January 12th, 2012

The Problem With Credible Influence

Having dealt with the question of victory in future war, I now turn to the other part of Ann-Marie Slaughter’s op-ed on “The End of Twentieth Century Warfare" that should give those versed in strategic history pause: the increasingly popular notion of "credible influence." 

When I spoke at Quantico months ago, I had a section of my speech that dealt with the “National Strategic Narrative,” a widely praised tract that explicitly advertised itself as a successor to George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” and Foreign Affairs piece “The Sources of Soviet Behavior.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter cites the Narrative in her op-ed favorably:

But as two American military officers argue compellingly in a twenty-first­ century sequel to George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ (the X article), the world’s greatest military power, near the height of its military dominance, is confronting a world in which control is giving way to credible influence (Mr Y, ‘A National Strategic Narrative’, 2011). No country, however mighty, can direct or determine global outcomes (it never could, but the illusion was good enough for government work). The best it can hope reflections on the 9/11 decade for is to influence others - governments and societies alike - in shaping events and adapting to a continuous stream of changing challenges. In this world we will not ‘win wars’. We will have an assortment of civilian and military tools to increase our chances of turning looming bad outcomes into good - or at least better - outcomes.

At first glance, this may seem like a good thing, and a welcome antidote to the expansive interventions of the 9/11 era. But, as Dan Trombly noted, there’s more than meets the eye. And I hope you like Mr. Trombly’s writing as much as I do, because I’m going to quote a lot from it in this post:

One of the major problems with Mr. Y’s concept of “credible influence” is that it seeks essentially the same outcomes but without recognizing the capacity for political and military decision necessary to achieve them. In the list of objectives Slaughter outlines, there are not just truly limited aims such as killing terrorists and pirates, but ones such as civilian protection and the prosecution of criminal regimes. These last two are not limited objectives. They are both outcomes of ….military victory, not through influence.

Here’s another truth: what Slaughter is describing by “influence” is a problem with the concepts of “soft” and “smart” power. Power involves being able to make someone change their ways against their will. Sometimes this involves other instruments of national power, such as finance. The United States famously threatened an act of financial coercion far more grievous than any saber China has rattled in order to get the United Kingdom, Israel, and France to halt their offensive against Suez—not to mention the various ways the US acted throughout the early 20th century to dismantle the colonial empires.

Over truly limited objectives, credible influence perhaps might work. But the kind of objectives that Slaughter talks about are maximal. And as we have learned from many historical cases, many states will rather fight than compromise on matters of sovereignty and state. However much Beijing might suffer from actually acting on its threats, American politicians have nonetheless refrained from testing China’s threat to use force to prevent Taiwanese independence.

As I wrote in my piece on R2P, when regimes are faced with strong American demands but weak American pressure, their natural reaction will be “make me.” No amount of soft or smart power is going to be able to deal with that.

And here is where the trouble begins, as Dan blogs:

The war in Libya already proved that when it comes to civilian protection against criminal regimes, the notion that NATO was simply disabling Gaddafi’s security forces without destroying them was fantasy. It soon became very obvious that the only way to get Gaddafi to stop trying to suppress the revolt against him was to remove him from power, and NATO acquiesced with the Gulf-supplied rebel ground forces to this end. NATO’s Libyan objectives were not really limited, nor did the war succeed because of credible influence. It succeeded because of military decision on the ground, as fought by armed forces, and its victory conditions could only be achieved, all along, with the destruction of Gaddafi’s military and paramilitary forces, followed by the complete overthrow of his regime. Similarly, Clinton’s wars in the Balkans were only limited in terms of the means allotted to conduct them (primarily airpower, although a ground invasion was threatened for Kosovo).

Rather than a world where normal victory and political decision through force of arms give way to a world of credible influence, I see this concept ushering in a world where America’s objectives remain expansive – seeking to create social and political change – but where “twentieth century” warfare continues as usual, obscured by multilateral efforts and prosecuted as much as possible by local forces. [T]he objectives are essentially unchanged – overthrow of criminal regimes, integration of societies into a dynamic liberal international order, [and] protection of civilians.

Finally, as I wrote earlier, the problem with this exactly is that while it might appear deceptively limited, it unleashes a process that may drain resources that the United States has precious little of:

In Step 1, the political leader is urged to condemn Regime X’s actions, as a cheap measure that would show resolve and support. Naturally, Regime X’s dictator pays these words little heed. In Step 2, the political leader is urged to back up his words with sanctions, diplomatic-capacity building, or a no-fly zone. This too, fails to compel the dictator to change his behavior. In Step 3, the political leader, looking weak in the face of continued regime defiance, is urged to implement a limited military action to stop Regime X. Because the continued existence of Regime X is in itself seen as the problem, regime change is a strong possibility. What happens after regime change is sometimes prolonged occupation or third-party state building.

In each step of the ratchet, actions proposed as cheap and risk-free end up pulling—through dynamics of public pressure and commitment—the political leader deeper and deeper into a military operation her or she did not originally intend to carry out. The process is similar to the famous microeconomic concept of the “dollar auction“—in which players bidding cents to get a dollar end up overbidding because they refuse to see the total sum of their sequential investments (which are deceptively cheap) as a sunk cost. The danger of the R2P spectrum, thus, is that even small investments in prevention can morph into commitment.

It’s like Chekhov’s gun in theater. Once you introduce the gun into the play, the drama critics expect it to be fired.

If credible embraced genuinely limited objectives, it would be an admirable basis for future American national security policy. But as it stands now, credible influence is the end, rather than the beginning, of a conversation about the foreign policy frontier.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng