Not-So-Smart Power

Go ahead, Congress, cut away at U.S. foreign aid.


Joseph Nye is as gifted at branding as he is at thinking, teaching, and serving the public. He turned "soft power" (essential to "smart power") into a golden brand. In Washington, you know something has reached gold when the secretary of state wraps a "strategy" around it, as when Hillary Clinton, days before taking office, announced a "smart power" strategy with regard to the Middle East at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 13, 2009. Even higher is when a full-blown bipartisan commission is formed, as in the "Smart Power Commission" that Nye co-chaired back in 2007.

It has apparently now ascended high enough to provoke a war against it. So Nye contends in his recent article for Foreign Policy, "The War on Soft Power."

If there’s indeed a war on soft power, allow me to fire another salvo. There’s no question that important aspects of U.S. foreign policy — development aid, exchange programs, diplomacy — are "soft." But are they a part of "power"? If not, are they all that "smart"?

Cutting the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) does "serious damage to U.S. foreign policy" and can gravely "dent … the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad," wrote Nye in his article. "The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments."

Sounds right, even profound. But the deeper you consider it, the shallower it gets.

Early in 1981, as a new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I launched a computer tabulation to show the correlation between others’ receipt of U.S. foreign aid and their foreign- policy stances. I wanted to know: Did all that money buy America any love? The Neanderthal-era computer spewed its result: Nope.

Huge recipients of U.S. foreign aid — Egypt, Pakistan, and the like — voted no more in tune with American values than similar countries that received no, or less, U.S. foreign aid. Instead, their votes correlated closely with those of Cuba, which wasn’t a big foreign-aid donor.

That finding, surprising at the time, remains true. Four of the largest U.S. foreign-aid recipients today — Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — all take contrary positions on issues of critical importance to the White House. South Vietnam once got gobs — gobs upon gobs — of U.S. foreign aid. That didn’t help much. Likewise with Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Zaire (now the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo), and other "friendly" (read: graciously willing to take U.S. money) countries.

The conclusion seems clear: The relationship between "the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad," as Nye puts it, and the amount of U.S. foreign aid a country receives is unclear at best. For decades now, the United States has been the No. 1 foreign-aid donor — it has given the most money to poor countries — so it can’t move up any on that scale. But this hasn’t translated in making America the most popular or most influential country around the world. Quite the contrary.

Even the all-time No. 1 recipient of U.S. aid, Israel, rebuffs Washington constantly, on momentous issues of peace. Moreover, Israeli polls show the lowest approval for the U.S. president of nearly anywhere in the world.

Hence it’s hard to see what a "dent" in "the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad" would look like if Republicans in Congress did slice these countries’ foreign aid, as Joe Nye dreads. It might look like, well, much like it does today. Put bluntly, this aspect of soft power — foreign aid, by far the biggest in dollar terms, amounting to some $30 billion* a year — may not constitute much power at all.

The reason has to do with peculiar aspects of human nature. Giving someone a gift generates initial gratitude (often along with quiet gripes about why it wasn’t bigger). The second time, the gift generates less gratitude (and more such griping). By the third iteration, it has become an entitlement. The slightest decline engenders resentment, downing out any lingering gratitude.

But to soft-power advocates, this misses the point. Economic development aid isn’t about gratitude. It’s about, basically, economic development.

Does it work, though? It isn’t clear that the main recipients of U.S. foreign aid over the past 50 years — again, the likes of South Vietnam, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan — developed all that much. And what development may have happened there could be due to other factors.

Traditional foreign aid has the fatal flaw of going to, or through, governments. That spurs corruption; see big-time African aid recipient Zaire, with Mobutu Sese Seko leaving office a Warren Buffett-sized billionaire. Plus, we all know that government doesn’t create economic wealth or prosperity. Private businesses do, even in a strong-government country like South Korea in the 1970s and China today. Foreign aid raises governments’ role in a realm where it should generally be lowered.

And what of the other elements of soft power? Like Nye, I’ve long supported exchange programs. But I began wondering about it after learning that the chief theorist for radical Islam, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden — Sayyid Qutb — was an exchange student at Colorado State College of Education. He seems to have gone to Greeley, Colorado (of all places!) gentle and come out a flaming extremist. Likewise for the influential African radical theorist and political model, Kwame Nkrumah: He was an exchange student at Lincoln University, later to do enormous damage to African approaches to leadership and economic development by blaming the continent’s ills on colonialism and capitalism. And Mohamed Atta was an exchange student in Germany before masterminding and leading the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Granted, these may be rare exceptions, but they do cast doubt about the value of such exchanges.

The truth is that many effective exchange programs spring from hard power budgets, not those of soft power. During those recent dicey days in Egypt, we read daily reports of military-to-military, U.S.-to-Egyptian contacts to keep the situation there peaceful while easing President Hosni Mubarak out. Top Pentagon leaders — from the defense secretary to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down the line — were in touch daily with their counterparts, colleagues, and classmates from U.S. military academies, urging them to act responsibly. We don’t know what impact those contacts had on the Egyptian military brass’s decision to send Mubarak packing, but we do know it ended in success — a model of "the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad," as Nye would put it.

I didn’t hear of similar activities from soft-power agencies — past diplomats, USAID directors, agricultural-aid types — with their Egyptian counterparts. The only diplomatic initiative that got any public attention involved the gifted former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, who was suddenly dispatched to Cairo at Clinton’s request. But he, or she, made a real hash of it, for just as Obama had finally realized that Mubarak must go, Wisner publicly announced that Mubarak must stay — at least for a while, to provide stability in any transition. Not exactly a case study in smart power.

To his credit, even Nye admits that the line between soft and hard power is a blurry one, though he generally equates the former with the State Department and USAID budgets and the latter with the Pentagon. Yet the distinction breaks down pretty quickly, especially when you consider that many U.S. military activities have boosted America’s reputation and enhanced its influence abroad — more so than any diplomatic or U.S. foreign-aid event. The U.S. Navy’s quick, effective reaction to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, its timely assistance to Cyclone Nargis in Burma, its relief from awful flooding in Pakistan, and now its efforts in Japan have all been superb. What case studies from soft-power budgets that Joe Nye so desperately wants maintained could he use in his Kennedy School of Government classes to match these from the hard-power Pentagon budget?

Moreover, America’s prime soft-power agency may be too soft to be effective. Let’s recall: The State Department agreed to the Mubarak government’s request for its approval before any U.S. democracy programs for Egypt got launched. To put it simply, the soft-power agency consented that anti-dictator programs appropriated by the U.S. Congress first get approved by that dictator.

And recent Washington Post editorials have complained about the State Department being unable, or unwilling, to spend allocated funds on an effective freedom agenda. Its Feb. 5, 2011, editorial, for instance, included this astonishing fact: "Congress allocated $30 million in the fiscal 2010 budget for the State Department to fund Internet freedom. But 16 months later, none of the funds have been allocated." What’s not to like in such a mission?

The State Department has been reluctant, if not resistant, in helping modern-day freedom fighters in Iran, Libya, and Syria. This seems a no-brainer, as they’re all places of need. There should be none of the usual fears of offending the host government, because the governments of these three countries couldn’t be any more hostile to the United States or more ferocious toward their own people than they are now.

Besides resting on soft assumptions, emphasis on soft power may lead to soft thinking. Take Clinton’s hallmark "three Ds" of defense, diplomacy, and development. While Americans do defense and diplomacy, they don’t do development well. The United States can’t be held responsible for another country doing what’s needed to develop. By now, there’s a checklist of how countries can go from poverty to prosperity — low taxes, private property protected by law, restrained and limited government, solid currency, modern infrastructure, and attacks on corruption. But the State Department simply can’t do much to ensure these elements are done well.

I wish to end on a positive note, especially because Joseph Nye is such a fine person. He’s contributed enormously to the United States, always asking hard questions on conventional thinking. He surely would welcome the same on today’s fashionable thinking.

All this may boil down to a big difference. I’ve come to believe that liberals focus primarily on intentions, while conservatives focus more on results. No doubt the soft-power goals of the State Department and USAID on diplomacy, foreign aid, exchange programs, and the like seem wonderful. They’re peaceful, caring, intercultural, and so on. They signal the right intentions.

The hard-power association with Pentagon budgets, weapons, and soldiers seems quite contrary. They signal the wrong intentions. But looking at the actual results of soft power versus hard power may yield results that make today’s fashionable thinking seem soft, if not altogether squishy.

*Update, April 19, 2011: The amount for U.S. foreign aid was updated to reflect more recent data.

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