Counter-Terrorism, Soft-Power, and Donald Trump

September 20, 2016
Counter-Terrorism, Soft-Power, and Donald Trump
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

During the already historically long United States Presidential campaign, Republican Candidate Donald J. Trump has offered several controversial stratagems for combatting terrorism.  He has claimed that his plan for Daesh (ISIS/ISIL, or the Islamic State) is to “bomb the s— out of them” and then expropriate Iraqi oil, using American contractors to rebuild an extraction and refining infrastructure which he presumably would have to destroy.  More generally, he has suggested that the enhanced interrogation technique known as “waterboarding” should be used and in fact might not go far enough.  He has also indicated that killing the family members of known terrorists is an acceptable and beneficial tactic to counter the threat of transnational terrorism.  Unfortunately, these policy suggestions are either illegal under international or domestic U.S. law, are considered ineffective or may even be counter-productive in combatting terrorism.  Additionally, these tactics run counter to an old, but often misunderstood, measure of power: so-called “soft-power.”  According to the scholar who drew attention to it in the early 1990s, soft-power is “the power of attraction,” and rests on a state’s (or statesman’s) reputation and status.[1]  Three things are important to consider when applying soft power to counter-terrorism and Mr. Trump: 1) Soft power is not a new idea and should not be new to Trump; 2) ethics, values, and reputation appear to be important to United States policy-makers and national security officials, and; 3) soft-power is most noticeable when it has been ruined.


Thinking About Soft-Power

Soft-power is defined as the ability to persuade others to conform their preferences to one’s own without altering their material incentives; or more simply, the power of attraction and persuasion rather than coercion and force.  It is not, as is commonly misunderstood, the application of economic coercive measures.  Sanctions, for example, are material, or hard, coercive power.  Applied to international politics, soft-power lies in creating an affinity between two international actors (private individuals, people representing the interests of two states, etc.) whereby something other than their own material well-being prompts them to action or restraint.

Writing in 1963, German-American scholar Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980) tried to understand how it was that in spite of the United States’ great strength, it could not consistently influence policy changes in allies and adversaries alike.  “That so powerful a nation as the United States is so consistently unable to achieve what it sets out to achieve cannot be due to accidents or personal insufficiencies alone.”  Morgenthau believed that “moral stigma” constrained the United States and that, “strong nations can no longer use their power at will without incurring moral reprobation and risking in consequence a loss of prestige and influence.”[2]  He wrote,

“the prestige of the United States has sunk in recent years to what is probably an unprecedented low … large masses throughout the world look at the United States with resentment, contempt and even hatred.  They oppose America for what it is, for its wealth and power.  But they also oppose it for what it is not, for its asserted lack of culture, its supposed indifference to freedom, and its alleged warlike intentions.”[3]

The premise of his essay, “The Principle of Propaganda,” was that the contrast between hostility for American policy and the general affection received by Americans abroad was as a result of the inconsistency between the perception of what America has traditionally stood for and how it was perceived to behave.

Compare the sentiments of realist Morgenthau with the assessments by neo-liberal Joseph Nye forty-years later – “The sharp drop in the attractiveness of the United States around the world made it difficult to recruit support for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.”  Nye’s 2004 book examines the effect of the Iraq war, (begun in 2003), within the context of the Untied States’ larger “global war on terror” on American soft-power.[4]  In spite of temporal and philosophical distance, these two eminent political thinkers identify the United States’ ability to influence, as well as coerce, as critical to foreign policy success.  While Nye may be responsible for putting a label on it, forty years earlier Morgenthau identified the same deficit in the projection of American power.

Trump’s counter-terrorism proposals rely entirely upon coercion and force, and appear to ignore a concept with which he must be intimately familiar: protecting one’s brand.  Brand loyalty is established through repeated, positive interactions between the consumer and a brand.  Once this affinity is established, considerable energy must be employed to convince people to “change brands.”  Likewise, once a brand name is spoiled for a consumer it is difficult to repair the damage.  Though severe damage has been done to the United States “brand” where counter-terror efforts currently matter a great deal, the critical function soft-power could play in those efforts is not lost on current U.S. government officials.  As Morgenthau assessed, some element of power must be wanting if the most powerful nation in the world can get what it wants only rarely; in this case, Trump’s proposals would only serve to reinforce bad impressions.

Recognizing the Value of Brand

When put into their proper policy-making context, one finds that Trump’s proposals have been solidly rejected: reducing collateral damage, humane treatment of detainees, using the minimum amount of force necessary, are policy questions that have been settled with strong support across the political spectrum, within the ranks of politicians and career decision-makers in government.  When Trump calls for extreme measures in interrogation or to reduce to rubble a sovereign state’s infrastructure in pursuit of an insurgent army, or to kill without regard for collateral damage, he signals a departure from a commitment to fighting a war justly that is a highly valued part of U.S. military tradition, one appreciated by American political leaders.  Said another way, the conditions that contribute to the effective application of soft-power have been widely acknowledged and accepted as being in the best interest of the United States.

The ethical application of power was discussed during John Brennan’s Senate hearing to confirm him as the Director, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  The Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), Senator Dianne Feinstein opened his hearing by reporting that, “I also intend to review proposals for legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values.”  Brennan himself testified that many people “have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government, and the care that we take, and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.” Taken together these statements represent a clear appeal to an ethical tradition that the government claims has always been how the United States uses lethal force and always will be.  Directly contradicting Donald Trump’s view of enhanced interrogation, General Martin Dempsey, during his hearing for promotion and appointment as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the U.S. government’s standards for detainee treatment and interrogation should, “articulate the nexus of the importance of gaining intelligence with the importance of preserving our values as a Nation and an Army.”

General William “Kip” Ward was appointed the first commander, Africa Command (USAFRICOM) when that major combatant command was “stood up” in 2007.  Writing in 2011,[5] General Ward reviewed the manner in which the command was established and the immediate fallout from that decision.  The decision to create a new combatant command responsible for the continent of Africa was met with initial resistance and strong criticism. “Many militaries had served as tools of repression rather than protectors of their constitutions and their people.  Furthermore, many had engaged in predatory behavior that violated national laws and international human rights norms.”[6]  Working with these African military organizations could make United States forces guilty by association.  In order to recover support and achieve mission success, General Ward recognized that his mission did not involve traditional military measures, but had instead identified his command as a “listening and learning organization.”[7]  Through an effective communication strategy, rather than coercion, the military was able to achieve mission success.

“Building trust and cooperation among such a wide range of partners is best done deliberately using clear themes and approaches that apply to the partners’ concerns.  More aggressive campaigns could work under certain circumstances, but the risk is appearing defensive and ultimately could expose inconsistencies between words and actions.”[8]

As General Ward suggested, the inconsistency between what America says it values and what it does has damaged the ability of the United States to achieve its strategic interests as consistently as one might expect of the globe’s most powerful nation.  It is difficult to reconcile American support for democracy in some places and tolerance for dictators in others, or universal condemnation of human rights abuses when American soldiers are accused of mistreating detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If these inconsistencies have some bearing on the ability of the United States to achieve its foreign policy goals, then they could rightly be considered a cost when considering relevant policy alternatives.  It appears Trump intentionally discounts these potential costs when he sets out his counter-terror policy proposals.

Most Noticeable in its Absence

As the United States pursues its interests abroad, it does so with a mix of coercion and persuasion.  Nye and Morgenthau both posited a connection between the way in which the United States conducts itself abroad and the reputation—and attending influence—it can expect to maintain.  Morgenthau referred to perceived “warlike intentions” of the United States, while Nye has identified American unilateralism, and others have found that gross misbehavior in the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States dearly in terms of its prestige and influence abroad.[9]  Soft-power is perhaps most noticeable in its absence; when reputations are ruined, and inconsistencies are highlighted, attraction is replaced by revulsion, and the ability to persuade without altering “material incentives” is lost.  Destruction without concern for collateral damage, illegally appropriating natural resources, intentionally targeting women and children, as proposed by Trump, would all serve to substantially damage the ability of the United States to influence and persuade others to willingly align their own preferences with its own.  In fact, U.S. military doctrine has been codified to protect the government’s ability to apply soft-power.

The Counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written by Generals David Petraeus and James Amos is the current small-war doctrine for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.  Its current 2014 edition does not substantively differ from the 2006 version which quickly became required reading for U.S. officers and civilian leaders working on the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency problems.  The authors of that manual spend considerable time reinforcing moral and ethical traditions in order to maintain consistency in what the United States claims to represent and what it actually does in the field.

“Army and Marine Corps leaders work proactively to establish and maintain the proper ethical climate of their organizations.  They serve as visible examples for every subordinate, demonstrating cherished values and military virtues in their decisions and actions…Under all conditions they must remain faithful to basic American, Army, and Marine Corps standards of proper behavior and respect for the sanctity of life.”[10]

Referring specifically to how the U.S. should gather intelligence, the manual instructs commanders to ensure that the best of the American democratic tradition is preserved and lived by the example of those under their authority.

“To the extent that the work of interrogators is indispensable to fulfilling the state’s obligation to secure its citizens’ lives and liberties, conducting interrogations is a moral obligation.  The methods used, however, must reflect the Nation’s commitment to human dignity and international and humanitarian law.”[11]

On cultural training in small units:

“Effective leaders ensure that Soldiers and Marines are properly trained and educated.  Such training includes cultural preparation for the operational environment.  In a COIN environment, it is often counterproductive to use troops that are poorly trained or unfamiliar with operating close to the local populace.”[12]

Finally, in order to obtain long-term security, some risk needs to be accepted in the short-term.

“Counterinsurgents that use excessive force to limit short-term risk alienating the local populace.  They deprive themselves of the support or tolerance of the people.  This situation is what the insurgents want.  It increases the threat they pose.  Sometimes lethal responses are counterproductive.”[13]

Combatants are expected to assume a certain amount of risk in order to insure that the minimal amount of suffering is experienced by non-combatants.  In the contemporary environment, that may mean flying lower to a target, conducting dis-mounted patrols, or working closely with indigenous or “host” security forces.


The 2016 United States Presidential election has defied projections and is even at this late stage difficult to predict.  Both candidates for President have counted combatting transnational terrorism among their leading priorities once assuming office.  The Republican candidate Donald J. Trump has diverged from current doctrine in calling for indiscriminate destruction, expropriation of natural resources belonging to allies, going beyond already disallowed enhanced interrogation techniques, and indiscriminately killing women and children if they are related to known terrorists.  The power to attract, to persuade and the value of a good “brand-name” must be well known to businessman Trump; in that sense, he ought to be well attuned to the concept of soft-power in international politics.  Unfortunately, it seems he is not.  Indeed, kill-capture operations will still need to be conducted against terror group leadership and the assets available to the Daesh insurgency need to be removed from the battlefield by finding them and destroying them.  However, soft-power is not useless in counter-terrorism measures.  The means to successfully apply soft-power in order to change the preferences of others is complex.[14]  The fact is that Trump’s proposals would profoundly complicate—if not totally obliterate—the possibility of leveraging the remaining reservoir of trust and good-offices the United States enjoys in areas now besieged by active terror groups.  The United States has long held that it not only fights for justice, but it fights justly.  The extent to which that ideal varies from reality as demonstrated by U.S. government policies is the extent by which the United States’ ability to persuade diminishes.

[1]  Nye, Joseph.  2004. Soft-power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs Press.

[2]  Morgenthau, Hans J.  1970. Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-1970.  New York: Praeger Publishers.  p. 326-327.  This book is a collection of papers and lectures presented by Morgenthau over ten years thus the date discrepancies between date of original statements and publication date.

[3]  Morgenthau, 1970 p. 315-316

[4]  Nye, 2004, pp. xvi, 99

[5] Ward, William.  E. 2011.  “Strategic Communication at Work,” Leader to Leader, Winter 2011:33-38.

[6] Ward, 2011, p. 34

[7] Ward, 2011, p. 35

[8] Ward, 2011, p. 38

[9] For examples see: Goldsmith, Benjamin E. & Yusaku Horiuchi.  2009.  “Spinning the Globe?  U.S. Public Diplomacy and Foreign Public Opinion,” Journal of Politics, 71:863-875; Ross, Christopher.  2002.  “Public Diplomacy Comes of Age,” The Washington Quarterly, 25:75-83.

[10] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, 2006, p. 238

[11] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, 2006, p. 251

[12] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, 2006, p. 238

[13] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, 2006, p. 245

[14] See for example: Kroenig, Matthew, Melissa McAdam & Steven Weber.  2011.  “Taking Soft-power Seriously,” Comparative Strategy, 29:412-431.