US soft power


Some two decades after 9/11, November’s U.S. presidential election sees two very different visions for the “war on terror.” While terrorism is not the issue it was in 2001, it still has significant potential to influence the campaign in the next two months.

The continued scope for politicization of this topic came only when one of Osama bin Laden’s nieces, who is a strong Trump supporter, said that only the president can keep the United States safe from another 9/11. Trump, who regularly claims one of the triumphs of his term is the elimination of the territory of Daesh (or the so-called Islamic State) by “carpet bombing it into oblivion,” favors a continued hard-line approach reminiscent of the administration of George W. Bush.

Yet, it is increasingly clear that there is a key weakness in this approach to the U.S.-led global “campaign on terrorism.” That is, the response has been hyper-militarized ― dominated by counter-terrorism and security ― while other soft power instruments such as public diplomacy have been under-invested in.

To be sure, even this unbalanced strategy has secured key successes, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Yet, an overwhelming emphasis on hard power has fueled significant controversy, alienating many around the world.

In this context, a key question is what change Democratic nominee Joe Biden would bring to office were he to win in November. Aside from his campaign pronouncements in recent months, a good guide here may be the period toward the end of the Barack Obama administration in which Biden was vice president.

Then, senior U.S. policymakers highlighted the need for a paradigm shift that might well have come to fruition in a Hillary Clinton presidency. She championed in the 2016 presidential campaign a policy of so-called smart power: re-orientating the balance between hard and soft power in favor of the latter.

Clinton’s successor as Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, a close confidante of Biden’s from their long careers in the Senate together, also called for a “shift in gears onto a path that will demand more from us … politically, economically and socially … a truly comprehensive and long-term strategy to destroy [terrorism’s] very roots.”

Kerry and a significant number of Biden’s other advisers believe that one of the most glaring gaps that therefore now badly needs to be addressed is the need for a turbo-charged U.S. soft-power effort to win “hearts and minds” around the world, especially in Muslim-majority countries.

While ex-President Barack Obama himself had sought to bring about this change in his administration, the promise was never fulfilled.

For instance, despite Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, in which he sought to reset U.S. relations with Muslim-majority countries, there remain pockets of very high anti-Americanism in such states that has only grown worse under Trump. This includes countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan, where opinion polls show that positive sentiment toward the United States has fallen off a cliff in the past two decades.

This is so important because the continuing anti-terrorism contest is, in essence, one whose outcome is related to a battle between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilization. And unless this is better recognized and addressed, with the soft-power elements of the campaign on terrorism dialed up significantly, the U.S.-led international strategy will continue to face serious setbacks.

The soft-power roadmap for what is needed is relatively clear. Seizing the moment requires the United States and international partners to give much higher priority to activities such as public diplomacy, sustainable development, economic assistance and exchange programs.

And Biden has rightly noted that this is an expensive, demanding and complex generational project that government cannot achieve alone ― hence the reason why non-governmental players from the private sector, NGOs and faith communities are also key for success.

It is the Cold War that perhaps provides the best comparison with what some in the Biden team believe is now needed in the campaign against terrorism. Just like the U.S. struggle with the Soviet Union, which was ultimately won by a strategy of U.S.-led international containment and cultural vigor, the challenges posed by the campaign against terrorism need a much smarter balance between hard and soft power, with resources to match.

Numerous U.S. officials have highlighted the gross mismatch between the current budgets of the Pentagon and other U.S. international programs. Today, for instance, Washington spends about 500 times more on its military than it does collectively on international broadcasting and exchanges that proved so successful during the Cold War.

Of course, a holistic international plan to tackle violent extremism will inevitably have a military and counter-terrorism component. However, soft power needs to become a much bigger part of the overall mix.

It is therefore likely that a Biden-led administration would make moves to address this Achilles heel in the campaign against terrorism. However, even if he turbo-charges this agenda, to be successful it will require sustained commitment during following presidencies to maximize prospects of success.

Andrew Hammond ( is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.