Friday, June 17, 2005

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Unsung examples of U.S. soft power

A common meme among foreign affairs cognoscenti across the policy spectrum is that the U.S. needs to do more to improve its public diplomacy and "soft power" activities. This is a nice assertion to make -- I'm sure I've made it myself -- but it usually overlooks the fact that the U.S. government already has a lot of programs that try to advance this goal. We just don't hear about them all that often.

The Chicago Tribune's Mary Ann Fergus has a front-page story on one of these programs:

In a vanguard California high school, Nazifa Jafary organizes her digital portfolio on a laptop, writes poetry based on class skits and calls her teachers by their first names.

Students eat, drink and break out in song during classes, and Nazifa studies it all with warm green eyes and a ready smile.

Now, none of it surprises her. Not even the girl with the house key dangling from her loop earring.

Nazifa is one of 13 girls and 26 boys from Afghanistan who have studied in U.S. high schools this year. They are the first group of foreign-exchange students from Afghanistan to come to America in more than 30 years, and their year here is coming to an end.

Nazifa's serene expression changes as she considers describing her days as a sophomore at High Tech High International to the folks back home.

"Even if I told them, they might think that is not school," Nazifa says, shaking her head and laughing. "They would think you would have gone somewhere else."

Just as her new life begins to feel normal, Nazifa prepares for home. The students, here through a U.S. State Department program called Youth Exchange and Study, are to return to Afghanistan in late June....

The students will become members of an alumni program, also sponsored by the State Department, in which they can share their experiences and work to improve their country. In August, another group of 40 Afghans, including 19 girls, will begin to study in America.

Read the whole thing. One interesting and unanticipated side-effect of the program has been the effect it has had on the different Afghan representatives:

While the program's main objective was to expose Afghan students to American ideals and education, it also built unity within the group, which represents six provinces in a nation with long-established divisions. To prepare for America, the group spent a month in Kyrgyzstan, where they bonded, regardless of gender or ethnic background, before going to places like Southern Pines, N.C., and Longview, Wash.

Click here for more information on the State Department's Partnerships for Learning, Youth Exchange and Study: "During academic year 2004-2005, 450 students joined the program from: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel (Arab Community), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, West Bank/Gaza, and Yemen."

posted by Dan on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM


dan, this is an unrelated topic, but why haven't you posted on the downing street memo? it is clearly important, but you seem to avoid it. why?

posted by: unrelated topic on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

I think the presumption here is soft power efforts have the goal of creating goodwill towards the US. If that's the case, the efforts are misdirected.

The great wars of the 20th century stemmed in large part from The Kaiser, Hitler, Tojoi, and Stalin, from misjudging American power and resolve. We're difficult people to understand, and misunderstanding us has grave consequences. Saddam being another example of one who misjudged.

One of my big problems with the pre911 Bush was his self deprecation e.g. his comments on his GPA at yale. Humor doesn't translate and would be almost unintelligible to someone like Bin Laden.

The world has often misjudged us as frivolous people. They misunderstand we're slow to anger but once roused, we will retaliate with extreme force.

I believe the Mayor of Hiroshama wrote a letter to Saddam at the start of Gulf War I explaining this aspect of our character.

I always felf Kerry's War's of Last Resort doctrine really meant only fighting Wars of Retaliation and would result in just such a response... we wait and do little, but when attacked, react with extreme prejeduce (Apocylpse now).

Big reason why I voted for Bush second time around and Bush's doctrine of Democratic revolution.

posted by: Bill Baar on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

In otherwords, we don't need a soft-power doctrine to make the world like us. We need a soft-power docrtinte to let the world understand how we think and make decisions. The great risk is not the US misunderstanding the world, it's the rest of the world misunderstanding the US.

posted by: Bill Baar on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

These programs are great. I recruited for one of these in Belarus 5-6 years back. The students that came back were so excited to have gone and to talk about thier experiences and how America was different from what they thought. There are all kinds of programs like this, and I think that they make a difference in the long run. I used to work in Ukraine with youth NGOs and Civil Society programs and I like to think that some of my old kids made a difference in the Ukrainian revolution.


posted by: Bart on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

We also need a soft power exchange program for within the United States. Crazy? Bear with me here.

Urban liberals have a grossly disdainful view of Red America that amounts to flagrant disrespect of everything from resource-based industry to hunting to religion, and then act surprised when their attempts to influence policy within rural America (e.g. wilderness protection) fail so spectacularly. To take one example, wilderness protection in rural Minnesota would by now have a majority of the local public supporting it, if urban-based environmental groups had not insisted on litigating every last land-use and recreational detail because they distrusted and/or disrespected local intentions.

Rural and suburban conservatives are convinced that the cities are amoral and even cartoonish recreations of Sodom and Gomorrah where they will get mugged or contaminated if they dare venture. They operate a bit differently from the liberals but just as counterproductively in this regard -- they have simply retreated from central cities partly because their original base has moved away rather than trying to recruit the new residents and keep political competition going, so we end up with urban governance that stinks for the same reason communism stank.

I have lived and worked on both sides of the divide, and I am increasingly convinced the two are in need of the same kind of familiarization as people from different parts from Afghanistan.

posted by: Daniel on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

Dan, thanks for providing that story. I just finished an email begging my congressman to support that program in any way he can.
Soft power is sadly underestimated in the US. That program, for example, can improve the US's global standing, educate people in other countries that need to understand what America means by "freedom" and "democracy" the most, and gives those people a better chance of reaching high government positions because they had a better education than many of their peers.

Hard power is limited by the fact that it can only be used for so long, and it can be exhausted if not regulated extremely carefully. Hard power almost always causes resentment, which is the last thing America needs right now. The wonderful thing about soft power is that it helps America reach its objectives and it makes us look better in the eyes of other nations, even if those nations do not want America to reach those objectives. Plus, soft power can be used almost indefinitely and to any degree. That is the exact type of program that America needs.

posted by: Chris Edwards on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

The "Soft Power" thing is indeed a theme in american policy. I can't remember going softly ever producing any particularly good effect. "Soft Power" ussually seems to mean unfocused. "Soft Power" is not particularly effective in gaining respect abroad for Americans. Look at Aid to Eygpt. Moving decisively and being fully informed does. The two things do not go together in american policy. There really is a big bubble around the US. Time again, americans blow it, not because they are nasty or greedy but because they do not inform themselves. The middle east is a fine example. In the ME we have to two things that one would think would interest the foriegn service: a propensity for a massive war and a huge amount of oil. When 9/11 happened there was a disgraceful lack of arab speakers in Washington. There probably still is. We didn't know anything about Iraq at the beginning. I know two people who studied Iraq. When GW said it would be quick war they burst out laughing. People outside the US find this sort of ignorance pervasive in the US and very insulting.

posted by: exclab on 06.17.05 at 09:43 AM [permalink]

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