The Battle for Hearts and Minds
Geopolitics connotes hard power, concerned as it is with the struggle over control of geographical space, a struggle that is primarily military and economic. Unsentimentality is the order of the day. Geopolitics and realism go hand in hand, therefore. Humanitarian aid would seem to have no place in this worldview. But that, as it turns out, is far too simplistic.
For power is also the power to persuade, and persuasion can take the form of winning friends, one village at a time. A policy that is purely military and economic has no idealistic component, and in an age of global media an idealistic component is required for credibility in the public space. In fact, foreign aid, as it came to be known during the Cold War, was a critical part of America's struggle against world communism. Building schools and roads, and teaching children how to read and farmers how to take advantage of the latest agricultural methods, was not merely altruistic; for it had the ulterior motive of demonstrating the superiority of America's values over those of its adversaries. When in 1961 President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, though his words were suffused with idealism, realpolitik was not far from his thoughts.
But the meaning of foreign aid has subtly shifted in the post-Cold War years. According to a commonly received narrative prevalent in the media, because communism has been vanquished, foreign policy is finally able to pursue idealistic ends untainted by realpolitik. Henceforth, foreign aid should be purely humanitarian, with minimal concern for whether or not it benefits U.S. national interest.
Ironically, this very altruism that abjures national interest has made America's foreign assistance programs not better but worse. Foreign aid is like any other organized pursuit: It requires a competitive mindset to excel. Aid workers must be aware of the ideological, philosophical and political opposition they will likely encounter in the field and prepare strategies to defeat it. They must learn to compete, in other words. That is the argument made by Nadia Schadlow, a program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, in an article in the journal Orbis. (Disclosure: I have received grants over the years from Smith Richardson.)
Schadlow explains that because the military thinks competitively and the foreign assistance bureaucracy does not, the military is far more effective than the State Department, with the result being the militarization of foreign policy. Counterintuitively, the way to reduce America's reliance on hard power is to get the foreign aid bureaucracy to adopt a harder, more competitive approach to its own soft power. If the aid community thought competitively, like the military and the intelligence communities do, it would be more effective in the field, and the militarization of foreign policy would consequently diminish. "The imbalance between military and non-military instruments of power is likely to continue unless civilian agencies develop approaches which account for the contested landscapes in which they function," Schadlow explains. She quotes an Australian government aid expert: "Aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political."
The most obvious kind of competition comes from religious extremism. Aid workers in Nigeria immunizing children from polio have been murdered by radical Islamists, who believe such programs are plots to cause AIDS. In Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador drug cartels target civil society programs. In Russia and Iran democratization programs are under attack. Of course, one might argue that some of these civil society programs are in the first place naïve, because of the flawed Western assumption that its aid workers and nongovernmental organizations can change the values of non-Western societies. But that is a partial truth only, since better, more competitive programs would still manage to make inroads in places where our current programs cannot. The Chinese certainly think that way. Joshua Kurlantzick, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the Chinese employ the soft power of aid in a decidedly determined and coordinated manner to advance their foreign policy and security goals.
Aid, in other words, is a form of political warfare, something that America's Cold War presidents well understood. That doesn't mean, for example, that you export democracy-building programs to every non-democratic country as part of a moralistic foreign policy that pays no heed to realpolitik. For there may be a few places where you will want to cultivate authoritarian leaders, and such programs would then undermine your strategic goals. Aid is not some politically neutral tool that operates separately from foreign policy -- rather, aid, as well as seeking to do good, must also advance a state's interests. And the more tough and competitive the aid mindset, the more likely it is to succeed.
We must stop putting humanitarian aid on a pedestal. While the geopolitical interests and moral values of a great power like the United States do not always overlap, most of the time they do, and therefore there is nothing debased or cynical about seeing civil and military power as two inextricable aspects of the same foreign policy machine. Indeed, efficient humanitarian aid requires language and other forms of cultural area expertise, which is also of use to the military. The military, meanwhile, uses operational and strategic planning processes to determine who the opponents are likely to be once soldiers and Marines hit the ground. The aid bureaucracy should do likewise. Each branch of foreign policy can assist and leverage -- and learn from -- the other.
Schadlow argues that while the conventional wisdom is that we increasingly inhabit a "global community," it is also true that we are in the midst of a "global argument," which pits historic Western liberalism against various forms of illiberal authoritarianism and reaction. The Cold War may be over. Communism may be dead except in a few places. But the battle to expand the boundaries of Western-style civil society goes on. Just because it may not be wise to impose democracy by military means, and just because we will always have to get along with regimes we do not like, does not mean that we cannot get smarter and more hard-edged about foreign aid. Progress in any field, when it does occur, is usually incremental.
As a journalist, I have witnessed how the Pentagon aggressively tackles problems and pursues policies in its bureaucratic interest, while the State Department evinces a more passive and bureaucratically tongue-tied approach. Face it: the militarization of foreign policy was not only the result of decisions taken by the younger Bush administration, or even of a State Department starved of funds. It was also the result of the thoroughly undynamic mindset of Foggy Bottom. Rather than have the military become softer, the State Department has to become harder. That's the real road to soft power.