"Smart Power" Helping Guide U.S. Engagement Around the Globe

July 2010
Topics: International Relations
MITRE is currently helping the government create strategies and tools for advancing and integrating soft power and strategic communications.

When the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) sent the USNS Comfort to Latin America last summer, the hospital ship was on a mission to provide medical care to communities in need. But the mission had another purpose as well: to share the values of the United States and help gain support for U.S. policies.

As part of Continuing Promise, an annual humanitarian mission sponsored by USSOUTHCOM and other agencies, the Comfort spent four months deployed to Antigua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama, where it provided medical, dental, and civic programs for local residents. More than 100,000 patients received medical treatment—but what impact did it have on beliefs and attitudes about the United States? These are the questions the U.S. military is asking as part of a new focus on "Smart Power"—a combination of "boots on the ground" and "soft power," or acts of diplomacy and development.

Benefiting Defense, Diplomacy, and Development

"The kind of activities [the U.S.] will be getting into will be more about battles of hearts and minds as opposed to bullets and bombs," says Mark Maybury, executive director of MITRE's corporate initiative in Smart Power. "We have a very specific role: We need to help the government create strategies, methodologies, and tools for advancing and integrating soft power and strategic communications."

Maybury has set out to raise awareness at MITRE and in the government about Smart Power. A corporate speaker series, an internal wiki, an external Web collection, and a newsletter keep employees and sponsors up-to-date on the latest advancements in the field. These communication channels also detail the progress of related projects in "Measuring and Guiding Engagement," a "challenge area" within MITRE's internal research program.

"MITRE is advancing novel methods that take advantage of corporate expertise in information technology and the social sciences to enhance our mission expertise in intelligence analysis and operations for the benefit of defense, diplomacy, and development," Maybury says. "Can MITRE use our knowledge of these things to help the government understand both our allies and our adversaries—how they believe, what their attitudes are, how they're likely to behave?"

Maybury believes the answer is yes. The projects being funded in the new research challenge area include using natural language processing to monitor attitude and behavior trends, analyzing the comments threads of forums and blogs, and assessing citizens' beliefs and perceptions about natural disasters like pandemic flu.

Twitter Diplomacy

As for the Comfort, the mission's sponsors needed to know if their diplomatic efforts were making a difference. That's where John Henderson, a principal artificial intelligence engineer, came in. His research project, "Public Opinion Polling by Proxy," uses randomly collected data from Twitter, the popular microblogging site, to help the Navy gauge the diplomatic effectiveness of the Comfort's mission. By matching the demographics of Twitter posts to those of the Navy's public opinion polls—which are generally collected via telephone or during dockside interviews in the Comfort's ports of call—Henderson can build a model that will quickly predict the polls' outcomes.

"We need to understand how an effort is succeeding as it's happening, rather than six months later," Henderson says. "The quicker groups can get this information, the better they can serve the people they're trying to help—which of course also enhances the reputation of the United States abroad."

—by Tricia C. Bailey

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