How to Do Intervention Without Blowing Stuff Up

It’s time to relearn the good tools of the Cold War.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

As the United States and its allies withdraw their forces from Afghanistan, the part of the global war on terror that involves massive military action is coming to an end. To be sure, drones and Special Forces will still engage in targeted strikes, but it may be quite some time before the Pentagon mobilizes for another large-scale invasion. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued in his memoir that our foreign policy "has become too militarized" — but in fact, the military’s own long-term strategic plans would severely constrain its ability to conduct what it terms "large-scale, prolonged stability operations."

But despite the current preference for retrenchment among the American people and their president, the dangers to Western security have hardly dissipated. Russian President Vladimir Putin is stirring up serious trouble in Ukraine and throughout Russia’s "near abroad," while Beijing continues to muscle about the South China Sea. From Nigeria to Yemen, large chunks of the developing world remain essentially ungoverned, giving terrorists, insurgents, and rebels of every stripe plenty of room to maneuver. American security challenges haven’t gone away — in fact, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted recently, they are probably expanding.

This harsh reality raises unavoidable questions for those who shape our foreign policy. At a time when the use of military force is no longer a viable option, what actions can the United States take short of going to war? Which levers in conflict-afflicted regions should be manipulated to shape outcomes more to Washington’s liking?

The answer to these questions requires a strategy of non-kinetic intervention, which brings together the instruments of national power to promote more benign behavior among governments and non-state actors that threaten the United States. But if Washington hopes to change behavior without resorting to military force, it needs two things: a deep understanding of the structures of elite power in the places it seeks to influence, and clearly articulated objectives for what it seeks to achieve. Understanding the areas of these countries’ politics that are open to Washington’s manipulation and setting appropriate goals for American interventions is at the heart of a non-kinetic strategy.

Non-kinetic intervention provides an essential, coercive complement to political scientist Joseph Nye’s comforting notion of "soft power." To Nye, the great shortcoming of U.S. foreign policy is that it failed to capitalize on the country’s unique magnetic pull on the rest of the world — its cultural and ideological attractiveness. Nye argued that America could exploit these attributes to "get others to want" what we want in world affairs.

But soft power alone may not be up to the task of changing the behavior of certain countries and non-state actors, for the simple reason that many of those who oppose the United States find little that is attractive about its ethos. Think of such leaders as the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, who describes his cause as "[a] war against Christians and infidels," or Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has labeled the United States "the devil incarnate." Nye’s approach must therefore be supplemented by a "harder" form of soft power that is prepared to buy off those who are willing to negotiate with us, while sanctioning those who refuse to do so.

To promote the strategic thought that is needed, today’s policymakers might delve into some Cold War history. The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and communist China was a nasty time, when the great powers fought doggedly for the hearts and minds of the world’s citizens — most often without putting boots on the ground.

What’s most impressive about non-kinetic strategy during the Cold War was Washington’s willingness to manipulate elite and popular preferences in order to advance its policy objective of containing communism. By promoting land reform and industrialization in East Asia and Latin America, for example, the United States helped to create entrepreneurs and new economic interests that sought growth and political stability over peasant and proletariat revolution. While some undesirable authoritarian leaders were undoubtedly kept in power during this period, it is a startling and under-appreciated fact that only a handful of countries around the world fell to communist insurgents. This was not simply a function of their willingness to use the tools of violent repression to curb domestic uprisings: In such countries as Chile, the government also promoted — with Washington’s support — an economic development strategy that ultimately eroded the traditional, landed power structures.

When the United States deviated from the emphasis on non-kinetic instruments, as in Vietnam, it proved a serious mistake. Among the many tragedies of Vietnam is that its historical shadow continues to obscure the many successful episodes of intervention that both preceded and succeeded it. Take, for example, the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines during the early 1950s, which was a communist-led movement aimed against that country’s landed elite. The policies advanced by the United States to counter this insurgency included legal services to tenant farmers, the ability of poor people to send cheap telegrams to government officials to report abuses by the military, and the creation of an Economic Development Corps (EDCOR) that worked with former Huk rebels to resolve their economic-based grievances. In fact, the Philippines may be the country where the link between counterinsurgency and economic development has been most self-consciously forged.

American diplomats in Manila proved adept at spotting cleavages within the Philippine government and the country’s elite. The U.S. government conducted economic missions that pointed out the need for land reform among other structural changes in the economy, and these findings were widely publicized in the local press. Similarly, import-substituting industrial policies won the allegiance of growing numbers of urban business leaders. To be sure, the American military also provided supported to the Philippine armed forces, but that was largely aimed at stopping its use of violence towards its own citizens while creating a program of "civic action." In short, American aid was used to divide elites and to promote a set of reform measures that undermined the Huks’ political and economic appeal.

Similarly, President John Kennedy played an active role in America’s involvement in Venezuela during the early 1960s, when that country was threatened by a communist-backed insurgency. The United States provided financial support to the regime of Rómulo Betancourt for a wide range of social programs, while it backed negotiations with other elite groups — including the military, Catholic Church, and petroleum interests — who opposed the government’s reform measures. Again, military assistance was provided to the government, but mainly in the form of technical support and training.

Today’s policy community can draw powerful lessons from this forgotten history. First, non-kinetic instruments can and do work in many instances. This is beca
use, to put it bluntly, the allegiances of most people can be bought. This is even true with fundamentalists: At least some terrorist and jihadist activity in Somalia and northern Nigeria, for example, is bolstered by poor economic conditions. To be sure, non-kinetic programs can be expensive: It takes real money to increase economic activity, even in poor countries — this is not foreign policy "on the cheap."

Second, successful strategies require a careful matching of means with ends. It is unlikely, for example, that a military invasion can be stopped by the use of non-kinetic instruments. For example, Russian troops are massed on the Ukrainian border, and no amount of non-kinetic tools can stop them if Putin gives the order for them to pour into eastern Ukraine. Still, it is plausible that the sanctions that have been adopted have played some role in causing Putin to rethink his aggressive strategy, even without the threat of military involvement.

Third, policies for conflict zones cannot simply mimic those used in more highly developed markets — the same rules do not apply. In these troubled regions, Western states must be willing to work with some unsavory characters, quite possibly in ways that do not meet the contracting standards written up by teams of lawyers in the comfort of their offices on K Street or the Strand.

In an important sense, Russia and Ukraine exemplify both the opportunities and limits of a strategy of non-kinetic intervention. Even with the limited tools at our disposal, however, the West’s response can go well beyond what it has done so far: Sanctions imposed on Russia should be greatly expanded and buttressed by an effort to undermine Putin’s instruments of power, which are primarily in the military and natural-resource realms. On the military front, Western countries should actively counter any Russian effort to export its weaponry to countries like India or Malaysia, offering better equipment and more attractive terms to potential buyers. This would undermine Russia’s ability to raise the cash needed for investment in its domestic defense industry, especially at a time when its own economic resources are dwindling. 

On the natural resource front, Europe should immediately begin to take the steps needed to diversify away from dependence on Russian oil and gas. Yes, this will take some time — but the very threat of diversification will make Russia’s oil oligarchs reconsider the costs of supporting the Putin regime. Obama can contribute to this effort by promoting exports of American fuel to Europe for reasons of national security, while continuing to impose economic sanctions on Russia and those elites who are Putin’s greatest supporters.

The crucial starting point for any strategy of non-kinetic intervention is to recognize the world for what it is: a violent place where both state and non-state actors will continue to act ruthlessly to secure their own interests. In such a world, our ambition must often be limited to the neutralization of contested environments so that they no longer threaten us. Getting from here to there will undoubtedly require some treasure, but that is always less costly than spilling blood.

Ethan B. Kapstein teaches public policy and global management at Arizona State University and is a co-director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton University.

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