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So Much for Soft Power

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 14, 2011

U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (L) (R-WI) looks at a copy of U.S. President Barack Obama's 2012 budget with ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen (R) (D-MD). (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (L) (R-WI) looks at a copy of U.S. President Barack Obama's 2012 budget with ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen (R) (D-MD). (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

According to the Washington Post’s analysis of the deal on spending cuts agreed to between President Obama and Congress, one of the hardest-hit areas will be the State Department. In particular, the cuts will come down on foreign aid programs, including the Peace Corps, educational exchanges, and economic assistance programs designed to help fragile governments in the developing world.

Of course, every Cabinet agency can make its case why it should not bear the brunt of cuts. But what is so difficult, and disconcerting, about these cuts, is that the impact will show up for years. In fact, because some of these State Department programs do not produce quick results, and have a limited constituency among U.S. voters, they are probably easier to cut. But the cuts will do major damage.

Indeed, these public diplomacy programs, like educational exchanges and even the Peace Corps, are some of the best long-lasting investments in U.S. soft power abroad. Over the years, a wide range of foreign leaders have come to America as students, from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines to Mikheil Saakashevili of Georgia. Though at the time, they were just students, later in life, as they ascended the political ranks, their formative experiences in the United States often made them more pro-America, and capable of understanding U.S. policymaking theories and priorities. Saakashevili, for one, has repeatedly credited his time in America for molding his worldview and shaping his policymaking regarding both the United States and Russia.

Similarly, the types of cultural exchanges and student work programs like the Peace Corps help create the person-to-person ties between Americans and people in other countries that help the U.S. to ride out ups and downs in foreign policy with other nations. During the Cold War, many of these programs were vital in promoting American culture, ideas, and even policies in Eastern Europe; but, in the 1990s, the Clinton administration, seeing no major global threat, cut many of them. That was a mistake, and after 9/11 the Bush administration ramped up public diplomacy once again. This resurgence had mixed results – the Bush administration’s policies were not exactly helpful – but the new spending on public diplomacy at least laid the foundation for a new generation of foreign students and intellectuals interacting more closely with the United States. To cut that now would be mortgaging the future in many ways.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Michael Calder

    I read a recent survey that showed that the average American believes that foreign aid makes up 24% of our annual budget. Foreign aid is also the only budget category that a majority of Americans favor cutting. If they only knew that it makes up such a small portion of the budget, there would not be calls from the populist right wing to cut foreign aid to the bone.

    It is extremely short-sighted as your article points out. It seems to me that foreign aid does so much more than the things you mentioned. Doesn’t foreign aid buy goodwill among the consumers of a nation? If the U.S. continues to be the biggest supporter of the Filipino people, won’t the Filipinos continue to prefer American goods? Should we let the Chinese occupy a position of greatness in the eyes of the Filipino people?

  • Posted by Tim

    Here’s a scary account from a former Peace Corps volunteer:

    http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-555608

  • Posted by RousseauC

    As long as CIA get obssessed with drone attacks, dropping bombs worth tens of thousands of each, Americans are going to lose, not win, more hearts and minds.
    As long as TV networks are obssessed with Donald Trump, instead of smart people like Joe Nye, the US is not going to gain any soft power.
    As long as the White House believes that air strikes and arming the rebels, which will cause more deaths in Lybia than what it claims protecting civilians, will solve the problem, it means White House does not know soft power, or even the smart power Hillary Clinton likes to talk about.
    The US is setting a bad example of spoiling its power.

  • Posted by Daniel Florian

    While I fully agree with your argument, I am not sure about using Saakashvili a positive example of exchange programs etc. His recent crackdowns on the opposition show that he did not take all aspects of American democracy to heart!

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