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The Need for New Support in the International Conflict of Ideas


This is a response to an article from January 2018 that was getting long, so I decide to make its own post.

Losing the Information War and How to Win – Small Wars Journal, 1/9/2018

A look at US government efforts in positive information conflict. This article specifically looks at efforts to counter violent extremist ideals in Islamic countries and what the US is or is not doing. It compares efforts over the last 16 years to the Cold War and US Government efforts to differentiate the US’s side with USSR/Communist side.

While the author brings up some good points, there are a few problems with this article. It doesn’t bring up the whole picture. ISIS messaging is only a small fraction of the information conflict facing US ideals. Second, it assumes the US Government will work together on ideas. That is rare, if ever done. Third, ideas are great but selling them to a culture where the leadership does not support them may lead to further authoritarianism – see the Arab Spring.

Lastly, and most important, what is the financial incentive? Versus the USSR, the US economy wanted USSR to buy Coca-Cola and McDonalds. Glasnost was a win and opened up huge markets. What is in the current information conflict for US corporations? They already deal with multinational corporations from these companies. The battle is removed from them. The US government is in this battle alone.

It is only on a physical front that US corporations see the benefit of US international government operations. Keeping open straits and trade routes are the biggest international gain corporations see from the US government (tax incentives being the biggest gain domestically). But the burden of the defense budget mostly on the shoulders of the American workers, why should corporations care about US messaging? Although they grab headlines, local terror attacks are small potatoes and acceptable risk for large, multinational corporations.

Check out this 1989 Pepsi ad, for example.

The first line: “when America introduced Pepsi” gives the US government credit. It insinuates that America and Pepsi worked together. Of course, corporations rarely work with anyone unless there is money to be gained – as there was in the USSR market.

The dances and movements of the youth are clearly Western themed – rock’n’roll, unique hairstyles, casual slang. That is what America was known for.

Now things are a lot different. On the surface, hip-hop is now the predominant US youth culture, not rock’n’roll (there are still many Americans who are not ok with that, by the way). Pepsi and Coca-Cola and even McDonalds – our biggest cultural representatives, are losing ground every year to more healthy options. Not only is their market share diminished, but so is their positive hip image. If anything, they stand for America excess, not American coolness.

So what US companies can fill their position as the flagbearer for American culture? Starbucks, Ford trucks, Apple? These companies are already operating across the globe and do not need America to open doors for them. There will be no Apple ads saying “when America introduced the iPhone to Nation X”. Globalization already broke down those doors.

If no companies can fit the bill, then what is the US government left with? Selling democracy without capitalism? That is selling ideas and selling ideas is very, very difficult.

Maybe the answer lies in sports. Watch this short video on girls skateboarding in Afghanistan.

The video emphasizes “confidence, creativity, and self-expression” – the same attributes seen in the Pepsi ad.

But the skateboarding video has two major differences: 1) it focuses on one of the most maligned minority groups in the world – young girls in third world Islamic countries. 2) it is not tied to any sales. As a matter of fact, it is tied to opportunity for personal growth and education.

That is why I am optimistic when I see nations come together in the Olympics as North and South Korea did this year. Sports is a common barrier breaker where people can keep their culture, don’t feel like they are being exploited, and it doesn’t cost much to create.

If corporations can’t help us sell equality and opportunity, perhaps sports can. Perhaps the answer is the US Government working with the NBA, NHL, and international soccer leagues to create an international force for peace. I don’t know if this is already being done, but has to be more effective than tweets about “rocket man” and nuclear war.

Unfortunately, international NBA superstars such as LeBron James have to defend themselves against hack talking heads who tell them to “shut up and dribble”. But that’s a post for another day.