How to Do Intervention Without Blowing Stuff Up

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

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 because, 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.

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The Bore Room

The election of the European Commission’s president may not be exciting -- but it’s far more important than cranky, skeptical pundits are willing to admit.

Imagine a presidential campaign in which the leading contenders are unknown to the vast majority of the public, voters cannot directly cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice, and the eventual winner can be struck down in favor of a more palatable politician by ruling elites. This may sound like a sham election in a post-Soviet dictatorship. But in fact, it is the slightly surreal circumstances of the world's first transnational presidential campaign. 

From May 22 to 25, 380 million voters in the EU's 28 member states are invited to the polls -- as they are every five years -- to elect 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The difference this time is they can also play a part in picking the next president of the European Commission, the bloc's executive body.

The scheme is not short of critics among Europe's pundits. Open Europe, a mildly Euro-skeptic think tank based in London, argues that the European Parliament has "failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy" and that its candidates for the plum post "are unable to connect with what remain national electorates." An op-ed in the Economist last week called for the European Parliament to be "downgraded" and urged EU leaders to "stand against its latest power grab."

But the new election is really a step toward more democracy in Europe, giving voters a bigger say in choosing who runs the EU than they have ever had before. And that's a good thing.

Until now, the commission chief has been chosen in much the same way as the pope -- by a conclave of leaders meeting behind closed doors. However, under a purposefully vague clause in the Lisbon Treaty, the latest version of the EU's rulebook, European heads of state are obliged to "take into account" the results of the European Parliament elections when deciding the next commission CEO.

This year, Europe's main political parties -- such as the Socialists, Liberals, Greens. and center-right European People's Party -- have interpreted this clause to mean that they have the right to field candidates for the commission post, something that has never happened before. The political grouping that tops the poll would expect to have its candidate confirmed by EU leaders in late June, before being ratified by the European Parliament in July.

Some, such as Dutch premier Mark Rutte, have pushed back, arguing that EU leaders are not obliged to pick any of the parliament's preferred candidates. But as MEPs can reject any figure put forward by Angela Merkel, David Cameron, et al, it will be extremely difficult for EU leaders to ignore the victorious party's applicant.

In a May 15 televised debate among candidates, the current parliament president and Socialist candidate, German Martin Schulz, said, "If member states dare to put forward someone else, they would overrule the EU treaty and citizens and that would deal a big blow to European democracy." The other hopefuls for the commission job -- center-right contender Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, European Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, German Green MEP Ska Keller, and Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras -- agreed, implying the assembly will veto any attempt by EU leaders to impose their nominee.

Critics accuse the parliament of politicizing the role of the European Commission, which is independent of national governments and has a quasi-judicial role in ensuring EU laws are applied. However, the EU executive is already an intensely political body. Former ministers and prime ministers-turned-presidents are responsible for drafting the bloc's 150 billion euro annual budget and have the sole power to propose new EU legislation. Giving the union's only directly elected institution greater power over who heads the commission therefore seems both more democratic and more in line with how chief executives in national political systems are appointed. In Britain, for example, the prime minister is usually the leader of the party that musters the most votes. He or she is not directly elected to the post. 

One of the criticisms leveled at the European Union is that it is run by faceless, unelected Eurocrats who are impossible to turf out. This charge will be more difficult to make after this first presidential campaign -- if EU leaders pluck one of the political groups' contenders. Even Merkel, who had previously voiced her opposition to any automatic link between the candidates and the election result, said Thursday, "A clear, qualitative improvement is that, in principle, the commission president gets elected."

Two of parliament's four main parties -- the Liberals and the Greens -- held primaries for the post. All candidates have been campaigning across the continent, holding town hall meetings, rallies, selfie contests, and engaging with voters online. By the end of the campaign, Juncker's aides estimate that the former Luxembourg premier will have visited 32 cities in 18 countries and given over 300 interviews. He even has a campaign bus and "war room" -- hardly cutting edge by U.S. standards but a first in transnational politics. The televised debate between the five candidates was broadcast live by 47 TV stations, and while it lacked the drama, excitement, and scripted zingers of U.S. presidential debates, it compensated by focusing on the meaty political issues that concern most Europeans: high unemployment, sluggish growth, and the crisis in Ukraine. 

It is easy to mock what could be described as a European election without a European electorate. The Liberal primary campaign videos for Verhofstadt and his challenger, EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn, were hilariously bad. The former featured poorly edited clips of the former Belgian prime minister in action, overlaid with a cheesy rock soundtrack that is ideal for air-guitaring but not quite appropriate for a politician vying to run a 30,000-strong civil service. Rehn's spots, meanwhile, starred the Finnish EU official droning into an autocue with a voice designed to put even the most caffeinated listeners to sleep.

With the possible exception of Verhofstadt, the sparkiest performer in the May 15 debate, the three leading candidates are uninspiring Brussels apparatchiks whose unblinking belief in further European integration is wildly out of step with most voters' belief that the EU is intrusive and deaf to their concerns. Like the MEPs who will decide their fate, the five contenders are also unknown to most of their electors. A recent poll of 9,000 people in 12 EU countries showed more than 60 percent of voters had no idea who any of the candidates were. It might have been a different story, though, if the political parties had nominated political heavyweights from large EU countries, such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy or former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Most Europeans view the EU assembly elections like Americans view mid-terms, as second-order polls. That is one reason why turnout has slumped from almost two-thirds 35 years ago to 43 percent in 2009. At the same time, there has been a creeping Europeanization of politics on the continent in recent years. The economic crisis and the brutal austerity measures imposed by the EU have made household names of Olli Rehn and Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing commission president, in Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and other bailout countries -- even if those names are often accompanied by unprintable adjectives. And as a result of the crisis, finance ministers now have to trek to Brussels to ask EU officials to sanction their national budgets before they can be put to parliaments in their own countries.

There are legitimate questions about whether the commission has abused its powers in dealing with small, vulnerable countries -- or whether it should have such powers in the first place. But surely the best way to guarantee that the policies pursued by the EU executive are in tune with those of the people it is supposed to represent is to give voters a say. If they plump for parties backing a commission candidate advocating strict fiscal discipline, then they should not be surprised if austerity continues.

The right to use your vote to boot out those who hold executive power is democracy at its most basic. That makes it all the more curious why critics of the presidential campaign, who are often the loudest in denouncing the EU's democratic deficit, are opposed to this innovation.

The most democratic way of choosing the EU chief executive, of course, would be to hold direct elections, with the names of candidates on ballot papers like in the U.S. presidential race. This would go some way toward meeting the concerns of the seven out of 10 people in the EU's largest countries who believe their voice does not count in the EU. But that would require a change to the EU treaty, something that has only been done six times in the bloc's history. For now, the current campaign, flawed and faltering as it is, represents a small step towards a more democratic and accountable European Commission.

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