Withdrawing from the World, or Not?

The United States is still the world’s only superpower.  China is catching up fast, but it’s not there yet.  Russia is just a gas station with nuclear weapons, and the European Union is in disarray.  India and Brazil are the superpowers of the future – and always will be. So, do we want to remain a superpower or not?  If that is the strategic objective, then how can we achieve it?  I have said that strategy is doing the best you can with what you have.  In order to do that, a government must figure out how to use both hard power and soft power.  Hard power is using force to get what we want; soft power is using policy tools that attract and persuade other countries to want the same things we want.  Any strategy we adopt will use a combination of the two.  The trick is to get the recipe right.

Donald Trump campaigned on bringing the troops home from fighting what he called ‘endless wars.’  He has talked that talk but not walked the walk.  On the hard power side, US troops are bogged down in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, with smaller footprints in Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, and perhaps Niger.  Tough talk and economic sanctions, also hard power tools, have become regular features of our foreign policy.  On the soft power side, policies and signals are pointing away from attraction and persuasion.  The United States is no longer a model for developing countries to emulate; we are becoming a rogue nation.  This will take a long time to fix – if it can be fixed at all.

The president appears ready to withdraw military personnel from West Africa.  These troops have been there for years, training indigenous forces to fight terrorism in their own region.  The value of those minor deployments is that preparing Africans to fight ISIS and Al Qaeda in Africa is better than having our own police fight them in New York City.  With colleagues, I have written Security Forces in African States: Cases and Assessment in order to highlight the importance of African states and their military forces.  If African governments can professionalize their militaries – and keep them under democratic civilian control – the American people will be safer.  Similar programs in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia could be the next to go (defense department officials claim they are reviewing Africa first because it starts with “A”).

This indirect approach is an example of soft power – wielded with soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.  In the special operations community, we call it “preventive medicine” (as opposed to “acute care”).  It is also called “foreign internal defense.”  Our kinetic operations get the headlines, but FID is just as effective in the long run.  To use a fictional example, in my novel Jungle Rules , Carl Malinowski and his team must rely on elements of the Colombian Marine Corps for operational support as they go back to the jungle to rescue an American hostage.  Only their long training relationship with Colombian counterparts allows them to conduct a successful combined operation.  In the real world, government-to-government relationships thus established become strong enough to permit basing and (when necessary) staging kinetic operations from foreign soil – in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Soft power, applied over time, enables hard power when we need it.  It is a benevolent paradox: the softer power we use; the less hard power we will be required to apply.  Everyone wins here except the terrorists.

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