President Obama spoke words with strong strategic potential last week during his visit to Ground Zero. In addition to honoring the thousands of people killed in the terrorist attacks, his words provided a cornerstone statement for the United States’ strategy for international relations and strategic communication: “We mean what we say.”
The president was speaking of the nation’s commitment to honor and remember those killed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, but his statement also indicates the monumental, strategic importance found in the connection between words and deeds. Too often the U.S. appears to undervalue that important connection, and instead approaches weighty, strategic issues with a dangerous separation between its words and actions; a gap that can be counterproductive to diplomatic endeavors and deadly in military actions. Conversely, the combination brings tremendous strength in the form of smart power, the careful combination of military action with diplomatic, economic, cultural and informational efforts. If the U.S. does mean what it says, it must also do what it says.
The events of the Arab Spring combined with Osama bin Laden’s death create prime conditions for our nation to transition its international engagement strategy to one of military strength, counterbalanced by comprehensive, soft-power capabilities. With this balance, the U.S. can be an enduring influence internationally, communicating clearly, through both words and actions that the country truly means what it says.
Two important ingredients are required to leverage the potential found in the current environment. First, the U.S. requires a comprehensive strategy to guide its communication and engagements. Second, decisions regarding resource allocation must be made with the smart power equation in mind.
As the world’s most powerful nation, increased global influence and strength will result if the United States’ messages to the international community are underwritten with a demonstrated willingness to follow through. The ability to enjoy and leverage such willingness, however, relies on a comprehensive, cogent national strategy for strategic communication and engagement- a mechanism currently absent in the U.S. Too often, the country is limited by ineffective coordination between government agencies that result in ineffective communication and engagement rather than the intended outcomes. The coordination of national meaning and intent, with the outward messages and actions, is simply vital to sustained strategic success.
The time may never have been riper with opportunity, (read: critically important) to employ a strategy that shows the U.S. means what it says. The changes sweeping the Arab world, coupled with the death of Osama bin Laden, create conditions for the U.S. and its international partners to invest in, and create strategy around, “meaning what they say.” Coordinated engagement now will increase our understanding of the social landscapes while helping to build others’ understanding of us through lasting, productive relationships. Over time, today’s investment to foster democracy, familiarity and partnerships may also prove to be the most powerful, enduring deterrent to Islamic extremism.
While the changes in the Middle East present many opportunities for soft power engagement, there also may be a need for U.S. military engagement to help ensure stability in places like Libya. Any military engagement, however, must be underpinned by comprehensive soft power capabilities. The region’s instability brings fragility and the necessity for the U.S. and its international partners to be very careful to ensure what is said is what is meant. Although military engagement brings a very realistic risk of instability that causes turmoil in economics, politics and security, the calculus is not whether to engage but rather, how to engage — smartly.
Although the U.S. is able to engage productively in the near term, we must reevaluate the allocation of resources for long-term engagement. The current budget battle in Washington shows a willingness to levy cuts that degrade our nation’s ability to project soft power. Even many military leaders oppose cuts to the State Department and other international relations funding. Their opposition is well founded on the understanding gained in recent and ongoing efforts abroad. Soft power elements are key to the U.S. succeeding by saying, and doing, what it means.
U.S. leaders’ statements place value on the ability to engage through humanitarian, educational, diplomatic, economic and other means. If what they say is meant, actions must be taken now — make the investments and create the capability balance — to ensure lasting successes in the international community. The time is right for a guiding strategy, coordinated effort and proper resourcing for effective and smart delivery of U.S. power. In short, now is the time to match actions with words and show we ‘mean what we say.’