While hard power apparatuses include intelligence, law, policing, and military power, which are important to safeguard a nation, soft power instruments include political, social, cultural, and economic control, together with broader policy initiatives dealing with the environment, development, critical infrastructure, migration, and humanitarian intervention. These are all aspects in which a nation's civil society plays a significant role and are equally important, if not more so, than conventional means of hard power.
Like communism, Nazism, and fascism, terrorism - the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, to pursue political aims - is a type of ideology. An ideology is best fought with a better counter-ideology, rather than by swords and guns alone. As the great American psychologist, Abraham Maslow once wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This concept, known as the law of the instrument, is relied on too much in counterterrorism, with the hammer being military might. Today, however, there is ambiguity in how we combat terrorism effectively when facing a multipronged and multifaceted ideological enemy and it demands a new approach to traditional counterterrorist orthodoxy. In the context of the US-led “war on terror”, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could technically eliminate some terrorist groups, religious extremists, and hard-core individuals by military might. In the long run, however, NATO will never be able to destroy ambiguous Islamic ideologies, such as Wahhabism, Salafism, or Jihadism, because an ideology is better subsumed progressively than destroyed violently.
To counter it long-term you also need to apply soft power. As Nye emphasized, “in the information age, success is not merely the result of whose army wins, but also whose story wins.” Hence, America and other Western nations should not exclusively engage ground troops and air strikes in the Middle Eastern region. Rather, U.S-led nations should turn the tables politically and diplomatically - via soft power measures – and strive to give moderate Muslims a bigger responsibility and leadership power to deal with the proportionally small percentage of the population that embraces violent extremism. In this way, the West can attempt to avoid the current struggle being characterized exclusively across the Greater Middle East region as a narrative of Christians against Muslims. This debased narrative only feeds into the extremists’ ideology. By training and “arming” moderate Muslims to combat regional terrorism effectively and strategically with soft power Islamic cultural tools, the West can counter the damaging narrative of Crusade versus Jihad, while still having its comforting “hammer” at the ready. Ultimately, the Western diplomatic community has to craft a winning counter-narrative comprised NOT just of Western liberal values and morals, but it must find connective diplomatic bridges with moderate Islamic parties (bridges that legitimately give Islamists a leadership role and executive management of the narrative). This will allow both sides to portray a partnership that gives dignity, soft power responsibility, and global legitimacy to the Islamist side of the team. This has so far been relatively absent from Western counterterrorist strategies.
The idea of applying soft power within hard power counterterrorism strategy is indeed something that could be seen by many as counter-intuitive. However, my co-author’s personal experience in Sri Lanka vividly shows how the possibility exists. When living in Sri Lanka during times of great ethnic conflict – early 1990s – Ariaratnam was manipulated and forced by the Tamil Tigers to enlist in their militia. Kidnapped from high school and forced to fight as a child soldier with the Tamil Tigers, he rose quickly through the ranks to become an intelligence officer, working closely with Tamil leadership. Personal relationships that went outside the Tamil Tigers’ ‘code of conduct’ exposed Ariaratnam to the semi-forced opportunity to work for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Indian government's foreign intelligence agency. Eventually he managed to defect to the Sri Lankan security forces in the summer of 1995. He surrendered with invaluable information that was used against the Tamil Tigers and helped dismantle their operations domestically and internationally. The terrorist organization was militarily defeated in May 2009. Working with the intelligence services of the Sri Lankan government, Ariaratnam was a great asset and tremendous source of information for the government of Sri Lanka, someone who knew the modus operandi of the Tigers.
After he was forcibly recruited by extremists, he was not allowed to listen to cultural entertainment of any kind. The Tigers also did not allow cadres to fall in love. Their doctrine was that since you are born to die, then you might as well die nobly as a martyr to your country, allowing no frivolity to distract you. But Ariaratnam was deeply moved and influenced by the positive themes of love, camaraderie, and peace found in South Indian popular culture, especially the music of A.R. Rahman. When A.R Rahman's first hit album ‘Roja’ came out, Ariaratnam could not resist secretly going to his home and listening to it. Rahman’s music is a beautiful combination of Western and Eastern fusion and it was what made Ariaratnam risk aiding Indian intelligence against the extremism of the Tamil Tigers. When young constructs would leave the camps, they would hear this music in the air, while in the newspapers they would read about cinema and entertainment. They grew tired of listening to Tamil Tiger news about war, sacrifice, and death. It could be legitimately said that south Indian popular culture, especially local music, saved Ariaratnam’s life: it proved more powerful than the Tamil Tigers’ deliberate ideological brainwashing.
This matters when we consider cultural soft power counterterrorism because in order to sustain their totalitarian ideology and propaganda, terrorist organizations like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are all maniacally violent toward civil society-driven soft power instruments, such as art, social media, popular culture, music, and entertainment. These soft power avenues are radically blocked from people under the dictatorship of these groups. This soft power war is the war that terrorists do not want and really cannot win. But the West fights this war from a Western-dominated perspective that is inefficient and somewhat culturally arrogant. Soft power does not have to always mean the inculcation of ‘western’ culture into the counterterrorist fight. There are local versions of cultural soft power that can be deeply impactful, powerful instruments that move people to fight despotism. Rock and roll music may have successfully been a soft power element that intrigued the Soviet people and undermined the idea of communism, but that does not mean one defeats radical Islamist ideology only with Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. If the Western-moderate Muslim partnership is truly built with shared power and leadership, then the expansion and applicability of cultural soft power tools will be monumental. And those tools will often need to be non-Western.
To combat terrorism smartly in today's global information age, nations must backstop and infuse conventional hard power tactics with more flexible and cunning cultural soft power strategies. In other words, countries should apply FUSED military and non-military strategies, very much in the way that Ariaratnam lived part of his young life in Sri Lanka. To date the West embraces both versions in battling counterterrorism, but those approaches tend to be distinct and isolated from each other. We must eliminate the strategy silos. Since the US-led West is confronting an unconventional and radically ideological enemy, Western nations must plan, prepare, and execute an innovative and creative strategy that is not based solely on its own concepts of culture or liberal progress. This is where the international community must come together to integrate the role of hard power and soft power instruments as a new innovative core of counterterrorist smart power. If this new partnership can be created it will be paramount in winning the hearts and minds of the Greater Middle East, the majority of which is indeed moderate but is still justifiably fearful to be anything but silent about extremism.
(*) Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.