Go Big on Soft Power: A Smart Countering Violent Extremism Strategy

FARAH PANDITH



Pushing his $1.9 trillion stimulus package through Congress, President Joseph Biden argued long and hard that the only way to defeat a deadly virus was to go big. Now, he has to go big on another infectious virus: the rising swell of hatred and violence that has ripped through regions as diverse as Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and North America, where the growing dark forces of hate and extremism led to the deadly January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.


Biden and his expert team have first-hand experience with terrorist movements as well as the benefit of the long arc of history. But much has changed in the 20 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks – the last time organized extremists took aim at sacred symbols of America.[1] Looking back at the horror of that day and what it unleashed, we are reminded of the power and malevolence of organized, relentless bad actors and what they can achieve in the name of some twisted ideology. A new federal intelligence report says domestic terrorism in 2021 could likely escalate with “support from persons in the United States or abroad.”[2] It’s why President Biden must be bold, focused and use all instruments of soft power to diminish the appeal of the ideology.


The confluence of a pandemic, bitter political terrain at home and abroad, emotional fatigue and deep fears of “The Other” is a context ripe for bad actors to recruit and radicalize. The worry is that if American leadership is not clear and decisive, we will allow a powerful dark era to take hold. The Biden Administration offers the U.S. a chance to finally develop a comprehensive, global approach that connects lessons from the past and amplifies new opportunities for a contemporary world where the threat landscape is shaped by “us versus them” ideologies; groups that manipulate religion, history and technology; influencers pushing the power of “purity” and ideological war fronts from the violent far right to the so-called Islamic State.[3] This requires creating an entirely new outlook, framework and organizational system.


Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) emerged circa 2006 as a soft power tool to help fight the ideology of extremists. But even with a clear understanding of the soft power capacity needed then (and since), the U.S. government still does not have all the necessary assets to win an ideological war. While it is hard to grasp why America’s soft power capacity is still lacking, it is important to state that CVE has never received the attention and benefit of resources given to a traditional war. Non-kinetic warfare is not unknown to us; and American power, innovation and creativity must be used forcefully as it is the best tool to confront the virus we face.


In my book, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat The Extremist Threat, I write, “Whether you define CVE broadly or narrowly, the discipline focuses on strengthening the fabric of local communities to resist extremist ideas, exposing youth to alternative ideas about identity and belonging, and putting a social, mental, and cultural system in place to support these efforts.” [4]


CVE requires deep listening, partnerships with local communities and investment in new networks of like-minded actors who can help reshape their own societies to reject the threat of bad actors who are luring in new recruits offline and online.


If America and our partners do not invest in the labor-intensive work of transforming the cultural and emotional ecosystem that informs how a person thinks about identity, we will fail. Identity and belonging are at the very heart of a person’s emotional movement to consider the narratives, ideology and value system of extremists. An advanced, smart CVE strategy is critical. It must include leadership on the mega, macro, micro and nano levels to form a holistic approach that changes the very ecosystem of how individuals and communities understand their identities and connectedness.


This may sound complicated, but solutions exist right now, and the Biden Administration has an extraordinary opportunity to use them. However, this new era is far more complex and demanding than previous times. Adversaries have also learned new tactics over the last 20 years, and their ideologies of hate and extremism are morphing into digitally connected, global networks to recruit and radicalize. Previously implausible threats like QAnon have become too dangerous to ignore.


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Solutions exist right now, and the Biden Administration has an extraordinary opportunity to use them.

QAnon is just one of the movements that have reshaped the American threat landscape. Like the so-called Islamic State, beginning as an unlikely enemy, QAnon is now pulling in ideological foot soldiers from all over the world (nearly 70 countries), and it may also bring them to America’s shores (i.e., as foreign fighters).[5] American white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-government movements and militias have all moved into sharper focus as “a serious and growing national security threat,” according to the Biden Administration.[6]


In asking for a threat assessment within his first 100 days, Biden has signaled the urgency he places on this issue. He has also used unambiguous language around all aspects of hate and extremism, mindful of the rule of law, freedom of speech, civil rights and civil liberties. He has spoken with empathy for victims of hate and has used his office to draw a clear line on the Capitol attack. Calling the perpetrators“ domestic terrorists,” he has sent the right signal to our citizens, national security establishment and the world. He is off to a great start.


But facing this unprecedented threat at home and recognizing the seriousness of extremist threats abroad, Biden must advance a larger, more comprehensive focus on the ideological terrain. He can do more than his predecessors did to make deep progress in changing the environment so that the ideology of hate and extremism is starved of oxygen to ensure that millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are protected. He can do this through advancing a smarter CVE strategy that looks at the current and future terrain.


A smart CVE strategy is one that includes:

  • Reorganizing government for the global ideological fight, including creation of a CVE “lead” for the inter-agency

  • Connecting efforts between domestic and international ideologies

  • Offering sticks and carrots to social media platforms, states and companies that create safer ideological environments

  • Developing predictive tools such as cultural listening [7]

  • Bringing mayors, governors, global alliances and other partners into the fight in a more connected way

  • Upgrading America’s communication prowess and building an advanced, 21st-century infrastructure of soft power

  • Taking recommendations from various CVE Commissions and Task Forces including the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s 2016 CVE Task Force Report [8]

  • Increasing the budget for soft power at home and abroad

  • Declaring clear objectives and success metrics on the ideological war

  • Filling in blank holes of knowledge (e.g. female radicalization)[9]

  • Building dozens of global networks of activists, social entrepreneurs and civil society organizations

  • Scaling what America has already invested in


The Biden Administration is likely evaluating what is possible and what it can learn from the past. There are important lessons from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, including going too slowly on CVE and not thinking big enough. However, the most important lesson is that Biden has to prioritize soft power. His Administration must sell soft power the way it is “selling” the vaccine. Every state across America can develop entire systems of influence to stop hate and extremism, for example. In America and abroad, nations can catalyze CVE programs (off-ramps, mental health support, former extremist PSAs, digital literacy and so on). It will not be enough to increase funding to some CVE grant programs; the Administration must reboot the effort, fix the lacking soft power infrastructure (the Global Engagement Center is no replacement for the former U.S. Information Agency, for example) and engage Congress. Soft power has hardly gotten attention from Congress over the last two decades, but maybe now that Congress was actually attacked, lawmakers may have a deeper interest in funding CVE programs at scale. Solutions are available and affordable right now.


We can’t win if we don’t activate all sectors; each town, city and state needs to take hate seriously. I know this firsthand. When I was asked to leave the National Security Council to join the Department of State to operationalize our concept of CVE more than 14 years ago, there was no one doing CVE at State, DHS or elsewhere. It was not popular, people’s eyes glazed over when talking about the ideological fight and there were no resources. We have come a long way. There is an entire CVE industry within government and outside of it.

But it has not reached its potential. Twenty years after 9/11, we must, finally, do all we can as whole of society. How We Win examines what government, business, social media companies, philanthropists and all of us must do together to defeat the extremist threat. It takes all of us.


Biden knows this new threat terrain. He also knows we have not done enough over the last 20 years because the results of our actions are evident. Hate and extremism is growing. A smarter, wiser and forward-leaning posture will make all the difference. Because the current soft power assets are outdated, now is the time advance smartly.


Government Organization

The U.S. government’s organization around CVE soft power is well-intentioned but disconnected, ad hoc and filled with small-scale programs that leave too many blind spots to the changing landscape. Part of the challenge has been the way it was organized after 9/11 and then tweaked over the years. This current structure is setting America back.


Biden needs to overhaul the leadership for the entire CVE portfolio, giving one person responsibility over a comprehensive, global, whole-of-society strategy that also coordinates a whole-of-government approach, encompassing the Department of State, Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Commerce, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense and Department of Education, among others. The CVE lead bears responsibility for the entire ideological threat landscape, and, like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that person needs to report to the President.


Government Infrastructure

CVE will not thrive if it lives as a stepchild of counterterrorism. Kinetic power and strategy are vastly different and must be treated this way. The Biden Administration must re-imagine the best way for soft power to accelerate across various dimensions. For example, are CT personnel, development personnel and public diplomacy personnel the right ground force? The current system of CVE has not produced results. We must ask why. We must be willing to change the old infrastructure to allow American might in soft power to thrive.


Partnerships