessness and insecurity, which, coupled with poverty, create the perfect breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. Organizations such as Hizballah or Hamas then come to fill in these "black holes," providing welfare, education, healthcare, jobs, and social support networks for the desolate: these all separate from the militia wings that engage in violence.
(This is a ppt on Israel's 2006 War with Hizballah prepared for a paper presentation last year)

So, a "New War" requires innovative 21st-century responses, which would quite naturally address the underlying problem of the "black holes" and fight poverty as a major enemy in the war: enhance the welfare, provide education, create "in-system" employment, and put a greater emphasis on the use of media (as an ideological battleground). However, an army is not the best actor for this. Foreign military presence - be it a full-scale invasion or one of altruistic benevolence - can only provide further grounds for extremist recruitment, since foreign armies are seldom trusted. The lack of trust is not only due to past experience or "historical legacy," but also because despite the aid, armies still engage in aggression and destruction, inevitably undercutting the development efforts, and causing bitterness and hatred among the local population, who might not have been inclined to support extremism in the first place.

And, certainly, another good example of such distrust (although not an institutionalized "mission" yet) is the case in Haiti. Yes, the US military was among the very first to respond: thousands of troops were sent over the weeks to assist the relief efforts (or, hamper them, as some claimed). Yet, many question whether this effort is altruistic or just another manifestation of not-so-hard power pursuing age-old interests, especially since throughout several months before the earthquake there had been increasingly more talk of Haiti's oil reserves. Therefore, no matter how successful the relief effort, the longer the US military remains engaged in Haiti (and, if sustainable assistance is to be provided - at least a "medium-term" one - involvement might last fairly long), the greater and more vocal such distrust might become (and wait till more of the private sector gets there).

Haiti is not Afghanistan, Iraq, or Lebanon, and there is little chance that fundamentalist extremism will grow there, but all the talk about the US military's role on the island is a good illustration of how its humanitarian assistance efforts might be undercut by popular long-held perceptions, fed by the spin (not to call it propaganda) by not-so-friendly international actors. Looking at societies where ideological extremism is much more probable, the spin and distortion might become more dangerous and destabilizing in the long term, since the military presence will only perpetuate the will to fight it and hence, perpetuate the instability.

Although smart power is a great approach and arguably very reasonable, it should not be undertaken by the military itself, but rather by the country as a whole, i.e. there should be a clear separation between American "hard" military structure and the "soft power" activities: American aid workers, teachers, doctors, or volunteers. And, what is even more important, the local population should be involved in the development efforts - at all stages and levels - in order to maintain the trust in the process and the end goal itself, even if they do not trust the Americans. Otherwise, sustainable results might be unattainable.

And no, in this case, taking credit for such work should not be the primary concern, since such public diplomacy should be looked at as a medium-to-long term effort, and taking overall credit for the long-term success will be much more effective and useful for US interests. But since the military culture is not necessarily concerned with that, this very important consideration runs the risk of being effectively forgotten.


  1. You've got a lot going on in this post, but I wanted to comment on the first section. I loved this week's readings, but the chief bit I pulled from them was the necessity for firewalls between different areas of public diplomacy--particularly when the military gets involved.

    On an only marginally related topic (the Olympics are PD, right?) what is going on with the US team's knit caps?

  2. firewalls: good. the military should be SUPER careful when getting involved in development/pd. might backfire, just as it did nine years ago.

    as for the knit caps - what are you referring to exactly? i don't think i know.. :)

  3. I did a little research. Evidently Ralph Lauren designed them:

    I'd just like to point out that the top suggestion in google's autofill for the prompt "US Olympic" is "US Olympic team hat," so I can't be the only one who wondered. I'm not a huge fan of the sweaters either, but maybe I'm out of touch with the American fashion aesthetic?

  4. hah! Never noticed! :)
    i wonder if it's just another marketing ploy, you know, to fight the "cacophony of voices" and make sure that people actually notice that there's smth MORE special about the team this year: their knit caps!
    might be stretching it a little, here. but honestly, wouldn't be surprised! :)