Friday, April 13, 2007

The neglect of “soft power” in the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy

The pursuit of foreign policy objectives requires the use of hard and soft power. Hard power, of course, is the use of military force. It is unfortunate but sometimes nations have to resort to arms.

Soft power is almost everything else. Soft power is used around the clock in various forms to pursue objectives while avoiding bloodshed at the same time. The Marshall Plan is a good example. The investment in the rebuilding of Western Europe following WWII helped avoid the far more costlier conflict that was in the making had Europe been left in its devastated state. In fact, an argument can be made that the Cold War was essentially won in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan – from that point on the Soviet Union was on the decline.

“Foreign aid” is such a dirty term in American politics. In the past it has been a standard part of the script for populist demagoguery to denounce the billions given away to ungrateful foreigners. Yet the reality is the United States devotes very little of its resources to the international affairs budget that funds all U.S. foreign affairs spending including foreign aid. It is shortsighted to say the least. Given the state of affairs around the world one would think the U.S. government would want to use all resources available to it but what happens instead is increasingly our foreign policy is being pursued through the military. By limiting our options we tend to engage in actions that are far more costly and deadlier than if pursued through the use of soft power. It also skews your perspective of the world. Like they say, if a hammer is the only tool you have then every problem begins to look like a nail.

Rosa Brooks has this assessment in today’s L.A. Times:
… The international affairs budget funds all U.S. foreign affairs spending. It funds the State Department, for instance, and the Peace Corps and exchange programs that allow U.S. students to study overseas. It funds U.S. contributions to peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, and it funds all our foreign assistance to developing countries: food aid, disaster relief, agricultural assistance, military training, democracy assistance, polio vaccinations, AIDS prevention and everything else you can think of.

"Hmm," you're probably thinking. "The international affairs budget may be unloved, but I'll bet it's huge, because that's a lot of stuff to fund." If you suspect that it's a huge budget, you're not alone. Americans have a long tradition of suspecting that we have a huge foreign aid budget. In 1997, 64% of Americans told pollsters that they thought our foreign aid budget was probably the single largest area of federal expenditures, higher than spending on the military, Social Security or Medicaid. In 2001, another poll asked Americans to estimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to foreign aid, and more than half the respondents guessed that foreign aid accounts for about 20% of the annual federal budget.

In fact, the international affairs budget is a 98-pound weakling of a budget, a puny thing that regularly gets sand kicked in its face by the big bruisers over at the Defense Department. Weighing in at $36.5 billion for fiscal year 2008, the international affairs budget annually accounts for only about 1% of total federal expenditures. It's dwarfed by the Defense Department's 2008 budget request ($481.4 billion for baseline funding, plus another $141.7 billion for GWOT, a.k.a. the global war on terror). And those figures don't even count the cost of the war in Iraq, which has been financed almost entirely through a series of "emergency" supplemental funding requests, to the tune of roughly $100 billion a year.

Yet the international affairs budget is a crucial part of our national security spending. Societies racked by conflict, poverty, injustice, famine and disease make ineffective allies. They may provide havens for terrorists and global criminal enterprises. They offer prime recruiting ground for extremist groups. In our interconnected world, the money we spend on international affairs is money invested in our long-term prosperity and security.

Few political leaders dispute this, in principle. But tunnel vision and short-term thinking have turned our international affairs budget into the neglected stepchild of national security spending. In the mid-1980s — during the heyday of the Reagan era — the U.S. spent 15% more on international affairs each year than we spend now. Meanwhile, growth in military spending under the Bush administration has dramatically outpaced growth in all other foreign affairs spending, creating a striking imbalance. In 2008, we're set to spend roughly $20 on the military for every $1 we spend on all other international programs. Increasingly, we're focusing on war and weapons to the exclusion of all other foreign policy tools.

And the rest of the world has taken note. In January, a BBC poll found that around the globe, only 29% of people now think that the U.S. has a "mainly positive influence in world affairs," while 52% considered our influence "mainly negative."
You can read her entire column here.

No comments: