Call to action remains valid 10 years after 9/11

September 11, 2001 changed many things for most people.  Put simply, nearly every aspect of life is more complicated in the post-9/11 world.  We travel differently, access public events and government buildings differently, consider safety and security differently and face renewed challenges of cultural stereotypes.

In the days following the terrorist attacks, our changed world presented an environment that called for action; the past decade features some incredible efforts and achievements as a result.  These successes serve as a solid beginning to the efforts of US and its partners around the world.

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. and its strategic partners have aggressively combatted violent extremism and worked to eliminate opportunities for it to grow.  Many of the domestic and international successes are well known.  Less well known, however, are the valuable advances made by governments, industry, non-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations and others toward improving conditions for people who may otherwise be manipulated by violent extremists.

Around the world, schools and hospitals have opened, vocational programs and cultural exchanges have been conducted, freedom of the press has emerged, women have gained societal status and opportunities, and forms of the democratic process have been adopted.  With these important successes, environments that allow violent ideologies to flourish have been marginalized. Just now, 10 years after that tragic day, are we starting to see tangible results from a decade of effort.  We are on the verge of destroying Al Qaeda and we are seeing the Arab Spring bring democracy to countries that have suffered decades of dictatorship.  However, there is much work remaining. Future efforts must build, not rest, on these successes.

Future successes will come by guiding our interactions and efforts with a simple model that has already delivered profound outcomes.  The approach begins by building deep understanding of a population through social science research.  Focus groups, surveys and other direct interaction with people provide a level of understanding of the social diversity and other factors of their society, and the challenges and opportunities they face individually and as a group.  With this level of understanding, a degree of empathy develops that allows solutions and strategies to be designed to meet the peoples’ specific needs and interests.  It is important to see the world through the lens of others;  only then can we understand their perspective and rationale for their actions.

Too often in the past, the U.S. has rushed past attempts to understand a population and instead favored quick solutions that, unfortunately, often don’t deliver the desired, enduring results.

Instead, meaningful success comes from engaging with populations through mutually beneficial transactions, or interaction.  In this sense, these transactions help to meet the objective of creating international stability while also improving people’s lives in the identified population.  By improving literacy rates, security, access to healthcare, rule of law, education, vocational skills and similar aspects of society, the population is strengthened against maligned influence and the foundation of trust and cooperation is built.  Likewise, the international community directly benefits from the increase in stability and resulting threat reduction.

At Strategic Social, we’ve proven the success of this approach in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Libya, Mali and elsewhere.  Individual and societal capacity has grown as jobs have been created, new skills have been learned, schools and hospitals have opened, women have attained societal status, a free press has operated, governments have reformed and opportunities for violent extremists have diminished.  The path from chaos to sustainable stability relies on Understanding, Empathy, Engagement and Mutually Beneficial Transactions.

There are lots of ways to earn a living in this world.  The chance to help make the world a better place for our children and future generations is the best I can imagine.  It is also incumbent upon us to work to make the world a better place than we found it.  If you have the ability to make a difference, there is a moral imperative to action.  It is in times such as these that leaders take action and each of us has opportunities to fulfill that responsibility.

As we remember the feeling of ‘what do we do now?’ that came with the attacks of 9/11, we should be reminded that making a lasting change for the future won’t happen in just one decade — it takes continued effort and productive engagement.  Each of us was affected in some way by the attacks of 9/11; we owe it to future generations to stay focused on improving the chances that similar events will never occur.

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Does the United States mean what it says?

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.’

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