Missed Opportunity or Futile Gesture?
David Axe, writing in the World Politics Review, examines the sobering problems facing the US military as it tries to retool for a world in which soft power is paramount:
The United States has a major perception problem in the two world regions where the Pentagon has decided to focus greater effort. Latin America and Africa represent new frontiers for a military that in recent decades has mostly concerned itself with Western Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. In addition to Fourth Fleet's recent launch, in October the Pentagon formally stood up Africa Command, a new headquarters overseeing all of Africa, save Egypt. The so-called AFRICOM has proved deeply unpopular among everyday Africans -- so much so that only one country, Liberia, offered to host the command's facilities. Rather than risk further alienating Africans, AFRICOM instead chose to keep its facilities in Germany.
Similarly, in the Southern Hemisphere, Fourth Fleet has been a magnet for criticism. Upon hearing of the Pentagon's intention to stand up the new headquarters, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez accused the U.S. of deliberately provoking a new "Cold War" in Latin America. Chávez followed up his accusation by inviting the Russian navy to conduct exercises off the Venezuelan coast. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa supported the invitation. "The U.S. Fourth Fleet can come to Latin America but a Russian fleet can't?" Correa said.
Seeing as the entire purpose of setting up the Fourth Fleet and Africom seems to be to present a more benign, constructive face for the United States, the hostility and suspicion is disappointing. But it's also understandable: throughout history, humanitarianism has long been a smoke screen for more nakedly imperialistic endeavors.
Given that fact, how does the US convince the objects of its wooing that it does indeed come to help? Better PR is probably not enough - it's the nature of the situation more than the publicity that is driving the suspicion, after all. There might be a role for more civilian involvement in running the programs and putting a different face on the military's actions, even on a day-to-day role. Or maybe the military needs to operate more in the background, helping and working with regional governments rather than directly with the populations. Or maybe the whole idea of soft power through humanitarian military work just won't work. Finding the answer, though, will have a big impact on the entirely of US relations with a whole continent.