Tenth anniversary of 9/11: The comms challenges of the campaign against terrorism

Andrew Hammond explains why, a decade after the September 2001 atrocities, there is an urgent need to re-energise the soft power components of the campaign on terrorism.

Andrew Hammond, ReputationInc
Andrew Hammond, ReputationInc

The US and wider Western response to the attacks of 11 September 2001 has been dominated by counter-terrorism and military might. While major successes have been achieved, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, an overwhelming emphasis on ‘hard power' has fuelled controversy across much of the world.  


Even former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the problem when, in 2006, he asserted that the United States "probably deserves [only] a ‘D’ or a D-plus’ as a country as to how well we’re doing in the battle of ideas" [in the anti-terrorism campaign], and that "we have to find a formula as a country" for countering the jihadist message.


A decade on from 9/11, the death of Osama bin Laden, especially when taken in combination with the ongoing ‘Arab Spring', offers a remarkable window of opportunity for policymakers to re-emphasise the importance of diplomacy and communications in the campaign against terrorism.  As US President Barack Obama has emphasised, this must include an "alternative narrative" for a disaffected generation in the Islamic world.


According to the just-released annual findings of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in 9 of 13 key countries for which relevant time series data is available, significantly fewer people think more favourably of the United States in 2011 than before 9/11.  Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the Islamic world.  In Turkey, for instance, US favourability ratings have declined precipitously from 52% in 2000 to 10% in 2011.  In Pakistan, the fall-off is from 23% in 2000 to 12% in 2011.


Even in Britain, Washington’s staunchest ally in the campaign against terrorism, there has been a significant fall in favourability towards the United States from 83% in 2000 to 61% in 2011 (with a low point of 51% in 2007).  The partial improvement since 2007, a trend also in evidence in several other countries, is due in significant part to the greater international appeal of Obama than George Bush.


The overall fall-off in popularity of the United States in the last decade is so serious because of the erosion of US soft power - the ability to influence the preferences of others derived from the attractiveness of a state’s values, ideals and government policies. History underlines the key role that soft-power instruments (which include diplomacy, economic assistance and communications) have played in obtaining desirable outcomes in world politics.


For example, the United States used soft resources skilfully after the Second World War to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and institutions, such as NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigour that combined soft and hard power.


Like the Cold War, the challenges that are posed by the campaign against terrorism cannot be met by hard assets alone. This is especially so as the anti-terrorism contest is one whose outcome is related, in significant part, to a battle between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilisation. The US will secure greater success in meeting its goals if it demonstrates an enhanced capacity to win more moderate Muslim support.


It is in this context of winning Muslim ‘hearts and minds’ that, ten years after 9/11, Obama now has such a precious political window of opportunity to re-launch the campaign against terrorism. Seizing the moment would require the United States giving higher priority (as it did during the Cold War) to activities such as public diplomacy, broadcasting, development assistance and exchange programmes.  


US public diplomacy is in particular need of revitalisation. Here, Obama should fully resource and implement the ‘strengthening US engagement with the world’ strategic initiative launched last year. This identifies many priorities, including better combating the messages of violent extremists, and ensuring that US policy is better informed by an understanding of attitudes of foreign publics.


Such a re-launched anti-terrorism campaign would continue, of course, to include a significant military and counter-terrorism component. However, barring a major new attack on the US homeland, or that of a key ally, hard power could be de-emphasised in relative importance, including through the planned withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan from 2011-13.


Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc. He was a special adviser in the UK government, and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica.

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