This week Hillary Clinton shared her vision for her role as Secretary of State. For the first time in a long time, I think we are hearing the sounds of an informed approach to conflict. Hillary said, “I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal.” These tools include military ones, but also economic, diplomatic, economic, political and cultural, she explained.
Those of us who have deeply studied the patterns of conflict, even those who have dedicated their lives to military sciences, have nearly universally arrived at the same realization that Clinton is pointing out. The awareness of “smart power” comes in stages and the affects of “smart power” are boundless.
The first stage is realizing the advantages of using multiple strategies. It also is an understanding that military power is but one of many sources of strength. To lean unevenly on it is as misguided as to avoid it entirely. A great strategist chooses from as many options as he has available. As Sun Tzu advised, “set multiple traps so that if the enemy does not step into one, he backs up into another.”
The second stage is gaining a new appreciation for the fact that mental warfare can be more important than physical warfare. Colonel John Boyd, who I believe will be come to be known as the modern Sun Tzu, dissected how to craft a mental strategy that “turns the adversary in on himself.” Great companies grow not by doing what their competitors can’t do, but rather by adopting a strategic stance that operates at the mental level so that competitors choose not to resist.
Finally, the last stage and the highest level of conflict is moral. All great military strategists – Sun Tzu, Boyd, Jomini, Clausewitz – have arrived at the same conclusion: that moral force can outweigh military force. This says that companies that adopt moral missions will beat those that serve just investors, that armies pursuing goals aimed at the greater good will beat those who fight for a few, and that countries which adopt more inclusive values will ultimately overcome those with more selfish intentions.
The United States has a compelling history that gives us opportunities across all three levels. We can win physical conflicts with the most powerful military in the world. We can win on the mental level with vast political ties and cultural volume. And on the moral level, if we choose to play this most powerful level of conflict, the United States has the ingredients of what could be an unbeatable moral stance. For many of us still stand for the pursuit of happiness and freedom.
I don’t usually like to take such strong political stances on this blog. But Clinton’s message strummed such historical resonance that I feel compelled to point it out. I believe that we have rushed to prove the strength we have, but have unfortunately overlooked our full arsenal of weapons. By opening that toolkit, the United States has unlimited possibilities.