In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt sent 16 U.S. Navy battle ships on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe. The hulls of the ships were painted white, an indication of peace. The fleet showcased American power and offered friendship to all ports of call.
It was a “big stick” move to deal with a rapidly changing global political environment. It both addressed our national security and illustrated our ability to project power in protecting our interests around the world.
It is time for the United States to take a “big stick” approach to the current rapidly changing global political environment, in a virtual way. We must control our narrative, as the differences in virtual and physical realities become ever blurred. If we do not do so, whether it is to combat the Islamic State or to illustrate our generosity in foreign aid, our competitors will. Russia is spending millions of dollars to shape international opinion and takes aim at America.
The Islamic State has shown a pervasive ability to use social media to spread its message and recruit followers worldwide. The same technology that allowed the pop singer Justin Bieber to upload a YouTube video and become famous worldwide or prompted President Barack Obama to meet with YouTube sensation Glozell gives the most savage among us the same opportunities.
The Islamic State has been able to find the needles in the haystacks out there who may either already agree with their extreme message or the supposedly disenfranchised who may sympathize and be converted to thier cause. It is not enough for the United States to simply track down the potential recruiters via the web, or for companies like Twitter to shut down bad acting accounts. There must be an offensive campaign to overwhelming their messaging.
Consider my failed Congressional primary in 2009. There were approximately 650,000 people in my district with fewer than 30,000 of them voting in the primary. Compare my $20,000 war chest to the eventual winner’s $2 million account. He was able to control the narrative and overwhelm my messaging. I was not able to sift through his communications to touch the few who would be voting and I needed to hear my message.
This is one of the ways we must combat extremist like the Islamic State. At the same time we are targeting the online recruiting members of the Islamic State, we must overwhelm the group's messaging, so that their virus does not spread to those easily manipulated who could potentially be turned into “lone wolves” on our soil and elsewhere.
When Israel invaded Palestine in 2009, I was in Sana’a, Yemen. I turned the TV on, only to see Yemen’s government and its state-run media exploit that crisis to improve its own image. Commercials showed American and Israeli leaders, then bombs, then dying citizens. Makeshift tents were set up in the middle of the city, where hundreds of chronically unemployed men (there is no shortage of them in Yemen) could sign up to fight against Israel; hundreds of them did. Meanwhile, we had spent hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money in Yemen, over $100 billion in humanitarian aid alone.
Despite President Obama’s claims that he has restored respect for the United States around the world, the reality is quite different.
Our foreign aid should form part of what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye calls soft power—and I’m sad to say that right now, we are not taking advantage of what we already give in aid. As a result, anti-American attitudes are probably more common there than they should be.
The U.S. is home to the best marketers on the planet—people wear Michael Jordan T-shirts in the Congo, drink Pepsi in Paraguay, and dance Hip Hop in Haiti. A bit of every aid package should include marketing to demonstrate to people abroad how we are helping them. It seems absurd that we give foreign aid packages to so many without making sure they know whom to thank. Let’s use the talents of what is arguably the most American industry ever to let the world know where the help is coming from.
In a rapidly changing world where transnational extremist groups undermine and threaten nation states and America’s generosity or perception of prestige has waned, it is time for America to use a virtual “big stick” and once again demonstrate projection of power, our desire for peace, and the ability to control our narrative.
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