Obama’s Smart Power Surge Option

President Obama’s speech at West Point, outlining the way forward on Afghanistan and Pakistan, was followed three days later by two important events underscoring the president’s view that “our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms.” He conveyed a new smart power view of security that “derives from our people [including] … Peace Corps volunteers who spread hope abroad, and from the men and women in uniform who are part of an unbroken line of sacrifice …”

On December 4, General Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.), former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), addressed an audience celebrating the tenth anniversary of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD). He pointedly noted that hard power alone cannot fight terrorism; economic and social factors of terrorist populations should be addressed. He further noted that empowering faith-based approaches “is a tremendous asset to inform the ways we mediate and find common ground … to figure out what the other side of smart power means.”

Recognizing that educational reform is critical, ICRD to date has empowered about 2,300 Pakistani madrassas administrators and teachers with enhanced pedagogical skills promoting critical thinking among students, along with conflict resolution through interfaith understanding. Evidence of success is mounting as the program fosters local ownership reasserting Islam’s fundamental teachings of peace and historical contributions to the sciences and institutions of higher learning—a rich history that was misappropriated by extremists who took over a significant number of madrassas using rote learning laced with messages of hate.

Earlier the same day, President Obama’s newly minted Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, himself a former Dominican Republic Peace Corps volunteer, received high marks from former Senator Harris Wofford—a JFK-era architect of the Peace Corps—and hundreds of NGOs and volunteer leaders at the “International Volunteer Day Symposium.”

Director Williams has embraced a new “global service 2.0” style leadership committed to championing Peace Corps volunteers alongside a growing corps of NGO, faith-based, new social media and corporate service initiatives. Wofford, who co-chairs the Building Bridges Coalition team with former White House Freedom Corps Director John Bridgeland, spoke about the present moment as a time to “crack the atom of citizen people power through service.”

The notion of a “smart power surge” through accelerated deployment of people power through international service, interfaith engagement, and citizen diplomacy should be quickly marshaled at a heightened level to augment the commander-in-chief’s hard power projection strategies outlined at West Point. 

According to successive Terror Free Tomorrow polling, such strategies of service and humanitarian engagement by the United States have been achieving sustainable results in reducing support for terrorism following the tsunami and other disasters from Indonesia to Pakistan and Bangladesh. Lawmakers should take note of these findings, along with the evidence-based success of Johnston’s ICRD Madrassas project (which, inexplicably, has not received federal support to date, in spite of its evidence of marked success in giving Pakistani children and religious figures critical tools that are urgently need to be scaled up across the country to wage peace through enlightened madrassas education and interfaith tolerance).

A growing coalition of now over 400 national organizations is amassing a “Service World” platform for 2010. They have taken a page out of the incredibly successful Service Nation platform, which Barack Obama and John McCain both endorsed, creating a “quantum leap” in domestic service through fast track passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act signed into law by the president last spring. Organizers hope to repeat this quantum leap on the international level through a “Sargent Shriver Serve the World Act,” and through private-sector partnerships and administration initiatives adapting social innovation to empower service corps tackling issues like malaria, clean water, education and peace.  

With the ICRD Pakistan success, a rebounding Peace Corps and the Building Bridges Coalition’s rapid growth of cross-cultural solutions being evaluated by Washington University, the pathway to “the other side of smart power” through service, understanding and acceptance, is being vividly opened.

A Brookings Global Views paper further outlines how multilateral collaboration can be leveraged with other nations in this emerging “global force for good.” It is a good time to reflect on all this as we approach the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps next year in Ann Arbor, where on October 14, 1960 President John F. Kennedy inspired students to mount a new global service.  

President Obama’s call to global engagement in Cairo in June, which ignited the announcement of Service World later that same morning, now demands a response from every citizen who dares to live up to JFK’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” along with our young men and women preparing for engagement at West Point.