Stop saying ‘Hearts and Minds’, you don’t mean it

There is a terrible plague in public diplomacy and the War of Ideas / GWOT / whatever it’s called today.  This plague is the wholesale adoption of the phrase “winning the hearts and minds” without any real understanding of its history or meaning.  Taken out of context, as it is, “hearts and minds” shapes the view of “soft power” so often seen as the essence of public diplomacy. Ideational engagements are perceived as a way to increase how the United States is liked, loved, or at least attractive.  This is expected if you start from the false premise of “Why do they hate us?”

Steve Corman at Arizona State U has a good response to Foreign Policy blog’s Melinda Brower’s lament that we’re moving away from the beauty contest model of public diplomacy.  Brower was critical of Under Secretary Jim Glassman’s Washington Institute speech begins the return public diplomacy to its purpose: influencing people to not support our enemies.  Sure there’s an element of attraction in there, but it must not be the basis of or driving purpose for engagement, as it has been.

Driving Brower’s view of public diplomacy is the common adoption of the “hearts and minds” aphorism.  She should not be faulted for this view as, after all, everybody does it (well, not everybody).

Getting into somebody’s thoughts is not enough and getting into their hearts means little.  The “hearts and minds” mantra has come to describe only part of the struggle and focuses on increasing America’s likability or popularity as it looks for an answer to the question of “Why do they hate us?”

Unfortunately, most of those who invoke the H&M mantra seems to have little knowledge or appreciation for its roots and its true meaning.  H&M comes out of counterinsurgency doctrine.  General Westmoreland once said that if you grab the enemy by the balls, his hearts and minds will follow.  This was not correct, but today the saying has been completely decoupled from the persuasive, and sometimes coercive, tools that used to accompany it.  Perhaps a better way of thinking of “hearts and minds” is Teddy Roosevelt’s version of the same: speak softly and carry a big stick.

But even the quotable T.R. doesn’t give us the complete picture of what is needed today.  Should we speak softly today?  If so, what do we say? 

The more fitting phrase is a struggle for minds and wills.  This still gets to the thought process H&M does, but it includes the critical action element that’s missing from H&M.  We must get into the minds of foes, their base, “swing-voters”, our base, and our hard and fast allies alike.  Messages must be tailored for each, just as Obama and McCain tailor their messages for the target audiences in their pursuit of the Oval Office. 

Obama beat Hillary by, with, and through local efforts to changing opinions, providing alternatives, and generating action.  Why do we refuse to allow ourselves the same grassroots solution set for our national security?

But changing opinion is not enough.  It is essential to affect a person’s will to act.  Influencing our enemies’ (yes, plural) supporters to act, nor not to act, in the adversaries’ interest is essential.  It is just as essential to influence support for the American national interest, which includes active and passive denial of supporting our adversary as well as active and passive support of our interests. 

Changing someone’s will to act is the essential requirement today.  This is not a popularity contest.  And everything we say and do goes into the struggle for minds and wills.  Managing the “say-do gap” is critical and requires the informational effect be taken into consideration in what we do militarily, economically, and politically. 

The center of gravity today is not a single point but an informational ecosystem in which support systems targeted and relied upon by both the insurgent and counterinsurgent exist and propagate. These spheres of influence include physical (sanctuary), financial (money to buy things), moral (religious leader backing), social (friends and family), and recruits. The effectiveness of information campaigns today will more often dictate a victory than how well bullets and bombs are put on a target.  Success isn’t dependent on how likeable we are. 

Today, we must communicate not only with the individuals planting bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan, England, or Spain, but also to his family, the people who encourage the ideas that support insurgent and terrorist activity, facilitate the exchange and storing of money and weapons, as well as simply not report the presence of destructive elements in their neighborhoods, villages, or Diaspora. Insurgents fight for different reasons ranging from political ideology, religious beliefs, and pecuniary gain.  While disaggregation is not convenient for sound bites destined for U.S. domestic consumption, it is required to properly focus American policy makers, American public opinion, the posture of the military and other elements of civil-military operations, and even to manage perceptions of the enemy to deny him credibility.

As Jim said today, we must use the “tools of ideological engagement to create an environment hostile to violent extremism.”  Public diplomacy must return to an “arsenal of persuasion”, despite some the reticence of some who think it should remain the passive beauty contest that has marked much of PD since the 1980s (if not the 1960s). 

It is helpful that, as the Under Secretary said, Al-Qaeda’s ideology “contains the seeds of their own destruction.”  The War of Ideas (not a phrase I buy into, but it’s close enough) is “really a battle of alternatives.”  Actions to exploit this must be, at least in part if not in large part, based on activities conducted by, with, and through indigenous group members.  

We are not in conflict over hearts and passions, but a psychological struggle over wills and minds.  We must stop telling foreign publics what we want our own people to hear and focus on the minds and wills of a global audience.  The enemy is.  Unless we get our information house in order, the United States will remain virtually unarmed in the battlespace of today and the future.

To this end, I disagree with Steve’s comment that what the Under Secretary is saying “doesn’t fit the definition of public diplomacy very well” and that “we could legitimately ask whether that broader subject is really Glassman’s charge.” 

UPDATE from Steve: “Well, OK…what [Glassman’s] talking about does not fit most definitions of PD, which emphasize dealing with the image/perception of the country doing the PD.”

This is exactly my point on the neutering of public diplomacy of the last several decades. 

First off, we are in a global information environment, not a bifurcated U.S. and Other-than-U.S. information environment many wish.  Second, the charge of the Under Secretary is to be the lead in the government-wide communications effort in this global information environment.

In short, please everyone stop misusing Hearts and Minds.  Most people don’t understand it’s meaning and worse, it’s misleading and incomplete.