Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence
The most recent presidential debate made clear that no matter who sits in the Oval Office in January, the President will have to deal with the problem of how to exert American influence in a world of dwindling resources, increasing ambivalence, declining order, and intensifying competition for regional and global leadership. At a time when the United States has much to lose from retrenchment, an Obama or Romney administration will find the United States with few effective non-military instruments of power. Both candidates skirted around the problem of how to exert such power. The fact is, post-cold war America is not good at it and this is not due, solely, to diminished resources. It is because the United States lacks a concept of operations that applies our economic and humanitarian assistance - our so called instruments of “soft power” - competitively.
The United States operates in a highly competitive political and diplomatic arena. The continued unrest in Egypt, the violence in Libya and Syria, and the populist Chávez-led policies in Latin America are examples of the contest taking place by state and non-state actors to shape the political future of countries and regions around the world. Most of our adversaries, or erstwhile friends, are actively engaged in such contests, from Iran, to China, to Russia, to Saudi Arabia. Yet the United States is failing to keep pace.
The Obama White House and State Department regularly talk about the need to prevent atrocities, encourage economic growth, and help innocents. Yet everything from the building of a girl’s school in Afghanistan or a health clinic in the Sudan is a political act that affords power to one group over another. As the head of the Australian government’s aid agency put it: aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political. Unless this competitive landscape is deliberately considered, ability to achieve our foreign policy goals will remain fundamentally limited. A new approach of competitive engagement would require the recognition that we operate in an environment in which new ideas, economic strategies, civic action, and humanitarian aid are contested by vested interests and ideological and political opponents