Recognizing Outdated Power and Eliminating the Divide: Countering Terrorism through Smart Power

By Kagusthan Ariaratnam


Countering terrorism through “smart power” is a concept deliberated on creative thinking to combat one’s enemy, especially terrorists. This essay will examine the reconceptualization of traditional approaches toward counterterrorism, and discuss how ideologies from a western liberal democracy can respond to an unconventional terrorist ideology. To begin, the term “power” will be defined. Following, conventional “hard power” strategies and more lenient “soft power” strategies for confronting terrorism will be analyzed. A case study on the advantages of soft power strategies from personal experience will then be introduced. The combination of hard and soft power strategies, known as the “smart power” doctrine, will be discussed; but more importantly, how it can be applied as a counterterrorism strategy. Finally, the essay will reflect upon broader counterterrorism strategies and recommend new ideas to combat terrorism effectively.

Defining the Term “Power”

           The concept of power is defined by Robert Dahl (1957) as “[…] ‘A’ has power over ‘B’ to the extent that he can get ‘B’ to do something that ‘B’ would not otherwise do […]” (p. 202). This is a thought-provoking concept since Dahl’s explanation of power relations directly relates to the relationship between state institutions and an individual living within that state. To illustrate, a state institution could represent ‘A’ and an individual living under the influence of such a state could represent ‘B’. Through different forms of power, the state can get the individual to do what it wants. Since the state functions in a hierarchical order and since the state is more powerful than the individual, an individual would not know the motives behind the state institution. Therefore, the individual has no choice but to comply with the law and order of the state.

Max Weber (1946) viewed power as the ability to attain one’s desires in the face of resistance or objection from others. In this context, power is the exercise of a social relationship and always encompasses the communications of at least two parties (Lindsey & Beach, 2003). Weber used the concept of domination to refer to circumstances in which an entire group of people could be directed to comply with specific commands (Bartels, 2009; Weber, 1968). For example, in military, the high-ranking commissioned officers have dominance and authority, requiring, on some level, the acceptance of obedience. Non-commissioned members obey the commands of the high-ranking commissioned officers thereby acknowledging their dominance. Dominance is always an expression of hierarchy in that one group is stronger or can control the actions of another.

To further the concept of power, Patrick O’Neil (2013) argues that politics is the quest for ruling and making decisions that will affect the community. It is, therefore, hard to separate the idea of politics from the idea of power, since both involve the ability to influence others or impose one’s will on others (O’Neil, 2013). Politics is therefore the competition for public power, while power is the ability to influence and extend one’s will. Systems of power exist in a range of units: the government imposes its will on people; the commander of an army orders and directs their soldiers; the owner of a company manages their will on employees; a father undertakes his will on his family. Hence, political, or social power can often be interpreted as a form of force or injustice; but nevertheless, the exercise of power is accepted as rampant in society as it continues.

Hard and Soft Power in the “War on Terror”

Joseph Nye (2011) defines political or social power as the ability to influence others to get them to behave in ways that you want them to behave, either through coercion and/or payment (elements of hard power) or through attraction and/or persuasion (elements of soft power). Hard power apparatuses include intelligence, law, policing, and military control, which are important to safeguard a nation. Soft power instruments on the other hand include political, social, cultural, and economic control alongside broader policy initiatives dealing with the environment, development, critical infrastructure, migration, and humanitarian intervention in which a nation’s civil society plays a significant role.

Like communism, nazism, and fascism, terrorism – the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians in the pursuit of political aims – is an ideology (Cohen et al. 2016). An ideology must be fought with another set of counter-ideologies, rather than by swords and guns. It can be a religious ideology, ethno-nationalist ideology, or a secessionist ideology, as the great American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1966) wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” (p. 15). This concept is known as the “law of the instrument” and highlights the over-reliance of familiar tools, such as the use of military combat against enemies. Today, there is much ambiguity over how we should combat terrorism effectively when we face a multipronged and multifaceted ideological enemy.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as it exists within the context of the U.S. led “war on terrorism”, can eliminate some terrorist groups, religious extremists, and hard-core individuals through military combat, that is, the application of hard power. This will only achieve short term goals, however, in the long run, NATO will never be able to destroy the ambiguous Islamic ideologies, including but not limited to Wahhabism, Salafism, or Jihadism because an ideology must be countered by another ideology. In other words, NATO must utilize soft power. As Nye (2008) emphasizes, “in the information age, success is not merely the result of whose army wins, but also whose story wins” (p. 5). Thus, the United States of America, along with other western nations, should not engage ground troops or air strikes in the Middle Eastern region because regardless of the complexities and dynamics of sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the wider Middle Eastern region, the political and economic alliance of six-state Middle Eastern body is dealing with the conflict more strategically than the U.S. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman are dealing with the conflict of Islamic extremism as not only a political issue but a global security issue through a diplomatic approach. The GCC successfully draws the American-led West, who is desperately seeking a sphere of influence in the global arena, into this chaos and at the same time, the GCC nations are being very diplomatic with Islamic extremists. This is proven by the fact that, to date, there have hardly been any attacks by Islamic extremists in these wealthy GCC countries. The West, on the other hand, got caught up in the Crusade versus Jihad narrative of the Islamic extremists. In the eyes of the Islamic extremists, NATO is an enemy intruder, while the GCC states are a viewed as a sacred land and common ground.

Arguably then, the U.S.-led western nations should turn their political and diplomatic tables around toward soft power measures. They should focus on the extreme Muslims in the region. By doing so, the West can avoid the current struggle between Christians and Muslims, which reproduces extremist ideology. Moreover, they should allow for the training and arming of the GCC and the indigenous and local military forces for the purposes of combatting regional terrorism, thereby countering the enemy’s propagation of a Crusade versus Jihad narrative. Ultimately, the rest of the international community should craft a winning counter-narrative of their values and morals; that is, internationally portray and promote their belief systems of peace.

A Case Study: Soft Power in Action

           The idea of applying soft power in counterterrorism interests me because it relates to my personal experience. As such, I demonstrate the effectiveness of soft power by way of case study. When living in my country of origin, Sri Lanka, during times of ethnic conflict in the beginning of 1990s, I was manipulated and forced by the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization in the eyes of the world, to enlist in their militia. Kidnapped from high school and forced to fight as a child soldier with the Tamil Tigers, I rose quickly through the ranks to become an intelligence officer, working closely with the Tamil Tigers leadership. Having broken the Tamil Tigers’ arbitrary code of conduct by falling in love, I was blackmailed to work for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – the Indian government’s foreign intelligence agency. Fear and despair drove me to eventually defect to the Sri Lankan security forces in the summer 1995. In working with the intelligence services of the Sri Lankan government, I was implicated in the demise of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. I was a great asset and tremendous source of information for the government of Sri Lanka, having been a former naval intelligence officer who knew the modus operandi of the Tamil Tigers. In fact, I was willingly providing intelligence to India’s foreign intelligence agency, RAW, while still holding a position in the Tamil Tiger’s notorious intelligence wing.

I did all this because, throughout my childhood, I became indoctrinated with the south Indian popular culture; I had internalized the melodious music of maestro Dr. Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman. I felt a brotherhood with Indians. It is difficult for me to describe how crucially important music has been in my life. From the Hindu bhajans (devotional songs) praising God, to the sweet, romantic South Indian cinema music of Ilaiyaraaja and A.R Rahman, I feel that music has taught me and inspired me to hold a higher purpose. It has almost been like a drug to me, helping me to escape the sometimes unthinkable realities of my life and to hope and believe that other things were possible.

After I was forcibly recruited into the Tamil Tigers, I was not allowed to listen to cinema songs – the Tamil Tigers did not allow cadres to fall in love or listen to music or watch TV. Their doctrine being that “you are born to die, and you might as well die nobly as a martyr to your country, allowing no frivolity to distract you”. The subjects of the music that I listened to were mostly about romantic love, camaraderie, peace, and other things that were forbidden by the Tamil Tigers. Nonetheless, I would sneak away and listen to this music whenever I had the chance; and twice, I got caught. I did not care; nothing could keep me away from this melodious music that evoked profound emotion in me and to which its message of brotherhood and love spoke to me. When A.R Rahman’s first hit album ‘Roja’ came out, I could not resist secretly going to my home to listen to it. Rahman’s music is a beautiful combination of Western and Eastern fusion. When we would leave the camps, we would hear this music in the air and in the newspapers, reading from the sections on cinema and entertainment. I was tired of listening to Tamil Tigers’ news about war and death; I would try to distract myself by reading the papers and listening to this music, even though the militants had banned and blocked all sorts of cinema, songs, and other popular cultural and entertainment resources. It could even be said that the south Indian popular culture, especially the music, finally saved my life in a way more powerful than Tamil Tiger’s deliberate ideological brainwashing.

To maintain their totalitarian ideology and propaganda, terrorist organizations including the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have become cautious towards civil society, driven soft power instruments, such as, technology, social media, popular culture, and entertainment. They block these soft power avenues – that lead toward civil society – from the people under their control. This is the war that terrorists do not want, and cannot win. If only the West understood this, and began to fight it through soft power means, such as through the power of popular culture including music, as it served tremendously advantageous for me. In fact, music was paramount during the Cold War, as the Western soft power influences provided tremendous influence. Moreover, the soft power element of rock-and-roll music had successfully undermined the ideology of communism in the Soviet Union (McCarthy, 2011). The merit in soft power can certainly be argued; or else, autocratic, fascist, communist or terrorist ideologies would not seek to ban them so ruthlessly.

Getting Smarter for Counterterrorism

In higher academia, it is the Realist School of Thought that emphasizes hard power, especially the hard power of the state, while Liberal Institutionalist scholars emphasize soft power as an essential resource of statecraft (Wilson, 2008). Baylis, Smith and Owens (2014) explain that Realism has been the dominant theory of world politics since the beginning of academic international relations. Realism has a longer history in the works of classical political theorists including Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau (Baylis et al, 2014). Realism argues that states find themselves in the shadows of anarchy, and that their security cannot be taken for granted. Although we have seen heightened criticism of Realist assumptions since the Cold War, Realism continues to attract academicians and policy-makers in the dawn of the new millennium. Realism, that views the ‘international’ as an anarchic realm.

Baylis, Smith, and Owens (2014) argue that Liberalism is a theory of both governments within states, and good governance between states and peoples worldwide. Unlike Realism’s anarchic realm, Liberalism seeks to project values of order, liberty, justice, and toleration into international relations. The peak of Liberal thought in international relations was reached during the inter-war period in the works of idealists who agreed that warfare was an unnecessary and outdated way of settling disputes between nations. Liberals nonetheless disagree on fundamental issues, such as the causes of war and what kind of institutions are required to deliver Liberal values in a decentralized, multicultural international system (Baylis et al, 2014).

Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye (2007) refer to the combination of hard and soft measures as “smart power”, that is, “by complementing US military and economic might with greater investments in soft power, America can build the framework it needs to tackle tough global challenges” (p. 1). The National Counterterrorism Center (2016) defines “counterterrorism” as the practices, tactics, techniques, and strategies that governments, militaries, police departments and corporations adopt in response to terrorist threats and/or acts, both real and imputed. As counterterrorism increasingly becomes more complex and involves different dynamics, countries must rethink strategy and evolve ideas in order to approach the phenomena anew.

It is of paramount importance to reconceptualize our approaches of the past in order to end terrorism and prevent the propagation of such atrocities. We must identify the root causes of terrorism, including the feelings of injustice and inequality, ethnic and religious hatred, denied dignity and freedom, and political exclusion and repression. Terrorism, mainly driven by political motive, is a form of political violence. Therefore, it can be resolved through answering political grievances. To address political grievances adequately, we need to employ a combination of soft and hard power measures. Former American President Theodore Roosevelt relates to this: “speak softly, and carry a big stick”. In referencing foreign policy, Roosevelt (1913) explained that this involves: “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis” (p.522).

It must be noted that soft institutions and hard power institutions are founded within and exercised by different and distinct institutions, and therefore, the two concepts oppose one another (Aly et al, 2015). To illustrate, in the U.S., hard power apparatuses are founded within the Pentagon, while soft power institutions are founded within the State Department. Because hard and soft systems of power are not neutrally wielded, there exists the need for a central governing authority that exercises the “balance of power” when combating terrorism. It is against this backdrop that NATO should be responsibilized to address a unified method for combating terrorism effectively. There is an urgent need to come up with a new ideology.

Since hard power is inclined towards “Realism” and soft power towards “Liberalism”, the global community must strategize a “Realist-cum-Liberalist” doctrine to survive and succeed in this new global information age. Instead of thriving to survive individually within a state, nations must work in the pursuit of collective goals between states. Perhaps the ultimate solution to combat terrorism involves “One World” by ensuring geostrategic-cum-borderless “global village” for the modern citizens of the world (Ariaratnam, 2015). For instance, the Global South are known as the poor countries of the world including Asia, South America, and Africa, and are home to roughly five billion people who are living in extreme poverty. Thus, relationships around the world are not balanced (Shah, 2009). In fact, 80% of global resources are consumed by only one billion people – those who live in the wealthy and industrialized Global North countries, i.e. Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, and Japan (World Bank Group, 2010). Income inequality and poverty involve powerlessness and invisibility, producing shortages of money, basic nutrition, health care, education, freedom, personal autonomy. Although there are exceptions between the North-South, as a rule, states in the Global North are democratic and technologically advanced, have a high standard of living, and experience very low population growth (Ravelli & Webber, 2015). Is it fair or justifiable that developing countries must try to survive on only 20% of the world’s resources? Terrorism that is rooted in inequality is best combated politically, diplomatically, economically, socially, culturally, educationally, and religiously rather than militarily alone. This involves uniting the whole global community as one system.

Joseph Nye (2008) wrote the following just before President Barak Obama was elected – and after eight years and the end of two terms, it is very much relevant today at the dawn of another president entering the White House:

The next president must understand the importance of developing an integrated grand strategy that combines hard military power with soft attractive power. In the struggle against terrorism, we need to use hard power against the hard-core terrorists, but we cannot hope to win unless we gain the hearts and minds of the moderates. […] Right now, we have no integrated strategy for combining hard and soft power. Many official instruments of soft power—public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military to military contacts—are scattered around the government and there is no overarching strategy or budget that even tries to integrate them with hard power into an overarching national security strategy. We spend about 500 times more on the military than we do on broadcasting and exchanges. Is this the right proportion? How would we know? How would we make trade-offs? And how should the government relate to the non-official generators of soft power—everything from Hollywood to Harvard to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—that emanate from our civil society? (p.4)

The international community must utilize and balance its soft and hard power foundations when combating terrorism. Each nation possesses a unique and popular culture that is so rich and deep that it can be greatly effective against hard-core individuals, enemy organizations, and radicalization. This can also be applied in indoctrinating the target population. In his oldest military treatise in the world, The Art of War, published 5th century BC, the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, wrote that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” (Giles, 2007, p. 62). Thus, eliminating the will to fight and destroying the spirit of the enemy’s potential to fight is paramount. In other words, under the U.S military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, we must win our opponent’s hearts and minds.


To combat terrorism in today’s global information age through smart power, nations must apply both conventional hard power approaches and more tolerant soft power strategies. Countries should apply military and non-military strategies, including political, social, cultural, and economic control, together with broader policy initiatives dealing with the environment, development, critical infrastructure, migration, humanitarian intervention, broadcasting, and exchange programs. Here, a nation’s civil society plays a key role. Since western nations are confronting an unconventional and ideological enemy, they must plan, prepare, and execute an innovative and creative ideology. They must propose a winning counter-narrative to propagate and advocate their values and ideals. This is where the international community must come together to integrate the role of state intuitions and institutions of civil society. This is essential for the execution of smart power, paramount to winning the hearts and minds of the general populace in a collaborative fight against terrorism.


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