There are smarter ways than “soft power” for the United States to outmatch its competitors for global influence. The next administration should focus on building competitive “power-niche capabilities”—deliverables focused on specific tasks and directed to achieve specific outcomes. This will give America, and its friends and allies, a much keener edge in the fight to preserve their freedom, prosperity and security in today’s messy world.
The Bush administration’s “long war” approach to fighting terrorism prompted many critics to prescribe nonlethal alternatives for dealing with international security threats. Most notable was the argument for soft power—using instruments like diplomacy and negotiation as an alternative to military force. But there were other suggestions as well: whole-of-government solutions, for example, that proposed harnessing all parts of the federal government to deal with big problems. Another alternative—the man-on-horseback solutions—called for empowering dedicated “czars” to whip through all the red tape and tackle tough tasks.
The Obama administration embraced all these alternatives, often simultaneously, and with decidedly mixed results. Soft power efforts included the “road to zero” initiative designed to inspire the world’s nuclear powers to eliminate their nukes voluntarily. That effort yielded zero results—other than to leave America with an aging nuclear arsenal in desperate need of modernization.
The administration wound up turning a cold shoulder to the major whole-of-government security proposal of the Obama era. But it did at least dabble in interagency activity. For example, it has taken this approach regarding U.S. Arctic policy—an area ripe for U.S. leadership, since the United States chairs the Arctic Council for two years. But the Arctic effort appears to be mostly for show. The administration did, however, make fair progress toward improving export-control reform—a task that required several federal agencies to all pull in one direction.
Finally, the White House made a halfhearted effort at creating appointed czars: the first for dealing with cybersecurity threats, the second for managing the Ebola scare. Neither had much effect on the problems at hand.
Alternatives Are Not Equivalents
Swapping soft power for hard power is not a strategy. Often, the two are not fungible—adding diplomats doesn’t offset cutting a carrier strike group. Further, having a preference for using one kind of instrument over another is not good statecraft. A multi-instrumentalist may be partial to the tone of his trumpet, but it would make no sense for him to play it instead of his viola when performing in a string quartet. Statecraft, too, is about using the right combination of tools at the right time, and that’s proved a formidable challenge for an administration enamored with soft power solutions.
The whole-of-government mantra has largely proved a disaster—little more than insisting that every federal agency get a participation ribbon for every problem.
Czars don’t work well in the U.S. government. Rarely are presidents willing to consolidate real power in the hands of one official, undermining their own authority to orchestrate government. Usually, czars are shiny objects used to distract attention, allowing the Oval Office to pretend it is dealing seriously with a challenge.
Reorganizing government is hard and demands considerable energy. That said, reformers love it, because process and organizational reform create the illusion of progress. Unfortunately, even when reorganization occurs, it seldom accomplishes more than rearranging deck chairs. Consider the current fascination with devising a “Goldwater-Nichols II” model for reorganizing the Pentagon. Our military’s real problem is that it lacks the capacity and capability to defend the nation’s vital interests. Yet reformers tinker around the edges, urging impractical suggestions like abolishing combat commands or giving even more power to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The next administration will face some really big challenges. It shouldn’t start out by trying to reorganize the puzzle palace that is the federal government. That would take too much time and demand too much attention. And ultimately, who knows what might come out the other end?
Just Do It
If the next administration starts with a sound leadership team that works together in trust and confidence, it won’t need to reorganize government. And if the next president can’t assemble that kind of team, rearranging deck chairs won’t get the job done.
Instead, the next administration will need to take a more focused approach to our national security challenges. The White House should pick one of the many arenas in which the United States is currently getting its clock cleaned—and demonstrate that it can outcompete its rivals there, turning weakness into strength. That will require a three-step process:
• First, identify key tasks and objectives for advancing a high-priority foreign and national security policy.
• Second, organize task forces with key federal agency actors who can deliver feasible, acceptable and successful efforts to get the job done.
• Third, do it.
To keep the effort focused and productive, all players must have a shared and complete understanding of what competitive power is and what it takes to make it work. Here’s a nonnegotiable list:
1. The effort is not a substitute for someone’s day job. Don’t set up a task force to do covert operations, for example. There are federal agencies that are responsible for those duties. Competitive power is about adding to the tool kit, no reinventing tools that are already in the tool box.
2. The initiative is not an advertising exercise. Competitive power is not about showing that the president cares about a problem; it’s about getting stuff done. A lower profile would probably be the smarter way to go.
3. A competitive-power exercise must not be run out of the National Security Council. The purpose of the NSC is to coordinate national security policy, not to operate like a command center. The NSC today is too big, too bloated and too disconnected from the rest of government, operating in its own little world. The staff needs to get back to being an NSC staff and not the president’s command post.
4. The effort is not about building new centers, new fiefdoms, new infrastructure or new organizations. It’s about making what already exists more effective.
5. Competitive power is not a panacea. It should not be used as the answer for every problem.
6. A few efforts are better than lots of effort. Learn by doing, and then apply lessons learned to the next project.
7. Build teams with a specific charter, deliverables and deadlines—and make sure it goes away when the job is done. If a project can’t be done by the end of the first term, consider it not worth doing.
8. Competitive power requires support and attention from the top, without micromanagement.
9. The administration should bring in congressional leaders and key staff from the start.
Where to Start
Competitive power can be used to deal with “economy-of-force” challenges. That might be a problem that the next president wants to nip in the bud before it becomes a major headache, or it might be an appropriate top-tier challenge. Picking the right targets is part of the art of statecraft.
Some areas that might be particularly well suited to this approach include:
1. Amping up economic freedom. A task force might help inject an economic agenda into U.S. foreign policy that makes the case for free trade and liberalizing markets.
2. Launching lawfare. Bad state behaviors—from corruption to human rights abuses—are rampant in oppressive states such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. A team effort to make one or more of these states uncomfortable by publicizing and persecuting these conditions might help put them on the back foot.
3. Improving hemispheric security. Rather than fixate on border security, maybe what’s needed is a team effort that looks at transnational networks in a more integrated fashion and turns up the heat on what’s making the U.S. border less secure.
None of these tasks, or the task-force approach, can be used as a substitute for what must be the number one national-security job of the next commander-in-chief: rebuilding the U.S. military so that it is capable of defending core American interests. But each could be a useful supplement to getting America back in the international game.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano is responsible for overseeing the think tank’s research on foreign policy and national security issues.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense