The War on Soft Power
Even the U.S. military doesn't want to cut the State Department and foreign aid budget. So why is Congress playing a dangerous game with America's global influence?
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress struggled until the 11th hour to agree on budget cuts that would avert a government shutdown. The United States’ budget deficit is a serious problem, and there have been serious proposals to deal with it, such as those by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission. But last week’s efforts were not a serious solution. They were focused solely on the 12 percent of the budget that is non-military discretionary expenditure, rather than the big-ticket items of entitlements, military expenditure, and tax changes that increase revenue. Yet while last week’s cuts failed to do much about the deficit, they could do serious damage to U.S. foreign policy. On Tuesday, the axe fell: The State Department and foreign operations budget was slashed by $8.5 billion — a pittance when compared to military spending, but one that could put a serious dent in the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad.
The sad irony is that the Obama administration had been moving things in the right direction. When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, she spoke of the importance of a "smart power" strategy, combining the United States’ hard and soft-power resources. Her Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and her efforts (along with USAID chief Rajiv Shah) to revamp the United States’ aid bureaucracy and budget were important steps in that direction. Now, in the name of an illusory contribution to deficit reduction (when you’re talking about deficits in the trillions, $38 billion in savings is a drop in the bucket), those efforts have been set back. Polls consistently show a popular misconception that aid is a significant part of the U.S. federal budget, when in fact it amounts to less than 1 percent. Thus, congressional cuts to aid in the name of deficit reduction are an easy vote, but a cheap shot.
In 2007, Richard Armitage and I co-chaired a bipartisan Smart Power Commission of members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers, and heads of non-profit organizations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. We concluded that America’s image and influence had declined in recent years and that the United States had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.
The Smart Power Commission was not alone in this conclusion. Even when he was in the George W. Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Congress to commit more money and effort to soft-power tools including diplomacy, economic assistance, and communications because the military alone cannot defend America’s interests around the world. He pointed out that military spending then totaled nearly half a trillion dollars annually, compared with a State Department budget of just $36 billion. In his words, "I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power." He acknowledged that for the secretary of defense to plead for more resources for the State Department was as odd as a man biting a dog, but these are not normal times. Since then, the ratio of the budgets has become even more unbalanced.
This is not to belittle the Pentagon, where I once served as an assistant secretary. Military force is obviously a source of hard power, but the same resource can sometimes contribute to soft-power behavior. A well-run military can be a source of prestige, and military-to-military cooperation and training programs, for example, can establish transnational networks that enhance a country’s soft power. The U.S. military’s impressive performance in providing humanitarian relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian earthquake in 2005 helped restore the attractiveness of the United States; the military’s role in the aftermath of the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami is having a similar effect.
Of course, misusing military resources can also undercut soft power. The Soviet Union had a great deal of soft power in the years after World War II, but destroyed it by using hard power against Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Brutality and indifference to just-war principles of discrimination and proportionality can also eviscerate legitimacy. Whatever admiration the crisp efficiency of the Iraq invasion inspired in the eyes of some foreigners, it was undercut by the subsequent inefficiency of the occupation and the scenes of mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Smart power is the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the soft power of attraction into a successful strategy. U.S. foreign policy has tended to over-rely on hard power in recent years because it is the most direct and visible source of American strength. The Pentagon is the best-trained and best-resourced arm of the U.S. government, but there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Democracy, human rights, and civil society are not best promoted with the barrel of a gun.
It is true that the U.S. military has an impressive operational capacity, but the practice of turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done leads to the image of an over-militarized foreign policy. Moreover, it can create a destructive cycle, as the capacity of civilian agencies and tools gets hollowed out to feed the military budget. Today, the United States spends about 500 times more on its military than it does on broadcasting and exchanges combined. Congress cuts shortwave broadcasts to save the equivalent of one hour of the defense budget. Is that smart?
It sounds like common sense, but smart power is not so easy to carry out in practice. Diplomacy and foreign assistance are often underfunded and neglected, in part because of the difficulty of demonstrating their short-term impact on critical challenges. The payoffs for exchange and assistance programs is often measured in decades, not weeks or months. American foreign-policy institutions and personnel, moreover, are fractured and compartmentalized, and there is not an adequate interagency process for developing and funding a smart-power strategy. Many official instruments of soft or attractive 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.
The obstacles to integrating America’s soft- and hard-power tool kit have deep roots, and the Obama administration is only beginning to overcome them, by creating a second deputy at State, reinvigorating USAID, and working with the Office of Management and Budget. Increasing the size of the Foreign Service, for instance, would cost less than the price of one C-17 transport aircraft, yet there are no good ways to assess such a tradeoff in the current form of budgeting. Now, that progress may be halted.
Leadership in a global information age is less about being the king of the mountain issuing commands that cascade down a hierarchy than being the person in the center of a circle or network who attracts and persuades others to come help. Both the hard power of coercion and the soft power of attraction and persuasion are crucial to success in such situations. Americans need better to understand both these dimensions of smart power.
Nowhere is this more true than on Capitol Hill. While Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have spoken about the importance of soft power, they do not have to face the American electorate. As a friend in Congress once told me, "You are right about the importance of combining soft power with hard power, but I cannot talk about soft power and hope to get re-elected." The defense budget affects almost all congressional constituencies in the United States; the budgets for State and USAID do not. The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments. For example, when Gates and Clinton recently agreed to transfer an aid program from the Pentagon to the State Department, the program’s budget was cut in half. And now, Foggy Bottom faces cuts across the board.
Congress needs to be serious about deficit reduction, and it also needs to be serious about foreign policy. The events of the past week suggest it is serious about neither.