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Now is the time to engage, not isolate

The current debate regarding U.S. involvement abroad features emergence of a troubling theme of isolationism.   While attractive to some, the view is dangerously shortsighted and risks sacrificing the potential return on the investments made through military and diplomatic engagement during the last decade.

The argument for U.S. isolationism gained significant momentum with the killing of Osama bin Laden last month and the beginning of the final six months of U.S. military presence in Iraq.  These events conveniently intersected with a global recession and heated budget debates on Capitol Hill to make an attractive option for Americans.  Bringing our nation’s forces back to U.S. soil and reallocating wartime funds toward domestic issues seems logical and appropriate.  Without the right balance today, however, the strategy leads to isolationism and stands to sacrifice more U.S. blood and treasure in the future.

While there are certain to be cost savings associated with a responsible military drawdown and withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year and Afghanistan in 2014, the U.S. must approach the transitions with a larger strategy in view.  Rather than endpoints, the changes in the military operations should be seen as phases in a larger U.S. and allied strategy that features continued effort to engage and communicate with the populations in those countries and others.  A focused, coordinated engagement and communication strategy that builds and develops relationships is vital to future stability and a coherent approach across the phases that follow military withdrawal.

The military operations in Iraq and and Afghanistan were complemented by soft power capabilities while simultaneously creating improved conditions for soft power advantage.  Now, the changes sweeping the Arab world through the Arab Spring present similar opportunities for soft power without the investment of troops on the ground.  Now is the time to increase involvement and leverage these opportunities, not withdraw to a stance that predates the modern global environment and sacrifices hard-won opportunities for success.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, understood the vital importance of persistent engagement and communication with the Iraqi leaders and the population.  In talking about the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, he said the last unit in contact would be his communicators who daily engage with the Iraqi population and international audiences to strengthen relationships and build understanding of events and actions.

The value of communication engagement also is recognized in Afghanistan where commanders have asked for assistance through a contract request for industry’s best, full-spectrum communication practices and fresh ideas.  People engaged there clearly see the need to understand, empathize, engage and transact with the people to help create the conditions for enduring success — conditions that will outlast them and pave the way for the next phases of engagement.

While some have taken a shallow, simplistic view of communication engagement and demoted the efforts to ‘spin,’ others correctly see the capabilities for what they are: vital components of soft power that complement and magnify other efforts, like diplomacy, aid, and even kinetic activities.

Today’s investment to foster democracy, familiarity and partnerships may also prove to be the most powerful, enduring deterrent to Islamic extremism.  Engagement with leaders of fledgling or destabilized governments and their populations, helps to create pathways to stability, success and productive partnerships in the international community.  By increasing connectivity and familiarity, we can decrease uncertainty and reduce the window of opportunity for violent extremists and other adversaries.

The Arab Spring is full of opportunity on both sides of the equation; the U.S. and its strategic partners can invest appropriately now while there is an opportunity to influence the outcomes, or simply withdraw and be forced to deal with whatever leaders, partnerships and systems emerge.

Likewise, it is not possible to simply approach the emerging opportunities from the current stance.  The U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive, cogent national strategy for strategic communication and engagement — a mechanism currently absent.  Although a framework for public diplomacy was published in 2010, it lacks the authoritative, unifying power to overcome ineffective coordination between government agencies that results in unsuccessful communication and engagement rather than coordinated efforts that deliver the intended outcomes.

As the world’s most powerful country, the U.S. has the unique opportunity to help shape the international community’s future.  Its people, however, must resist the urge tip the balance too much inward in an isolationist posture and instead take the long view of success abroad with a commitment to sustained soft power engagement.

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4 thoughts on “Now is the time to engage, not isolate

  1. What a GREAT article! Keeping communication paths open is essential whether it is in personal or international relationships. I especially liked, “Engagement with leaders of fledgling or destabilized governments and their populations, helps to create pathways to stability, success and productive partnerships in the international community.”

    It really boils down to having close relationships with people that are educationally-based because of good communication. As a nation, we cannot pull back now. From a baker’s perspective, it’s like baking a cake, taking it out of the oven b4 it’s baked & then not being able to even put icing on it. We have done all we have done, sacrificed many very important people for a reason. I believe that reason is to have good relationships with other countries. We all live on this planet together. It’s the only home we have. We need the follow through. Very insightful article!

    • The baker analogy is cute, but in reality, the above-mentioned baker has borrowed someone else’s oven, is making someone else pay for his “investment,” and is defending his meddling by crying foul that he has to relinquish the oven before applying the icing. Bad, bad baker.

      Of course Strategic Social is going to make a case to “stay the course.” It profits from such U.S. government theft from the taxpayers!

      • Thanks for your comments and feedback. The focus of this commentary is far from a recommendation to stay the course, however, Steve. My argument is for a fundamental change in the way the U.S. exerts power and influence. We need to change the equation to build more robust soft power capabilities. Through that effort, our leaders will have many more options to address challenges in the global community — or prevent the challenges altogether.

        The U.S. has the most capable military in history and it serves us well. The future, however, demands options of greater flexibility. As Admiral Mullen recently said, “The future is about influence, not control” and added that the military isn’t the solution for every future challenge. I believe new options and influence are created through soft power engagement — that’s a departure from the current course. We can’t be everywhere in the world and certainly must address our domestic challenges. Leaders in the U.S. and its strategic partners will need to carefully choose engagement opportunities.

        If we engage and invest wisely, we’ll have a soft power complement to our hard power strength. The options that emerge from that combination are smart power.

  2. Very diplomatically written Lindsey. American plays with isolationism frequently usually when there is no compelling vision stated by an administration–which this one has not and will not. Hopefully we as a Nation will continue to debate these issues and at the same time, stay involved in the world–history is very clear about what happens when we are disengaged from the world and it is not good.

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