David Holdridge | (Informed Comment) | – –
The current debate between liberals and the Trump Administration on American soft power abroad is not being framed correctly. Liberals should be arguing for more American citizen engagement overseas rather than for maintaining and extending into the future a dependency on USAID and the State Department.
Since World War II, America’s influence overseas has become dependent on two forces, working in tandem. One was our military ability ( aka, Hard Power) to keep sea lanes open, protect treaty partners from external threats, and stall or prevent disruptions by adversaries meant to interrupt American economic eminence.
Without question, there have been flaws in America ‘s performance — sometimes or perhaps even often, tragic flaws. Nevertheless, Pax Americana arguably allowed post-War Western Europe to flourish and it contributed to peace and prosperity for Japan, South Korea and some ASEAN countries as well.
The second force is America’s soft power (a term coined by diplomat/scholar Joseph Nye), which has entailed the purveyance of American values overseas; to be that ‘city on the hill’ for aspiring citizens of foreign countries worldwide. This power is diffuse and includes everything from cultural exchanges to cross-border knowledge transfers to overseas relief and development programs — often financed by the State Department (USAID) and implemented by large American Charities.
And, yes, this presumption of influencing and developing the world according to the American narrative has also been shamed by our own domestic behavior on issues like race, as opposed to our ideals. But, in the main, ‘America as Beacon’ still persisted.
Few experts in International Relations question that both Soft and Hard Power are critical to American led global stability.
Now…in the most threatening ways since WW II, the purveyors of Soft Power overseas are having their legs knocked out from under them. Whatever resonance they had for teaching and encouraging ‘Right Relations’ and ‘Rights’ is fast disappearing in light of what is now emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The current messages of fear and exclusions throughout our national community not only serve to rip America apart but also destroy the possibilities of our foundational values finding roots outside our borders…a grave issue for the ultimate security of America as well as for nation states and their citizens across the globe.
In effect, those humanitarian efforts which are managed by USAID, an agency within the executive branch of government and tied to prevailing government policy, are left with no credible platform from which to preach traditional American values. Those contractors and charities which are dependent on funds from USAID are similarly compromised.
With the aforementioned in mind, I — as someone who spent 40 years overseas as that ‘purveyor’ of American values — want to laud the current effort of those private charitable agencies who have removed themselves from their dependency on the executive branch and implement their work solely on the basis of direct citizen donations.
It was always a slippery slope for overseas charities to use a US government entity like USAID for sustenance not only for reasons attached to the partisan management of such but equally for the ever growing bureaucracy and associated costs assigned to the humanitarian effort overseas.
David Holdrige is the author of the memoir, The Avant Garde of Western Civ. He spent thirty-five years working with humanitarian organizations amidst populations suffering from war, exploitation, and impoverishment, including assignments in West Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. From 2010 to 2012, he directed an advocacy effort in Washington D.C., which argued for significant transformation of the current systems and approaches of American assistance abroad. He received the Prize Americana in 2015 for his memoir. He served as Middle East regional director for Mercy Corps, as the Vietnam director for Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Hanoi, and as regional Director for the Balkans & Middle East of Catholic Relief Services, among other development-related positions. He was wounded in Vietnam while serving as a platoon commander.