Friday, January 1, 2016

Quotable: James Stavridis on the “war of ideas,” a flawed theory

Wednesday, December 30th 2015
“Military power will win battles in Syria and Iraq, but only soft power can win the war” read the subhead of a December 28, 2015, article by James Stavridis, “Killing the Islamic State Softly,” on the Foreign Policy magazine website.  There is a “series of clear steps” to plan a military campaign against ISIS, wrote the retired Admiral, now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, but it is “far more difficult to outline is what tools and strategies will comprise the long game against the Islamic State.”

Stavridis discusses the elements of a “smart power” campaign:   education, medical diplomacy, infrastructure redevelopment, humanitarian workers, refugee camps, humanitarian logistics, a roadmap, donor pledges, an accountable steering committee, investments by the private sector and sovereign wealth funds, and “jobs, jobs, jobs.” 

“In any given insurgency,” he wrote, “about one-third of the participants will be hard-core adherents who will not be won over by alternatives, no matter how cleverly presented or richly resourced; but about one-third are very winnable when presented with an alternative (e.g. a job), and another third will waver but conceivably could be weaned away or prevented from engaging to begin with.”

He said bluntly that the cost will be high, and a “collective, truly international strategy” is required.  These are his comments that touch on Public Diplomacy:

3. Focus on drafting and resourcing a powerful collective strategic narrative. At the heart of this strategy should be constructing a narrative to counter violent extremism in the Islamic world and build alternatives in those affected societies. In this area, one basic failure here is our approach. Too often people say to me, “You’re right: We have to get better in the war of ideas.” Nope. “The war of ideas” is as flawed a theory as “the war on drugs.” We need a “marketplace of ideas.” In practice, this means focusing on showing alternative positive paths, not simply portraying the negative side of radical Islam.

It is not axiomatic or an obvious given that what we believe in (democracy, liberty, freedom of expression, gender and racial equality) will sell best in that marketplace. So we need to show why we believe they are the right ideas, and that will require using better means of delivery (Internet, television, radio, leaflet); being able to respond rapidly to changing events (reshaping messages, highlighting successes on our side and failures on the part of the extremists); and providing more culturally attuned offerings (film, novels, poetry, games). The key to competing in the marketplace of ideas will be showing a vision of life that is positive and fulfilling (and in accordance with mainstream Islam). Not an easy sell, but impossible to achieve if we don’t try.

We also need to study and counter the narrative being received from the other side, which is nuanced and sophisticated, both in message and delivery. A recent article in the New York Times lays out what we are up against, and we need to recognize it will be a challenge to overcome it. This is the most important thing we can and must do.

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