Talking 'Smart Power' With Admiral Stavridis

Retired Admiral James Stavridis explains “smart power,” Latin America and what to think about Edward Snowden.

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Adm. James G. Stavridis, commander, U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 19, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. European Command, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Southern Command in review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2014.

With one-liners like, "We are excellent at launching Tomahawk missiles; we need to get better at launching ideas," it is not hard to appreciate why The New York Times labeled recently retired Admiral James Stavridis a "Renaissance admiral." Labels like "innovator" and "thought leader" may be overused, but Stavridis lives up to the hype, nudging the U.S. military not only to be more adaptive and less insular, but also to re-examine its role in international conflict resolution in places like Latin America and Afghanistan.

The former Aircraft Carrier Group Commander, TED Talk guest, author and overlord of all NATO missions, including the 2011 NATO-led operation in Libya, champions a revolutionary approach to the most vexing conflicts of our day. Stavridis has challenged the stagnant military culture and pushed for the transformation of organizations like U.S. Southern Command from an old school military planning citadel to an agile organization better able to "plug 'n play" with non-traditional partners. The admiral believes the U.S. can help partners to end conflict quickly, reconstruct and then develop through the application of "smart power": the effective combination of soft power (diplomacy and development) and hard power (military might).

[Read the U.S. News debate: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

Stavridis recently retired from military service after a 37-year career. He now serves as Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and as the chairman of the board of the U.S. Naval Institute. We recently discussed his thoughts on 21st century "smart power" and counter-terrorism. The following are highlights from the interview:

As the former Commander of both U.S. Southern Command and U.S. European Command, you placed heavy emphasis on smart power approaches. Why?

In the 21st century, we can't create security by building walls. In the 20th century, we built a lot of walls – we endlessly tried to build walls between us and people we perceived, correctly or incorrect, as our enemies. In the 21st century, because of the advent of networks, the free movement of goods and people across the globe, we need to build security by building bridges instead of building walls. Smart power is the short hand for a collection of tools that allow us to do that.  

What are the principal tools of smart power?

The tools are: first, international and multi-national approaches; second, interagency approaches built upon the "three Ds"– defense, diplomacy and development; and third, public-private cooperation. If we do those three things and we use strategic communications effectively, we will be building the much needed new bridges. Now, though there will be times when we need to use hard power – because soft power with no hard power in reserve is no power at all – but smart power is the best approach to achieve desired outcomes.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Can you give an example of where and when this has worked?

Colombia 10 to 15 years ago was a lot like Afghanistan is today, but through the application of smart power, today we have productive negotiations ongoing between the main Colombia rebel faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of Colombia. A second example is the Balkans. In the 1990s, tens of thousands of people were killed due to ethnic hatreds, and a million people were pushed across borders, becoming refugees. Through the application of smart power, and some measure of hard power, we were able to stabilize the situation and bring peace to the region.

Now, there will be the need for hard power – as in Libya – but I would argue that the smart power approach is effectively what we are doing in Afghanistan. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is an international operation that is using all the tools of government with the inclusion of the private sector to develop the economy.

Further, we are heading towards handing that security mission over to the Afghan military and police. Eventually we'll have a peace dialogue and we will be further able to apply smart power to increase the chances of a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

How do you measure the success of this approach? 

There are technical tools that can be used, including the polling of populations, traditional media and social networks monitoring, and the professional judgment of trained professionals on our in-country teams. With these tools, you can fairly effectively determine how well our approach is working. In addition, there are simply "outcomes." Take Colombia, for example. I don't think anyone would look at Colombia today and say that it is failing. This positive outcome is an example of the effective application of smart power – it is succeeding.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Do you believe there needs to be a de-emphasis on the kinetic dimension of counter-terrorism and a focus on ameliorating vexing and deep-rooted problems in fragile states?

I think you have to do both. In any insurgency there will be people who are irreconcilable and who pose a clear and present threat to the U.S. and our allies. Those people have to be dealt with using hard power, but I think that the broader effort in counter-terrorism needs to be addressed with smart power approaches in order to adequately deal with grievances like unemployment, lack of health care and entrenched hatredsYou can't kill your way to success in a counter insurgency effort. You have to protect the people, get the civil military balance right, train the locals, and practice effective strategic communications.

What do you think is the principal motivation of states like Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua in defying the United States by offering asylum to Edward Snowden?

All three of those regimes object to the U.S. for a variety of cultural and historical reasons. It's unfortunate that all three are prevented from having warm and proactive relationships with the U.S. I can tell you for a fact that the hands of the U.S. are out of those countries. Further, during my tour at U.S. Southern Command, we worked hard to have productive military-to-military relationships with them, and I think it is unfortunate that there appear to be deliberate efforts to try to antagonize the U.S. – and that's what I take away from the Snowden episode. It is unfortunate, but I think the U.S. will continue to try to foster good relations with those states. However, it does not serve those nations well to offer asylum to a fugitive from U.S. justice.

Oliver L. Barrett is a retired Navy Officer, foreign affairs commentator and writer for ForeignPolicyBlogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter @peaceguerilla.

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