After seven years of war, American foreign policy has become nearly synonymous with the brawny side of its military. But the US armed forces may now be moving to show a different face to the world.
Adm. James Stavridis is an unusual choice to fill a job usually held by the Army. In his two years overseeing US military operations in South and Latin America, he has built a reputation for running a different kind of command – deploying hospital ships and soccer teams while contending with drug trafficking and corruption.
Stavridis may be able to bring that balance to Europe, where deliberations over Afghanistan over the next few years will be critical to that mission's success.
"It's a terrific appointment," says Carola McGiffert, who chaired a commission on smart power for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "It's a recognition that although we may be the world's strongest power, we still need help from other countries to get things done."
Stavridis will double as head of US European Command as well as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO – a post once held by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. His first task is to work with NATO allies on Afghanistan.
European countries are still reluctant to send more troops to Afganistan. But there's some "wiggle room" in what they are willing to do there, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, which promotes transatlantic relations. If Stavridis plays it right, she adds, he might be able to get them to loosen some of the restrictions that govern the Afghanistan mission.
"It's a huge opportunity," says Ms. Stelzenmüller. But moving the admiral to Europe has to be more than window dressing, she warns. "Stavridis can't just stick new labels on old policies and expect Europeans to go along. But if he listens and asks for ideas, he can expect a lot of goodwill."
The nomination appears to be part of a softening of the American military approach overseas as the US attempts to reclaim its standing in the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is sending additional diplomatic officers to Afghanistan, and Obama and Congress have called for a three-fold increase in the amount of nonmilitary aid to Pakistan.
So-called soft power was first popularized by Joseph Nye, a former official in the Clinton White House, but it emerged as an antidote to the muscular foreign policy of the Bush administration around the time of the invasion of Iraq.
The concept of exercising power through diplomacy evolved into another hybrid term, "smart power" – defined as knowing when to use traditional military weaponry and when to use diplomatic or humanitarian tactics instead.
Stavridis dates his views on the use of military power to an incident that occurred when he was a tactical officer aboard a cruiser in the Arabian Gulf during the so-called tanker wars more than two decades ago between Iran and Iraq. When an Iranian fighter got dangerously close to his ship, Stavridis did not shoot the plane down, and it peeled off on its own accord.
"The incident comes back to me at times because it tells you that, in the world we live in, it's good to hold back on the key sometimes," Stavridis told The Monitor in 2007.
Stavridis's view could be likened to a dimmer switch that can be turned up to full power, where the full force of military might may be appropriate, but also "dimmed," when conditions call for less force or for nonmilitary resources such as development aid or humanitarian relief.
Not everyone has been happy with the military undertaking both traditional combat as well as humanitarian aid and development – as it has done in Iraq. The line between military operations and development operations traditionally carried out by the State Department or USAID has become too blurred, says Nancy Lindborg, head of Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization that does development work.
Defense officials have also said the military cannot do everything.
Supporters of "smart power" say its value is maximized when military and nonmilitary entities work together to achieve a common goal. Indeed, Mr. Gates has said that Stavridis may be able to improve coordination between Defense and State departments and USAID – government agencies whose cultures often clash.
One reason the Defense Department is carrying out nonmilitary missions it never did before is because these other agencies have been vastly underresourced over the years. USAID, for example, had nearly five times as many workers after the Vietnam war than it does today.
For Ms. Lindborg is simple: How should the US be viewed around the world? "Do we want to be seen as military or do we want to be seen as civilian?"
She calls for an expansion of nonmilitary funding for international departments and agencies.
"There is an extraordinary opportunity and support to plus-up the international affairs budget," she says.