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Thoughts on the So-Called 'War of Ideas'

John Brown

"No matter how powerful our military is, we will not be powerful if we lose the war of ideas."

- Senator Joe Biden, soon after 9/11; cited in Ira Teinowitz, "Congress will support the war of ideas" (Advertising Age, 6/17/2002)

"We're in a war of ideas."

- Donald Rumsfeld, cited in Bill Gertz, "Rumsfeld pushes 'new sense of urgency'; 'War of ideas' needed to defeat the terrorists," (The Washington Times, October 24, 2003)

War has long been a term used by governments to mobilize their populations. In the twentieth century, for example, "war of ideas" was in circulation when referring to America's conflicts with Germany and Russia. Lately, this verbal construct, used off and on by a number of pundits and politicians since 9/11, has enjoyed something of a resurgence -- thanks to statements made by the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman.

Glassman's emphasis on the "war of ideas," for which he advocates the use of Internet social networking to discredit "violent extemism," has received, on the whole, a positive reception in the United States, with some exceptions; but should a "war of ideas," on or off cyberspace, be part of how we Americans determine our country's role in the world during the new millenium?

1. To understand the deceptive nature of the term "war of ideas," it helps to go back to Plato -- as Alfred North Whitehead famously said, Western philosophy is but a "series of footnotes to Plato." In Plato's Gorgias we gather from Socrates that persuasion is not dialogue, and indeed that rhetoric and philosophy are in a state of tension if not opposition. Following this train of thought, it becomes evident that Glassman's "war," by definition a win-or-lose conflict rather than an intellectual exchange, has nothing to do with ideas as such. It has to do -- and wouldn't terrorists find much in common with the Under Secretary's bellicose, unsubtle, hit-'em-hard approach? -- with changing behavior to advance one's interests: in other words propaganda, a weapon of war which, at its most rudimentary, appeals to atavistic emotions, not the inquisitive intellect.


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2. To suggest -- as Glassman's "war of ideas" does -- that violent extremists are capable of ideas is to give them intellectual credit that they seldom deserve. To be sure, some of the terrorists' statements are taken seriously in some societies, but that is because they inflame the spirits rather than enlighten the mind, for often regrettable but understandable reasons. And words, which in discourse are a vehicle for thought, are at most of secondary importance to terrorists. What they most believe in, as a means of getting their way, is the propaganda of the deed (the more violent the better), a phrase traced back to a 19th century Italian revolutionary. How ironic, then, that Mr. Glassman's predecessor, Ms. Karen Hughes, referred to "diplomacy of deeds" as a central part of her agenda, and that Dr. Condoleezza Rice, while teaching at Stanford, stated that "I tell my students that policy-making is 90 percent blocking and tackling and 10 percent intellectual."

3. Meanwhile, what, exactly, are our American "ideas" in the "war of ideas?" -- and, indeed, what are the ideas of the US-politically acceptable Middle East moderate "locals" who can fight the evil "them" for "us," to follow the contentions of Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy? To seek to define America through certain principles ("life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness") is all well and good, but to reduce the United States to a fixed set of ideas it "fights for" simplifies the complexity and changeability of the United States. In fact, what perhaps most characterizes the U.S. is that it contains a multitude of differing and evolving ideas, rather than permanent ideas everyone agrees upon. The notion of an American "war of ideas" is, therefore, an attack on ideas in the United States, as it implicity limits their infinite variety. As Mr. Glassman himself wrote in 1997: "Of course, not every new idea ... will be a good one. But the trial-and-error process of learning is essential to the progress and plenitude of American life. Whether in science, technology, business, or popular culture, we cannot know in advance which experiments will succeed. For a political class dedicated to technocratic planning, that is a scary idea."

4. In the long term, a crude propaganda campaign thinly disguised under the term "war of ideas" may in fact discredit the U.S. far more than its "enemies" by confirming what violent extremists claim -- that America is not truthful about what it does, what many in the world are predisposed to believe, given the Bush administration's hypocritical record in Iraq and elsewhere. As a noted scholar, known for not mincing words, informed me by e-mail, Glassman's war of ideas is simply "dumb." "Because," he explains, "the most subversive thing we can do is be ourselves, guilelessly and unapologetically. Wars of ideas are not our style." (He also notes, on a less idealistic level, that "as any poker player knows, you don't win the game by announcing that you are out to win the game." I would only add to this observation that seasoned propagandists, approve of them or not, know that the best propaganda is the least propagandistic: subtlety, not bombs or a loudly-proclaimed "war on ideas," is the best propaganda, especially in the long-term. Just ask the BBC.)

5. One of the most important articles to appear, a few weeks after 9/11, was by Douglas McGray in The Christian Science Monitor (September 26, 2001), under the headline -- "Don't Oversell an 'Idea War'" -- and with the following wisdom: "Richard Nixon ... declared 'war' on drugs ... Even earlier, President Johnson's administration declared 'war' on poverty ... These wars are 'ideas wars,' in which leaders appropriate the language of war to rally political support and signal big budget commitment. ... Meanwhile, the real fight against terrorism, an ongoing combination of thankless police and intelligence work -- more like like fighting crime on a global scale than waging war -- could get overshadowed."

6. Full disclosure: I was a public diplomacy Foreign Service officer during the Cold War and its aftermath (1981-2003), serving mostly in Eastern and Central Europe (Prague, Krakow, Tallinn, Kiev, Belgrade, Moscow). The Agency that provided me with a paycheck, the USIA (United States Information Information Agency), claimed to be engaged in a "war of ideas" with the Soviet Union (according to Washington headquarters, depending on the political season). Neverthess, I felt that my role "in the field" was not, directly (stupidly?) to confront Soviet-thug-thoughtlessness -- which had nothing to do with Marx, after all a serious philosopher -- but rather meet with persons, from all sides of the political fence and sectors of society, who were concerned with ideas, including about the human condition and America's relation with their country. My guide for these cherished meetings was far more Plato's dialogues than any official statements about the "war of ideas." And no one in DC headquarters ever bothered to fire me, perhaps because ideas are never considered that important in Washington to begin with.


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