As we await election results, it is salutary to remember that, no matter who wins, the U.S. will face the same set of challenges—and we will have to address them with our existing governmental agencies and programs unless steps are taken to modify and improve what we currently have. In no area is this necessity more pressing than in our ability to project non-military power—to engage in political warfare, state-building, and related activities designed to shape the international environment in our favor without having to resort to the dispatch of large numbers of troops.
This is an especially compelling requirement in the greater Middle East, which is being reshaped by the Arab Spring. Although we tend to focus on the danger of jihadist takeovers—understandably so—in many ways the most common threat we actually face is state breakdown. In countries ranging from Mali and Libya to Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, institutions have broken down and the U.S. and our allies are struggling to stand up some kind of bulwark against extremism. We are not doing a very good job of it, unfortunately.
A first step toward a better approach might be found in reading this thought-provoking essay by the Smith Richardson Foundation’s Nadia Schadlow. She argues for a “competitive engagement” strategy, which will mobilize civilian agencies to be more energetic and less lethargic by making them recognize that providing aid isn’t simply do-goodism—we are in a race with other states such as Iran and China and with stateless organizations such as al-Qaeda. If we don’t fill the vacuum, they will.
She argues for empowering organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy by giving them the kind of intelligence capabilities and the kind of freedom to act already enjoyed by the U.S. military. “America has tremendous, innate advantages in its political, economic and cultural instruments of power,” she writes. “But just as the military consistently hones its skills and constantly seeks to improve its instruments, so too must we improve our ability to use America’s non-military power, smartly.”
She has an excellent point that whoever controls the next administration would do well to ponder—and act upon.