Rethink Washington's 'War of Ideas'


Jun 2, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on June 2, 2009.

We need not 'defeat' detrimental ideas. Rather, we should aim to make bestsellers of the ideas that bolster our cause.

The term "Global War on Terror" is now out of favor in the government lexicon, and new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske wants to end the use of the phrase "War on Drugs." It's not that opposing terrorism or drugs is no longer important, or that operations will be substantially changed. But how we talk about things matters.

The words we use not only communicate certain things to others, but shape how we think about them ourselves. Both "wars" have been criticized because they gave offense abroad, in part because it was rarely clear exactly who was and who was not being warred on.

In need of relabeling (and rethinking) alongside "war on terror" and "war on drugs" is the similarly tired phrase "war of ideas." This "war" is implicitly related to the "war on terror" and is shorthand for our desire to curb ideologies of radical, violent extremism.

Of course ideas matter. But wars are fought by the military. Ideas don't fight each other.

The most effective way to persuade people to adopt a new point of view is not to attack their current perspective. Ideas can compete, but the logic such competition follows cannot be accurately characterized as "war."

People receive and wholly or partially accept, reject, or ignore ideas. They modify their preexisting views by adding acceptable aspects of a new idea. Contradictions and conflicts between ideas are worked out in people's heads or in public (or private) discourse with others — not on a physical battlefield. Removing the martial metaphor could reduce implied antagonism and polarizing pressure to be "either with us or against us."

A further problem with "war of ideas" is that it camouflages the nature of the thinkers involved. Wars traditionally involve two antagonists. In the "war of ideas" these are usually imputed to be "us" versus "them," where "we" are the noble proponents of peace, freedom, love, democracy, and Western values and "they" are the spiteful extremist ideologues who advocate violence and hate.

Even if we move past these simple implicit caricatures of the two sides, we've ignored the "battlefield" — the minds of the people of the world, the audiences, the perceivers and believers — the very people we hope to win over. Effectiveness in this policy area requires attention not only to the ideas and those who perpetrate them, but to those who might come to accept them and be influenced by them.

An ideal metaphorical analogy would not be militaristic, nor would it mischaracterize the process or its participants. Instead we should seek to be active participants in the "marketplace of ideas." A marketplace of ideas allows for competition and for a desire to promote the "sale" of ideas that support our objectives and it respects the role of the "buyers" in the marketplace: the citizens, populations, and publics who we hope will come to share ideas consonant with ours.

Thinking framed by this analogy allows shoppers to "buy" bits of ideas from multiple sources and assemble their own holistic set of perceptions and beliefs, while finding their own ways to resolve contradictions. We need not "defeat" detrimental ideas. Rather, we aim to make bestsellers of the ideas that bolster our cause. Customer feedback will let us know when potential buyers don't like what we're selling. Unattractive products will fade away as their market share decreases — without anyone engaging them in battle.

The marketplace metaphor innately suggests many approaches to resolving ideologically based policy barriers that we have already discovered: a focus on understanding foreign audiences and debates, recognition of the two-way nature of communication, the importance of truth and credibility, and the benefits of free press and freedom of expression.

New foreign policies would gain broader acceptance if more thought and effort were put into how their explanations will fare in the marketplace of ideas. For example, as we revisit US policy toward Cuba, we need to be sure that our stance communicates what we intend to Cuba, to our domestic audience, and to the rest of the world. If our explanations are unpalatable, we should pause to reconsider our motives, our policy, or our justifications before proceeding.

It is important to remember that we do have enemies participating in this marketplace. But we can still actively oppose our enemies and their harmful ideas without letting the way we talk about doing so insult consumers of those ideas or the actual processes by which ideas spread and change.

Christopher Paul is a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that aims to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

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