Getting serious about strategic influence: How to move beyond the State Department’s legacy of failure

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And what of combating the ideology of al-Qaeda, to say nothing of Saudi Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other forms of expansionist, imperialistic Islamist radicalism? The United States has tied itself in knots. Whether out of fear of offending the Saudis, weakness when charged with standing up for its principles, or simply cowed by phony “separation of mosque and state” arguments, American message-makers have failed to develop a coherent strategy to wage an ideological counterattack against political Islamism. They can’t seem to grasp that there is a significant difference between Islam the religion and the politicized, power-seeking ideologies of radical Islamism. Our national obsession with not wanting to offend has trumped our obligation to defend our national interests. And so our young soldiers continue to die.

Imagine, then, if the James Carvilles, Dick Morrises and Karl Roves of the world put their visionary, calculating, often deviously cynical genius to work to promote the national interest globally. What would seasoned political strategists do? First, they would map the world country by country and take an inventory of existing friends, allies, neutrals, opponents and enemies. Then they would map the world by transnational issues, as one would with trans-state or trans-regional issues at home: ethnic, racial, linguistic, cultural, religious, business, labor, women, family, generational, environmental, and so forth. This would be followed by a strategic message for each and a constellation of surrogate spokespersons, both overt and covert; and the political ground troops of activists, donors, protesters, letter-writers, and arm-twisters.

By running strategic communication and its elements—public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting, information operations, psychological operations and the like—in the same fashion as a perpetual global campaign on behalf of American strategic interests worldwide, the United States would be permanently conducting the “engagement” that so many advocate but so few actually practice. Like the permanent campaign of the American presidency and Congress, cadres of seasoned strategists and operatives would spend their time building alliances and keeping them—or at least maintaining a grassroots presence in reserve to be deployed as circumstances require them. But, unlike the permanent campaign, a real strategic influence capability for the United States as a whole would not be driven by domestic political issues. Much like standard diplomacy, or military or intelligence capabilities, the strategic influence capacity of the U.S. would be subject to domestic politics, but not driven by partisanship.

How can we do this? With what structures? Obviously the State Department has failed the nation in recovering the public diplomacy capabilities it absorbed a decade ago. Many thoughtful proposals have called for the revival of an independent U.S.IA-like agency, and for a dramatic change in bureaucratic culture8. Whatever the shape and character, such reforms will take years. What the U.S. leadership can do now is to define the purpose and nature of American strategic communication. That is why the nation needs diplomats and communicators who are political warriors, and not simply ex-politicians who checked their political instincts at the door when they entered the State Department.

Strategic communication must be strategic. It must be comprehensive. It must be integrated with all other instruments of statecraft, and long-term in nature. It must be designed to achieve national objectives through means other than lethal combat, and to enhance the capabilities of the warfighters who must go into battle. Communication cannot be an end in itself, but a means of exerting American influence globally in support of its national interests. Strategic communication is strategic influence. We mustn’t be ashamed of the concept. It’s time to embrace it.


About the Author

J. Michael Waller is the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, DC. He is author of Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War (IWP Press, 2007) and editor of The Public Diplomacy Reader (IWP Press, 2007)

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