x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Soft power can win while the US military has only lost friends

The overreaction to Al Qaeda terrorism was more damaging than the actual attacks. The US has a long road to repair its reputation through diplomacy rather than force.

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, the United States has an opportunity to regain the initiative in the "missing battle" of the campaign against terrorism. It's time for a sustained "soft power" effort to win hearts and minds in predominantly Muslim countries.

The US and wider western response to the September 2001 attacks has been dominated by counter-terrorism and military might. Some successes have been achieved, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but this overwhelming emphasis on hard power has fuelled controversy.

Even Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, acknowledged the problem in 2006 when he asserted that the United States "probably deserves [only] a 'D' or a D-plus' as a country as to how well we're doing in the battle of ideas". He added: "We have to find a formula as a country" for countering the jihadist message.

However, the death of Osama bin Laden, in combination with the continuing Arab Spring, offers a new chance for policymakers to re-emphasise the value in fighting terrorism of soft power - defined as the ability to influence the preferences of others through the attractiveness of a state's values, ideals and government policies.

As President Barack Obama has emphasised, this effort will have to include an "alternative narrative" to appeal to a disaffected generation in Muslim countries.

According to the just-released annual findings of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in nine of 13 countries for which data is available, significantly fewer people think favourably of the US in 2011 than before the 2001 attacks.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in predominantly Muslim countries. In Turkey, for instance, US favourability ratings have declined precipitously from 52 per cent in 2000 to 10 per cent this year. In Pakistan, the fall-off is from 23 per cent in 2000 to 12 per cent this year.

Of the predominantly Muslim states which Pew surveyed, only Indonesia (where Mr Obama lived as a boy) has a majority - 54 per cent - currently expressing a favourable opinion of the United States. However, even this number has fallen from 75 per cent in 2000.

The fall in favourability ratings for the US in predominantly Muslim countries (which is replicated, although not as severe, in many other parts of the world) is so serious because of the erosion of US soft power.

History underlines the key role that soft-power instruments such as diplomacy, economic assistance and strategic communications have played in obtaining desirable outcomes in world politics.

For example, the US used soft resources skilfully after the Second World War to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and institutions, such as Nato, the IMF, the World Bank and the UN. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigour that combined soft and hard power.

The challenges that are posed by the campaign against terrorism, like the challenges of the Cold War, cannot be met successfully with hard assets alone.

This is especially true since the antiterrorism contest is one whose outcome is related, in significant part, to a battle between moderates and extremists within Muslim nations.

This factor is, ironically, very well understood within the top echelons of Al Qaeda. For instance, Ayman Al Zawahiri has asserted that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media … We are in a media battle for hearts and minds".

Similarly, bin Laden emphasised the importance of communications, noting that "the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90 per cent of the total preparation for the battles".

It is precisely in this context of winning Muslim hearts and minds that Mr Obama now has such a precious political window of opportunity to relaunch the campaign against terrorism.

Seizing the moment would require the United States to give higher priority, as it did during the Cold War, to activities such as public diplomacy, broadcasting, development assistance and exchange programmes.

US public diplomacy is in particular need of revitalisation. Here, Mr Obama should provide all the resources needed to implement the "Strengthening US engagement with the world" strategic initiative launched last year. This identifies many priorities, including combating the messages of violent extremists and ensuring that US policy is better informed by the attitudes of foreign publics.

Such a relaunched antiterrorism campaign would continue, of course, to include a significant military and counter-terrorism component. However, barring a major new attack on the US homeland, or that of a key ally, hard power could be de-emphasised in relative importance, including the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan through 2013.


Andrew Hammond is an Associate Partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly a special adviser in the UK government, and senior US politics analyst at Oxford Analytica