The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Restocking the Toolkit

Proposals for beefing up the non-kinetic side of U.S. statecraft.

Published on December 9, 2011

This past year marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but it also marked two decades during which the U.S. government used military force abroad more often and in more different places than during any comparable period in our history. It did so in part because the East-West struggle that had made the use of U.S. military force so complicated and dangerous was no more, but the very uneven results of using force so often has also taught us that complicated problems not amenable to the use of force were not unique to the Cold War era. This means that, as during the Cold War, we need an array of diverse tools to influence events abroad. Unfortunately, we have abandoned or let atrophy some of the more subtle levers of influence we often used to good effect before 1991, and not used others that could help achieve outcomes we seek. We need urgently to refurbish our foreign policy and national security toolkit lest we too often find ourselves facing either a high-risk military option or no option at all.

The U.S. government has essentially five main levers of influence at its disposal:

• the military, still the most potent and capable in the world, but in urgent need of refitting and more selective use; 

• the American economy, enormous but losing both relative power and its aura of management omniscience; 

• diplomacy, more necessary than ever but harder to practice in a world in which major U.S. alliances, as well as the American reputation, count for less, and in which new social media sometimes drive agendas among less politically passive populations;

• the intelligence community, the best all-around in the world but increasingly driven to tactical issues while often failing to provide crucial broader understanding; and 

• civil society, influenced by but not controlled by the U.S. government, which propagates national values, generates relationships and acts in areas difficult for government to navigate.

We have the first, “hard” lever mostly in hand; we have become much less adept at using the other four. 

That weakness is part of the reason that, a full decade after 9/11, U.S. foreign policy is still playing catch-up with the onrush of political change in key regions of the world like the Middle East. Regrettably, the U.S. government is not particularly well informed in terms of political intelligence and it lacks ways and means to help shape decision-making milieus in key countries. The period from the late 1940s to the late 1980s was no golden age in this regard, but the contrasts between what we could often do then and what we cannot seem to do now are noteworthy.

As to economic levers, the U.S. government then was devoted to the expansion of free trade, and held an influential position of primus inter pares in all the Bretton Woods institutions. Today the domestic political scars of globalization have sired a political system that strains even to ratify bilateral free-trade agreements, while American institutional clout in international economics is far more modest and under pressure to shrink further with the vast diffusion of economic power.

As to diplomacy, then, thanks in part to the U.S. Information Agency and the “radios”, the U.S. government had both a robust public diplomacy program and a more coherent information policy. It was able to shift from an age dominated by print to one increasingly characterized not just by radio but also television. Now we are at pains to understand and marshal the uses of social media. We have yet to restore fully older educational and cultural exchange programs, to revamp them for the Internet and YouTube age, or to fund them adequately. The shards of USIA have never functioned well as a part of the Department of State, and our international broadcasting efforts have had a decidedly mixed record in recent years. Neither portfolio has been a high priority of any post-Cold War administration. We struggle to keep up with the speed of the contemporary news cycle despite the fact that the United States boasts the best public relations media technology and professional cadre in the world.

In the past, the U.S. government emphasized human and political intelligence in ways that better enabled senior decision-makers to gain critical insight into key foreign countries, and occasionally to direct covert action to achieve political influence. In the past, U.S. diplomatic staff more easily got out of their embassy compounds, actively developing personal relationships and seeing their reporting functions as something more than passive. Today, our ability to launch and manage covert political, as opposed to military, operations has long since waned, and many of our embassies have become fortresses trapping diplomats within. Our intelligence community increasingly understands drones, hacking and intercepting messages in cyberspace, but today features a very large cadre of analysts with little overseas experience.

Our civil society has grown enormously over the past two decades and broadly if diffusely furthers American political and humanitarian interests abroad. It generates numerous foreign contacts and insights into foreign countries. But there have also been serious losses. To take just one important example, the international division of the AFL–CIO served as a powerful adjunct to government policy in undermining repressive governments and providing core pedagogy for democratic social movements. Today the power of American labor unions abroad has never been weaker, and the functional bureau of the State Department devoted to shepherding this function, DRL (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor), seems to barely remember what the “L” stands for in its name. The government-supported National Endowment for Democracy, with all four of its constituent-related organizations, has done good work, but its efforts and influence cannot compensate for the diffusion of American civil society work abroad.

Clearly, if international competition is a fact of life—and it is—we must revitalize the non-military instruments of U.S. statecraft. It is particularly imperative that we do so at a time of protracted budget austerity, so that we can save the inevitably very expensive uses of our military for truly vital challenges. It is our purpose here to detail our dilemma, briefly using the Egyptian case as suggestive illustration, and to consider generally how to refurbish our toolkit for the future. 

Looking Back at Egypt

The sudden crisis last winter in Egypt is an excellent example of both our limited political dexterity and the inadequacies of our political means to further U.S. foreign policy objectives. This is not to say that any easy way to understand and deal with an aging autocrat like Hosni Mubarak was ever ours for the taking, any more than there was an easy way in the late 1970s to deal with an aging Shah in Iran. Managing transitions in states dominated by “friendly tyrants” is inherently difficult; but statecraft can make either the best or the worst of such fraught situations. Indeed, damage control is one of the things diplomacy does best. 

It goes nearly without saying that for diplomacy to be effective in such cases, senior U.S. leaders have to know what they want and be prepared to act boldly to get it. But, as was the case in Iran some forty years ago, the U.S. government appears to have been uncertain, if not divided at high levels, over what outcome to seek in Egypt. Did we prefer a more effective autocratic successor in the form of Omar Suleiman, or did we prefer to accept the risks and uncertainties of a true democratic opening in a country of such large strategic significance for the United States? No toolkit, no matter how diversified and high-quality, can compensate for a lack of strategic clarity in such circumstances. But better capacities for political intelligence can at least reduce the range of uncertainty over the consequences of alternative policy courses.

That said, we must acknowledge that for a country that has been so central to U.S. regional strategy for so long, and to which the United States has given so much money over so many years, and with which so many personal relationships have been established largely as a consequence, the U.S. government was remarkably flat-footed in responding to last winter’s turn of events. How could this have happened?

 First, the kind of intelligence on Egypt that matters was alarmingly limited. As has proved true in many other cases in recent years, not least Iraq, the U.S. intelligence community knew a lot of detail about Egypt but failed to generate from it a genuine understanding so that it could provide serious guidance or realistic warning. Washington policymakers knew in a general sense that after too many years of Mubarak’s rule Egypt had become a brittle state headed for trouble. But successive administrations could not manage to bestir themselves to do much of anything about it. Given the absence of a firm policy preference, there was also little impetus for the intelligence community to do much but repeat the obvious about Mubarak’s looming mortality and the inevitability of some unknown change.

One reason for the U.S. stance, among many, amounted to a version of regulatory capture. We paid insufficient attention to expanding our knowledge of internal developments and our embassy was often precluded, or precluded itself, from doing so lest we offend our hosts. The CIA, meanwhile, focused on working closely with the Egyptian government on terrorist matters. The result was that we had no idea who was in Tahrir Square trying to lead the protest last February, or what the assembled mass there was thinking, and capable of doing; no idea, either, of how the police and the army would react to the challenge. 

In short, the psychology was wrong because the U.S. government and its diplomats had become partners with those who became the problem. We had come to identify our interests with the survival of the regime rather than with Egypt as an ongoing ally, just as we now do in Saudi Arabia. Our immobility left us no option other than to shore up the regime and hope for the best, but, as has often been pointed out, hope is not a policy. 

The Egyptian example shows that, while we talk incessantly about how power is diffusing in the world and how the modalities of power themselves are evolving, we have not appreciably changed the way we do business abroad. As things stand now, high-level diplomacy, segregated military-to-military contacts where we have them, and relatively low-impact foreign aid liaisons constitute the U.S. government’s principal means of dealing with key countries. Other modalities in the vast muddled middle of statecraft require knowledge of the environment on the ground beyond our friends—knowledge we lack. This is why the United States has often found it easier to invade a country than to understand it. 

Had we better understood what was going on in Egypt, on the “street” as well as inside the vast Egyptian military-bureaucratic regime, and had senior decision-makers been alerted to the incipient potential for non-linear change as opposed to smoth political succession, we might have been spared the temporizing and mixed signals that characterized U.S. policy for several weeks. We might have been better able to intervene quietly to speed the departure of the autocrat and avoid his subsequent public trial, which did nothing for the U.S. image in Egypt. We might have been able to help foster a stable transition. Instead we deserted Mubarak for the one institution we knew: the Egyptian military. Now we sit heplessly on the sidelines as Egyptians take to the streets once more, this time to protest open-ended military rule. Had we avoided bureaucratic capture and taken pains to broaden our range of contacts in Egypt, we might well have had quicker access to the new players on the scene, and we might have been able to gain much more insight from frank consultation with other regional friends like Jordan.

These are efforts that cannot wait for a crisis, of course, but have to be put in place and maintained during the protracted gardening phase of diplomacy—a crucial phase that, alas, often does not attract much attention or interest from high-level policymakers but that ought to be the bread-and-butter of professional diplomats and members of the intelligence community. As the late J.R. Roberts once wrote, “What diplomats do is not always important, but the complex interests they are meant to defend and represent always are.”1

The Egyptian regime has been severely shaken, but so far the essential military-bureaucratic regime still exists, however parlously. Indeed, the Army currently appears more powerful than it was during the last few years of the Mubarak era. There is still a close relationship between our two militaries and to some extent between the two intelligence communities. So far, what has happened is not comparable to what happened in Iran in 1978–79, but the Egyptian saga remains tumultuous. In any event, the present situation is not the consequence of our skill or wisdom but of luck. And luck does not constitute a policy anymore than does hope.

Skill and wisdom also seems to be deserting us in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we continue to spend enormous resources without having much influence on our clients and little ability to shape their polices. Clearly we are going to have to do better than we have this past decade. The challenges are enormous not only in Egypt but in other key states such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few. How, exactly, should we do that? How do we enhance our understanding? What new or sharper arrows of influence must we add to our quiver?

What to Do

The final year of any presidential term is no time for major innovations in policy methodology, but it is an excellent time in and out of government to prepare a program of action for the next term or the next President. Our suggestions across a range of economic, diplomatic, intelligence and civil society instrumentalities fall into three categories: things the United States does but could do better; things it used to do that deserve well-tailored revival; and things it has never done but should consider. Let us start briefly with the economic side.

Economics: However large and technically advanced the U.S economy and important America’s role as guardian of the liberal international trading order, clearly the most important economic and political contribution to our foreign policy and influence abroad is the resurgence of our economy and the revitalization of the basic sinews of economic growth. That will be the focus of any new administration. Here we focus more narrowly on those economic assets now directly in service to U.S. foreign policy.

Economic aid programs and commercial efforts can have both short- and long-term positive impacts. So can military assistance and sales programs and foreign training efforts. But integrating these efforts abroad for their maximum political value—supposedly the job of the Ambassador—has been uneven, and interagency differences have often not helped. The way we spend money on these functions gives us less than the sum of the parts in terms of political influence.

More fundamentally, our aid is invariably too small, lacks focus and has little domestic political support. A major problem here, whatever the level of aid programs, is to better integrate U.S. aid programs with our national security and foreign policy strategies. There are general long-term policy benefits, presumably, in helping countries to grow economically, and in many countries we can take a long view. But a distant and theoretical relationship between, say, the development of a broader middle class and more liberal politics are probably insufficient if we want to use our economic assets to influence political developments abroad. During the Cold War the politics of aid relationships almost always trumped the effectiveness of those relationships economically; a stellar case in point concerns the U.S. relationship with Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. No one is suggesting that we return to a short-term cynicism as pure as that. But a better balance within countries and probably a better integration of programs regionally are necessary, and this may require an adjustment of the role that various government aid agencies, including USAID, have to the rest of the government. At last count, about 16 agencies of the U.S. government were running various forms of assistance programs abroad, and to our knowledge no one has ever done a functional budget to learn how much the United States spends, and with what impact, on these programs. We may not need to spend more money to maximize political influence from these efforts, but we need to spend it smarter than we do now.

Diplomacy: As to U.S. diplomacy, there is a new modality with which to work. The first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) has been modestly helpful, but it has failed to mobilize a genuine vision of an active and efficacious diplomacy, one that better influences the domestic policies and perceptions of friends and foes.

Public information programs from not one but several Executive Branch departments (State, Defense, Commerce, Justice and sometimes the White House and various agencies), the “radios”, Fulbright exchanges, cultural offices in embassies and more all exist. But these efforts are stale, balkanized and underfunded. Just as an additional Deputy Secretary of State was created a few years ago to get a handle on the multiple American economic aid programs (though so far without noticeable success), so someone somewhere needs to gain a bird’s eye view of and integrate functionally all the various informational and cultural programs the U.S. government supports. As things stand now, the Undersecretary in the State Department that is nominally charged with this task lacks the budget authority and reputational clout to do this job. Only when these programs are given real coherence, and their purpose married to the highest aspirations of U.S. foreign policy, is there any chance that Congress will fund them to a reasonable level—something that has not happened in well over two decades.

Our embassies are still too closed off and our diplomats still too passive. We are not distributed around the world as we should be, with too many diplomats in European posts and not enough new consulates opening in emerging regions around the world. Whenever previous Secretaries of State have tried to introduce such changes, as happened for example in January 2006, the Foreign Service Association has lacked enthusiasm for these proposals. The next Secretary of State will have to do more than just give a speech or two to make these innovations a reality, and that Secretary will have to have the support of the White House and the Congress to get anything significant done. It is time to plan such innovations now, it being understood that it will take at least four years after January 2013 to implement them.

Intelligence: The intelligence function needs rethinking and retooling. Foreign domestic politics are always with us, although we often act as if we are the only country where domestic politics impinge on foreign policy. The U.S. government is, of course, aware of domestic political considerations in foreign countries and obviously seeks to influence them in numerous ways, mostly directly by diplomacy and through the economic and diplomatic modalities already mentioned. But that is not enough. As far as we can tell, focusing on the domestic politics of key states we wish to influence has gotten relatively little concerted attention from a dedicated governmental perspective since the decline of political covert action.

Clearly, most of the countries whose politics we would wish to influence are not allies, and in nearly all of them we face difficult governments whose interests often do not coincide with our own. Therefore, some portion of the influence we seek must be aimed at political opposition groups (if they exist), and at institutions other than political parties (trade unions, professional associations, student groups, ethnic or sectarian-based organizations and diasporas, for example) who may be able to exert influence over future political outcomes. That will require greater engagement even with hostile and unfriendly states, not as a reward to them but as a means of seeking more leverage over them. We have felt the often baleful effects of cutting off relations—an instinctive American domestic political response with deep cultural roots—or having nothing to do with bad guys or terrible political leaders in the first place. Yet a few trusted and effective political operatives, whether in Afghanistan today or other countries in the future, may turn out to be more useful to us than an additional squadron of Predator drones. 

Cultivating contacts across a range of constituencies in a target country is very labor-intensive and requires enormous patience and policy continuity in the middle layers of government. Senior decision-makers do not even have to know that specific efforts are ongoing until they need to harvest the investment; they merely have to ensure that they remain ongoing. Such efforts put a special burden on intelligence gathering and especially analysis, by all agencies, and particularly on the personnel requirements of those designated to do it. We need to hire top-flight people, keep U.S. personnel in-country for relatively long periods, avoiding excessively rapid rotations and doing a better job of teaching languages. We need also to take advantage of native speakers who are U.S. citizens more effectively than we do now, and we need to refashion security requirements to get that done. These are investments we need to make now to achieve payoffs years and even decades into the future. Today the intelligence community has a very young workforce with little overseas experience, but just as it will not stay young, it need not remain inexperienced.

Just considering such country efforts, and making the investments that would allow us to pursue them effectively, would likely produce vastly more insights and understanding than we now possess. It would also hone our abilities to do more in future. Such efforts would force us to come to terms with our capabilities abroad for acquiring usable political information and better understanding the opportunities for political change in countries important to us. We will likely find ourselves unable to really enhance the analytical capabilities in the intelligence community short of such an effort. And we will find ourselves unable to really understand the impact of new media in how we come to know what we know about other countries unless we shake up the current modus operandi in intelligence and diplomacy.

We might begin such a process with a hard-nosed audit of what we know and who we know in a few countries that matter most to us. “Who we know” should include rising leaders, which does not mean “picking a winner” now but reaching down to the next leadership generation. This audit should include a relevant biographical inventory that ranges widely from potential movers and shakers to which U.S. business firms are most important and best placed in each country, which blogs are widely followed, which tweets seem to have resonance in that country, and so on. We cannot hope to achieve influence if we have no idea of our current potential assets, or lack them. 

The traditional scope of both diplomacy and intelligence collection must also be enlarged and better integrated into the overall diplomatic framework. For example, individuals skilled in the function and use of social networks can be important adjuncts to the overall American effort. We know this in a general sense, but we have not operationalized that knowledge.

Achieving practical political objectives abroad obviously requires people with good political antennae who are quick to realize change or spot popular movements not yet at their threshold, but who, above all, can also engage. This can only work if we are always thinking about our longer-term interests and not just our relations with any particular incumbent government. This means restoring the importance of building knowledge about specific countries, a skill set that has largely disappeared in a foreign policy community driven ever more by tactical requirements. 

Those charged with gathering political intelligence, whether overtly or clandestinely, will need to generate specific information to focus attention where it is most needed and hopefully inspire initiative. Changes will be required in embassy staffs in order to accommodate this requirement; certainly we will need to increase the size of political sections and in certain countries we will need to rethink the choice of political appointees as ambassadors. 

CIA stations need to be better oriented to this sort of task as well. If the CIA has in recent years learned to work seamlessly with the military, it will need to re-learn how to work seamlessly with U.S. diplomats. Better intelligence and identification of new contacts is critical. Embassies will need more money to hire more top flight local employees, particularly younger people with various skills, many of whom know the country better than our people and can better identify up-and-comers. Obviously, there will be concerns over the loyalty of local employees. From the start such a task requires the recognition that developing this sort of overseas presence and activity is an important national security objective. It also requires that their output be taken seriously in Washington.

Civil society: Many nations undertake efforts in the United States to affect specific American policies, or specific measures like the perennial Armenian genocide resolution. Ethnic and national lobbies have long been a major way for foreign countries to influence our domestic politics, and they often produce results. Israel is, of course, the most prominent example, but hardly the only one. Numerous countries, such as both Taiwan and China, hire PR firms to pursue specific issues with both the Executive and Legislative branches, and otherwise to generate a more positive American view of their countries. Former American officials and legislators are sometimes the recipients of much largesse. Some nations establish their own think tanks or support American ones to focus on their countries, and useful sympathy often follows. 

Accordingly, the U.S. government might consider doing the same in carefully selected countries. While the U.S. government cannot, and should not wish to, control what U.S.-based civil society groups do abroad, we should seriously consider hiring professional foreign firms or well-placed individuals for lobbying and PR purposes on specific issues. In some cases, U.S. political action may include a direct appeal to a foreign public, although trying to exert influence in this manner in the public arena is admittedly touchy.

Some will argue that such a broad effort is the job of the State Department; it can be, but it is hardly its strong point, and there are built-in bureaucratic inhibitions to its doing that job well. Some will argue that it could be counter-productive, and obviously that, too, has to be weighed on a case-by-case basis. But trying to work more effectively with foreign media, business, universities and civil society groups in other nations needs more attention and significantly more resources.

The management of any such scaled-up effort, both in Washington and abroad, will be a challenge. We will encounter bureaucratic resistance and limits that must be addressed. We will need ambassadors who can lead such efforts abroad, and an interagency arrangement both in Washington and in-country that is supportive of it. As anyone who has worked in government knows, these are hardly requisites that can be taken for granted.

But none of this is illusory, or beyond our capabilities and culture, or too dangerous, or so politically unacceptable that we should dismiss the notion out of hand. The times argue for innovations that improve our capabilities across the board to pursue realistic political goals of deep interest to the United States abroad. The financial costs of this program, moreover, amount to chicken feed compared to many of the other things we do abroad today. 

Hopefully the political campaigns gearing up for November 2012 will establish committees devoted to thinking about and planning for the qualitative improvement of the flexibility and effectiveness of the U.S. ability to influence political change abroad. The world is changing fast, with new technologies and new generations of politically active citizens arising all over the globe. If we do not respond to these changes by adapting the way we do foreign policy business abroad, we will be sorely remiss. 

1Roberts, Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901–2000 (Viking, 2000).

Morton Abramowitz is senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. Mark Lowenthal is president of the Intelligence and Security Academy and a former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production.