The United States has always deployed a range of instruments in pursuit of its foreign and national security objectives. For the past decade, the tendency has been to focus on the military as the all-purpose tool, responsible for creating stability, building nations and winning hearts and minds as much as fighting wars. In part, this reflects the centrality of the security problem in Iraq and Afghanistan as the chief impediment to the development of civil society and political order. In part, too, it was a consequence of the military’s structure and its ability to pull from within almost all the resources necessary to address the full range of challenges the coalition confronted in both those countries. Moreover, if the military did not have the skills and capabilities readily at hand, such as tactical intelligence, it created the mechanisms to acquire them. Finally, it was a function of the organizational and planning skills of the military which enables it to make a clear connection between objective, methods and means.
For the future, the United States had better plan on more extensive and intensive employment of the other instruments of national power. Budget cuts and the rise of technologically and operationally sophisticated adversaries are going to require the military to focus more on its central missions: deterring and winning wars. Equally important, the central challenges of the new millennium are more likely to be political, ideological, cultural and economic vice military. Even the military recognizes this reality and is spending more time and effort developing the doctrine, concepts, capabilities and knowledge to be successful at the end of the conflict spectrum before the initiation of hostilities, what are termed phases one and two.
However, the government institutions responsible for wielding the other instruments of national power are not prepared to take up the slack for the military. They lack the necessary funds and in some instances, the institutional competencies. Unlike the Armed Forces they have little experience operating under the principle familiar to the military of unity of command.
Perhaps most significantly, our civil agencies lack the proper appreciation of their environment as a competitive landscape, a battlefield. Consequently, they have not adopted a strategy of “competitive engagement.” In a new article for Orbis, Dr. Nadia Schadlow argues that failure to see the degree to which the world has become an arena of conflict where U.S values, principles, ideas and methods are contesting with a host of others for attention and relevance. According to Dr. Shadlow, in virtually every theater of the world, local, regional, and strategic competitions affect America’s ability to exert influence through its aid and diplomacy. From Pakistan to the Middle East to Africa, ideas about how to develop economies, shape educational systems, administer health care programs, and build political institutions, are contested. Until the competitive nature of aid and diplomacy is deliberately and explicitly considered, Washington’s ability to achieve outcomes using its non-military power—often called “soft” or “smart power”—will remain fundamentally limited.
Part of the solution, says Dr. Shadlow, is to adopt a strategy of competitive engagement. Based, to a degree on the concept of competitive strategies developed during the Cold War to manage the long-term strategic competition between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, competitive engagement requires, first and foremost, the recognition that this country is engaging in a global competition for influence. It also seeks to identify areas of relative U.S. strength vis-a-vis competitors which can be applied against their areas of weakness. Finally, it would seek to organize and structure the use of our non-military instruments of power in a coherent way for the long-term. In Dr. Shadlow’s words “A competitive engagement approach links day-to-day activities with the idea that they should add up to a concept of operations and an overall political plan. A concept of political operations should drive even our ‘soft power’ activities.”
Implementing a competitive engagement approach would not be easy. But failing to make the effort virtually guarantees that U.S. non–military instruments of influence will be applied in a sub-optimum manner. This raises the risks that our pursuit of national objectives in peacetime will be both more costly and less successful. It also increases the prospects that armed conflicts will arise more frequently and that we will have to employ our military more often.
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