A Hard Stance on Soft Power: The Future of American Foreign Aid Initiatives

In the aftermath of the September protests at diplomatic missions across Northern Africa and the Middle East, it is not difficult to say that the perception of the United States abroad does not lend itself to connotations of popularity.

Image courtesy of US Department of State, public domain.

Whether these attacks were spawned as organised terrorist schemes, or were purely organic reactions to the viral anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, the ease at which willing crowds descended into the chaos of rioting is indicative of the presence of strong anti-American sentiments in the region.

For most, this animosity towards symbols of American imperialism is not surprising. The swill of foreign policy blunders in the last decade has increased global tensions, with the neo-conservative agenda embedded in the Bush Doctrine and American exceptionalist theories under harsh criticism. The stigma of the unilateralist aggressive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has been detrimental to foreign perceptions of American idealism, as the post 9/11 hawkish anti-terrorism policies have evidently perpetuated a certain vulnerability, marking the United States as an aggressor and ideological opponent to many groups on the global stage.

Is it not, then, strategically essential to the success of any future of foreign policy initiatives for the United States to improve its image abroad? Obviously there is no clear solution to the dilemma as presented, though stimulating a dialogue on the importance of American soft power is perhaps crucial to the future of the United States as a global hegemon.

In 2007, Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage co-chaired a bipartisan commission on ‘Smart Power’ formed of members of Congress, retired military officials, former ambassadors, and philanthropists from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. It concluded that the evident decline in the international perception of American image and influence was correlated with the post-9/11 shift in the tone of foreign policy rhetoric, as policy decisions began to invoke tones of fear, retaliation, and aggression rather than a democratic hope and optimism.

In his analysis, Nye recognises the difficulty in distinguishing between hard and soft power politics. While foreign aid initiatives are generally considered a function of the State Department, the U.S. military forces illicit much credit for the emergency humanitarian relief mobilisation commissioned by President Bush after the 2005 South Asian earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami. There is, however, no denying the ability of the Pentagon to undercut diplomatic initiatives with conflicting military agendas.

How, then, should the United States attempt to improve its image in the international arena?

When Hillary Rodham Clinton assumed the position of Secretary of State in 2009, she echoed Bush-era Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, endorsing Nye’s doctrine of smart power, advocating breaking the American reliance on hard power and integrating more soft power strategies of diplomatic coercion and attraction into policy initiatives. This approach, however, would require large Congressional support in order to allocate the necessary funds to the State Department.

In 2011, the United States spent roughly 500 times more on military spending than on broadcasting and exchanges combined, making unpopular military intervention the most audible platform of the United States. Soft power spending and diplomatic initiatives thus remain obscured by the dominance of the defence budget.

In response to election-time political pressures and the events of this anti-American Arab fall, the State Department launched a proposal to allocate an additional $450 million to promote democratic establishments in Egypt. Facing adversity in the House, this proposal highlights the de-valuation of soft power in contemporary American politics. Unwilling to support the State Department’s proposal in the aftermath of the attacks in Libya and riots across the region, opponents of this plan only perpetuate this cyclical impasse that now plagues US foreign policy.

Now that anti-American sentiments are established, American institutions abroad will continue to face political adversity and, in some cases, threats of violence. If policy makers continue to respond only with fear and manifestations of strength through military offensives instead of soft power and diplomatic initiatives, will the resistance and threats not continue to expand?

To assume that increases in State Department spending would immediately improve perceptions of the United States abroad would grossly oversimplify the complex historical, political, and socio-economic conditions in the Arab states. However, to continue to overuse military power will likely only yield negative effects if efforts to improve the American image are abandoned. The payoffs of soft power initiatives will likely not be felt in the short term, and may very well be held secondary to certain military imperatives. If the United States is to continue to act as the leader of the international arena, however, such an investment may ultimately be necessary in maintaining any sort of order in the anarchic state system, as rising tensions, increased radicalism, and competitive states only make threats to United States security more realistic. The paths before US policy makers are certainly varied in their ratios of hard to soft power policy priorities, though it does appear that the failure to make the necessary investment will only spawn the demise of American hegemony in the long run.