Air Force Colonel John Boyd (1927-1999), “the fighter pilot who changed the art of war,” was a key military thinker in the last decades of the 20th century. His energy-maneuverability theory revolutionized fighter tactics, and his famous “Patterns of Conflict” briefing has deeply influenced two generations of military strategists.
Public Diplomacy is an instrument of U.S. “soft power.” Yes, it “tells America’s story to the world,” but it aims for something deeper – explaining American policy, government, society, and values in order to advocate cooperation, common effort, coalition, or alliance – and to demonstrate the mutuality that must underlie treaties and international agreements.
Since 9/11, it has become clear that it is not enough to “counter” violent extremism or disinformation. The task is larger — to present “better ideas” and visions that attract support for U.S. goals. America’s overseas Public Diplomacy practitioners know this well. So did fighter pilot John Boyd. He focused on “we” and “why.”
In a recent article, Marine Corps Major Ian T. Brown explained: “. . . before an adversary ever entered the equation, a nation needed a powerful sense of what it was about, and what it sought for itself in the future. This went back to Sun Tzu, whose placement of ‘know yourself’ before ‘know your enemy’ in his famous dictum was no accident. A modern paraphrase of ‘know yourself’ is ‘why we fight,’ and Boyd observed that in the most difficult struggles, a powerful ‘why’ was needed.”
Colonel Boyd described a “unifying vision” as “a grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm.” It should, he argued, enable “individuals as well as societies [to] shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances” while it “offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems.”
. . . for success over the long haul and under the most difficult conditions, one needs some unifying vision that can be used to attract the uncommitted as well as pump-up friendly resolve and drive and drain-away or subvert adversary resolve and drive. In other words, what is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries.
Moreover, such a unifying notion should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon . . . . Put another way, we are suggesting a need for a supra-orientation or center-of-gravity that permits leaders, and other authorities, to inspire their followers and members to enthusiastically take action toward confronting and conquering all obstacles that stand in the way. . . . [slides 143-144]
Boyd’s prose has a military and Cold War flavor, but the State Department’s Public Diplomacy officers and the broadcasters under the U.S. Agency for Global Media understand – indeed, feel — the value of a vision. There is, however, a new challenge. What we call “partisanship” in U.S. politics is, in my judgment, just one dimension of a nation no longer agreed on its vision (not to mention, its history). In the 1960s, American historians judged that American progress was based on “consensus.” Now, however, many Americans no longer agree on what an American vision “is” or “ought to be.”
And that’s a topic for another day. For many more days, actually. In the meantime, think through the counsel of a fighter pilot.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.