On September 20, 2001, as rescue workers combed through the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center, U.S. President George W. Bush stood before a joint session of Congress and put the world on notice. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” Bush declared. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Despite the Bush administration’s subsequent attempts to frame the “war on terror” as a battle for Muslim hearts and minds, the U.S. approach to counterterrorism would, over the ensuing 20 years, increasingly default to hard power. Today, force has become so ingrained as Washington’s reflexive response to twenty-first-century threats that soft-power tools have all but disappeared from discussions of how to head off possible catastrophe.

In recent months, as the United States has realigned its resources and adjusted its strategies to defend Europe from Russian aggression and protect its Asian interests and allies from a menacing China, it has focused almost exclusively on hard power. Although Russia and China have themselves boosted their global influence through the use of soft power, U.S. policymakers have continued to underestimate such tools as development aid, public diplomacy, educational exchanges, and covert messaging. While the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, released on October 12, suggested that countries must act collectively to address “shared challenges that cross borders,” the document focused overwhelmingly on the application of military might. As Washington pivots from counterterrorism to great-power competition, it would be well advised to reexamine some of the lessons it learned during the 20-year war on terror.

At the same time, the threat of terrorism has by no means disappeared. U.S. policymakers need new tools that will help them address both terrorism and great-power competition simultaneously. As Christopher Costa, who served as the special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, argued in a February 2022 piece for The Hill, “Counterterrorism and great-power competition is not a viable either-or national security choice: The United States can do both.” Although terrorism and great-power threats affect U.S. security in quite different ways, they are perpetuated by similar grievances about perceived American arrogance and the unilateral projection of U.S. power and thus require a holistic strategy.

ALIENATING ALLIES

In my role as a senior CIA operations officer, I personally witnessed the damage that the United States’ heavy-handed approach to its dealings with allies did to its international relationships. When the agency pursued al Qaeda in Pakistan, it often had to do so without the help of officials in Islamabad—despite American threats. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president from 2001 to 2008, claimed in a 2006 CBS interview that Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state at the time, had warned Pakistan’s government after 9/11 that if it did not cooperate with the United States, it should be prepared to be bombed “back to the Stone Age.” (Although Armitage denied having threatened military force, he acknowledged in an interview with NBC that he had told Pakistani officials that they “would need to be with us or against us” in the U.S.-led effort to confront al Qaeda. But given my own experiences working with American and Pakistani officials during the war on terror, I suspect that Musharraf had the right takeaway.)

In the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when I served as CIA Director George Tenet’s back-channel emissary to Libya, I was ordered to issue a similarly explicit warning to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s intelligence chief. In a small hotel room in the European city that provided neutral ground for our meeting, I told Qaddafi’s underling that the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. “Libya will have to decide if it is with us or against us when we do,” I said. Qaddafi, who already feared he would be Washington’s next target, spurned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s calls for Arab unity, moved quickly to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism, and effectively ended Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

There is a reason the CIA and its partner intelligence services don’t rely on coercion: it doesn’t work.

This example would seem to demonstrate the effectiveness of an aggressive approach, but there is a reason the CIA and its partner intelligence services don’t rely on coercion: it doesn’t work. Any wins tend to be short-lived, and in the longer term, such an approach undermines partnerships and sows lasting resentments. I found in my dealings with foreign interlocutors that the sympathy the United States enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 decreased steadily in the years that followed. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force—which Bush signed into law exactly a week after 9/11 and which authorized the use of the U.S. military to pursue those responsible for the attacks—made the entire world an arena for combat operations and eroded the goodwill of once staunch American allies. By 2016, when I was appointed to lead the agency’s counterterrorist operations in the war zones of South and Southwest Asia, the foreign officials whose cooperation I sought openly expressed their sense of offense at being pushed around.

ADDICTED TO FORCE

Force is only one aspect of a country’s power, but it is far simpler to define and to measure than diplomatic clout or cultural influence. Combat operations provide policymakers with compelling imagery and physical evidence—concrete metrics by which to validate their success. Such measures are not always immediately evident when employing the tools of soft power. Apart from imperfect international polling efforts, consider the challenge of demonstrating success in securing goodwill and how that could translate into a society’s actions.

What is more, the United States has a highly professional, exceptionally capable, and well-managed military force that generally succeeds. In the twenty-first century, however, although U.S. hard power won many a battle and bloodied its enemies, it did not always eliminate the threats against which it was applied. In retrospect, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq came with significant second- and third-order consequences. As U.S. forces hammered al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the terrorist organization decentralized and morphed into multiple adept international affiliates. The growth of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria went largely unnoticed until a caliphate had been established and innocents were dying across Europe. And the reverberations from the U.S. occupation of Iraq arguably contributed to the Arab Spring, another historic development that seemingly caught Washington by surprise.

The tools of power are being redefined by technology, science, climate, health, messaging, and intelligence. Today’s battle space is characterized by hybrid warfare that encompasses economic leverage along with cyber-operations and influence campaigns and multidomain conflicts that span land, sea, space, and information. In Ukraine, the United States has leveraged intelligence as a national instrument of power, exposing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s true designs and galvanizing international support. But having seen the reality firsthand, U.S. national security policies often come down to a reliance on wielding the biggest stick and letting it do the talking.

The growth of ISIS went largely unnoticed until a caliphate had been established and innocents were dying across Europe.

The relatively effective international effort to support Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s illegal and brutal war is a positive example of U.S.-led collaboration, but it is more the exception than the rule. Elsewhere, the United States is still inclined to overly rely on force, preemptive and reactive, to address its national security priorities. Likewise, Washington continues to apply what some countries arguably maintain to be a coercive approach to bringing about their support. At times, it seems that the only carrot the United States offers is the absence of a stick.

At the core of the national security challenges the United States faces are devastating conditions, such as poverty and inequality, that are exploited by rivals and adversaries as grievances. Extremists, foreign or domestic, leverage such grievances to promote fear, incite sympathizers, and fracture societies. Autocratic leaders and other unscrupulous politicians do much the same, channeling victimization, nationalism, and racism to rally followers, justify the sacrifices and risks they are asked to bear, and dehumanize those depicted as enemies, all of which makes violence more tenable.

PERSUADE, DON’T COERCE

None of this is to suggest utopianism. A reliable and dominant force capability that can be projected worldwide at a moment’s notice must remain among the tools in the American kit, an instrument of power that helps lend credibility to soft-power alternatives. Rather, what is called for is a broader array of tools, ones that persuade rather than obliterate or coerce. Washington should build the strongest possible coalitions and make greater use of technology, science, microloans, health care, education, and similar incentives to persuade and influence rivals and allies.

Although it was focused on explaining how the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred, the 9/11 Commission report, released in 2004, offered important lessons for great-power competition, highlighting the need to recognize the battlefield as extending beyond the military realm and to “engage the struggle of ideas.” Social media, the Internet, and an ever-expanding galaxy of news outlets give authoritarian rivals the means to not only promote false narratives but also track and harass their enemies.

The authors of the report drew on lessons from the United States’ past deployment of soft power, suggesting, “Just as we did in the Cold War, we need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously.” Yet in the years since the report was released, the United States has largely failed to do so. Russia and China have told domestic and global audiences that great-power competition is a struggle of civilizations, values, and ideals as each country has moved aggressively to secure regional dominance. In this context, Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s intimidation of its neighbors can be seen as a new iteration of the Cold War.

The new White House strategy pledges to “pursue an affirmative agenda to advance peace and security and to promote prosperity in every region” and “support universal human rights and stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity.” But the United States targets adversaries such as Cuba and Iran with sanctions that appear to do more harm than good for the people it claims it wants to help and that offer their autocratic leaders a rallying point to deflect responsibility for the problems caused by their own inept rule. Soft-power tools aimed more directly at helping ordinary people around the world would bolster the United States’ efforts to undermine its adversaries and gain influence with their populations. President Biden’s pledge to commit $55 billion to Africa over the next three years, announced at the U.S. Africa summit earlier this month, offered encouraging evidence that Washington increasingly recognizes the value of soft-power tools as part of its national security strategy. But the devil, as always, is in the details; some African leaders suggested that the U.S. pledge was merely a belated attempt to counter China’s expanding economic influence on and investment in the continent, which the United States cannot easily match.  

The United States targets adversaries with sanctions that seem to do more harm than good.

The 9/11 Commission Report underscored the importance of the U.S. government providing “an example of moral leadership.” It also offered practical advice to policymakers about the need for a comprehensive U.S. counterterrorism strategy, including “economic policies that encourage development, more open societies, and opportunities for people to improve the lives of their families and to enhance prospects for their children’s future.” In other words, the report advocated a combination of soft power and kinetic policies to ensure American success.

Indeed, coming on the heels of one of the United States’ most devastating losses and the ensuing trauma it inflicted, the report advocated a broad range of tools to encourage constructive international engagement to address terrorism’s root causes. It offered a remarkably long-term view of foreign policy planning, emphasizing a balanced use of hard and soft power over the course of generations. The report also cautioned U.S. policymakers against allying with autocrats, noting, “One of the lessons of the long Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most repressive and brutal governments were too often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America’s stature and interests.” I suspect that President Joe Biden might still be triggered by images of his fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I know that I am.

NURTURING GOODWILL

The lessons of the war on terror extend beyond the realm of great-power competition. Not all the factors that give rise to national security threats are within the control of U.S. policymakers. Natural disasters and public health threats will continue to emerge unexpectedly and fuel instability.

Neither force nor coercion provides a one-size-fits-all solution. The United States has the capacity to pursue long-term, transformative solutions to many global threats. It often resorts to military force and pressure out of a sense of urgency, but the pursuit of enduring solutions is not without cost. Political buy-in for what the public might perceive as money and resources better invested at home will not come easily, particularly in the United States’ polarized political climate.

During the early years of the Cold War, U.S. leaders’ claims about American exceptionalism were widely tolerated, even respected. But U.S. solipsism has deepened since the end of the Cold War, and the effective soft-power programs that the United States established during those years have been drastically cut back. The goodwill Washington built through educational initiatives, cultural exchanges, and other forms of public diplomacy was cost effective, especially compared with billion-dollar military programs. Moreover, that kind of slowly nurtured goodwill endures for decades. But it has been wearing thin in much of the world, and there is no longer enough of it to outweigh the kinds of grievances that can be easily fanned to fuel terrorist movements or great-power rivalries.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now