The U.S. is in a global struggle of enormous importance. This is not the war against violent extremists. It is the battle for influence in an increasingly complex and competitive international environment. This is a sphere of international relations dominated by so-called soft power instruments – aid, assistance, foreign direct investment, information, cultural exchanges, education, information and diplomatic activities. The battle for influence is not limited just to the major powers, although nations such as China are devoting enormous material, financial and human resources to expanding their interests. Nations hostile to the United States such as Iran and Venezuela are engaged in a serious campaign to strengthen their international standing and create a network of supporters while simultaneously attempting to weaken Washington’s position. In addition, rising powers such as Brazil, India and Indonesia are becoming more engaged both regionally and internationally.
In a short article in the current issue of Small Wars Journal based on a longer, forthcoming piece, author Dr. Nadia Schadlow argues that the U.S. must pursue a robust U.S. international strategy to expand and enhance its influence abroad based on the concept of Competitive Engagement (CE). The essence of a Competitive Engagement strategy is the recognition that the United States cannot skate by on its erstwhile status as the world’s sole superpower. Today and for the foreseeable future, Washington will be in a contest for influence across the globe. According to Dr. Schadlow, “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 State Department and other civil agencies must recognize this competitive environment and develop programs and policies accordingly.
Competitive Engagement has a number of other requirements. One of the most important of these is the development of a broad and deep knowledge of the political, social, economic, cultural and historical environments in which the civil agencies are operating. It involves “mapping” the structure and actions of both formal and informal institutional networks in foreign lands. Our recent tragic experience in Benghazi underscores the problems that can arise when the U.S. lacks sufficient awareness of local dynamics. The traditional intelligence organizations are not versed in the gathering and analysis of this kind of information.
A third requirement is tactical flexibility. This is similar, according to Dr. Schadlow, to the military’s concept of “mission command” which seeks to devolve decision making responsibility down to the lowest tactical level under the umbrella of a common understanding of the overall mission being pursued. It is usually the people in the field, in contact with local populations and institutions, that have the best knowledge of what is going on and who are in the best positions to respond to changes in fluid situations.
Competitive engagement is not about more resources for diplomatic activity or foreign aid. It focuses on a change in culture and purpose by the civil agencies that must take the lead in re-establishing U.S. global influence. I look forward with interest to reading Dr. Schadlow’s longer exposition of her ideas.
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