Preventing Terrorism: A Case for Soft Power

By Chertoff, Michael | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Preventing Terrorism: A Case for Soft Power


Chertoff, Michael, Harvard International Review


Since its establishment five years ago, the Department of Homeland Security has played a pivotal role in mobilizing the efforts of the United States government to prevent and deter terrorists and other dangerous people from attacking the country. These efforts have yielded positive results: By any fair measure, the United States is safer and more secure today. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the threat posed by terrorism has entirely disappeared or has ceased to be of critical concern. In the words of the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, "[W]e face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years." In al Qaeda and like-minded organizations, the United States and its allies confront a relentless and resourceful adversary rooted in a violent, extremist ideology. Its adherents continue to wage war against civilization, including mainstream Muslims, while seeking to harness further the power of modern technology and globalization to achieve dominance and far greater destructive capabilities in the future.

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Consequently, it is imperative that over the next decade, the United States, in concert with its friends and allies, retain every option at its disposal and apply every available tool or strategy where appropriate against this threat. Certainly that includes the effective use of military options when necessary as well as other tools that may reduce the ability of terrorists to carry out attacks. Most importantly, however, in order to prevent the growth of terrorist groups themselves, the United States must pursue strategies to win nations and peoples to its side. Use of such "soft power"--a term coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye--can help the United States and its allies reduce the appeal of terrorist organizations and deter individuals from joining them.

A Multi-Faceted Fight against Terrorists

The use of military action in recent years against the terrorists has included deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan and combating al Qaeda in Iraq. During this time, the United States and its allies have also acted to frustrate three key enablers of terrorism--communications, finance, and travel. They continue to intercept and disrupt communications and actively work to freeze the assets of groups and individuals that support terrorism. When it comes to travel, the United States employs three key strategies: collecting limited bits of commercial information in order to identify travelers warranting closer scrutiny, screening incoming individuals through biometrics, and building a system of secure travel documentation through the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Taken together, these measures constitute a layered approach: deterring terrorists from entering the United States, capturing or killing them before they embark on the journey, and stopping them during their travel.

Unfortunately, such measures, while necessary, will likely leave us short of a lasting victory in the safeguarding of the country. To prevail, we must not only work hard to prevent terrorists from attacking, but we must also expend equal effort to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place. That requires addressing the two major factors that are driving the growth of terrorism in the 21st century: the continued presence of failed political and economic systems in parts of the developing world, and the emergence of violent Islamic extremism as the most visible competing ideology for those mired in that dismal status quo.

The True Nature of the Fight

Given these two factors, the course ahead should be clear. The United States must fight not only the extremists, but the ideology of their extremism. It must stand firmly against malignant ideas which can only cause further poverty, degradation, and hopelessness by turning the clock back centuries. It must offer the alternative ideals of liberty and democracy, ideals which have brought more progress to more people over the past few centuries than in all the prior centuries combined. …

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