The Future of Power: Increasing Soft Power and US Foreign Policy on Democratization, Education, and Humanitarian Development

There were several sources critical to my philosophies: the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), The Washington Quarterly (TWQ), The Economist, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, McKinsey Insights, The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), and its publication, Foreign Affairs.

Comments made today will be in brackets.

On May 1, 2003, after the initially successful invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush declared, “Mission accomplished.” However, after 9 years of bloody war, 5,000 American lives lost, nearly $1 trillion spent, and hundreds of Iraqis dead as a result of sectarian violence, the U.S. lost much legitimacy and Iraq remains in a fragile position today.

Right now, our foreign policy is so-so, but far from ideal. We were hesitant about the Arab Spring and urging dictators to leave power. We put increasingly heavy economic sanctions on Iran that mostly hurt the ordinary people and redoubled its resolve towards building a nuclear bomb (though it has delayed their program considerably). [It is worth noting, however, that the sanctions, in tandem with the collapse in oil prices, forced Iran back to the negotiating table for our current agreement.]

The same applies to North Korea. We have mostly ignored Iraq as prime minister Nouri Maliki has increasingly consolidated power. Similarly, we have mostly ignored the political situation in Afghanistan, which faces a heavily corrupt and illegitimate government, and favor dealing with the military over the civilian government in Pakistan. We still levy economic sanctions against Cuba for completely outdated reasons. We’ve stressed aid in Africa, which holds mixed success over concrete measures in economic development. We’ve treated Israel like a 51st State while giving Palestine a cold shoulder. To the President’s credit, foreign policy right now is substantially better than it was under Bush, but that is no justification to be complacent.

There are a myriad of opportunities to increase the level of soft power in U.S. policy. Doing so poses a number of advantages. First, multilateral consensus will be significantly easier than it would be with more hard power measures, especially with the EU and Turkey in cases involving the Middle East. [Spoiler alert: Turkey isn’t such a great partner anymore.] Second, such actions would grant the U.S. much legitimacy, helping it regain lost footing from the Bush years and the disastrous unilateral invasion of Iraq. Third, unlike some of the hard power measures, soft power is more likely to achieve concrete results, though its achievements will come more in the long term than overnight.

The Middle East is the principal place to put such policies to the test. In Iran, blanket sanctions that hurt the populace should be abandoned in favor of targeted sanctions over Iran’s leadership, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and strict controls over nuclear technology. The U.S. can promote democratization by highlighting human rights abuses in Iran and offering political training to opposition parties in places such as Turkey.

Eventually, Iran would overreact in stifling dissent and will see the legitimacy of its theocracy fall. The U.S. would optimally get the EU and Turkey on board with such policy, for they prefer a less hard-line approach and would like to see a more moderate Iran. Russia and China, wary of potentially unleashing their own domestic resistance, would be more hesitant, but would welcome the lightening of sanctions. Although many Iranians do favor their nuclear program, they are less likely to produce a bomb and would respond more predictably to economic incentives. At the same time, the U.S. should push for replacing uranium with thorium as nuclear fuel, which would reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation. Should time run short, they can turn towards legitimate hard power measures such as Stuxnet. Thankfully, economic sanctions have bought us several years of time to make democratization work.

In Syria, the U.S., in tandem with the EU and Turkey, should once again lighten sanctions on the Syrian populace while maintaining targeted sanctions. They can give more recognition to the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups, while providing political training through groups such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The U.S. should also encourage the opposition to include Christians and Alawites into a post-Assad regime in order to peel off support from al-Assad. Meanwhile, they can threaten to indict Assad officials with war crimes unless they defect by a set date, say August 15. Should a united Syrian opposition support military intervention, that could be considered, but with care not to invoke sectarian tensions.

In Israel and Palestine, it is high time for the U.S. to demand some accountability. The U.S. should condition aid on a concrete, long-term moratorium over building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, decreasing income inequality of Palestinians living within Israel, and promoting overdue electoral reforms that would decrease the clout of ultra-orthodox and right-wing parties that obstruct lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. On the Palestinian side, the U.S., once again in tandem with the EU and Turkey, should spearhead economic development in the region, building schools and economic infrastructure in both the Fatah and Hamas controlled regions. The U.S. should also drop sanctions on Hamas over the condition of recognizing Israel as a state.

In Iraq and Egypt, the U.S. can promote democratic accountability by once again conditioning aid over the lack of authoritarianism. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and Maliki can be openly condemned for any consolidation efforts, and political training can again be given to legitimate opposition groups.

While the Middle East is a central area where the U.S. can do more to project soft power, it is not the only place. The U.S. can also take urgent action in Afghanistan and Pakistan to ensure that stability does not fall apart after withdrawal in 2014.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. could do well to decentralize the democracy in Afghanistan in order to improve legitimacy. Right now, power is incredibly skewed towards the presidency, while the judiciary and parliament mainly act as rubber stamps. Governors are appointed by the executive branch, while decrees are often imposed by the president Hamid Karzai. Many provincial governors act as quasi-warlords, with little or no accountability by the executive due to the cost of invading these provinces.

The U.S. can take advantage of the considerable governmental structures of local shuras, or councils, to deliver a more localized democracy rather than the current potent mix. At the same time, they must build a robust economic and educational infrastructure. Aid must also be utilized more efficiently: most aid currently goes through private contractors, which are often inefficient because much of the money is siphoned off in administrative costs. The U.S. can provide aid to local NGOs and local governments with a clean record in allocating money, subject to regular reviews by the Government Accountability Office [which evaluates fraud].

In Pakistan, the U.S. must engage in the civilian government far more often and discourage patronage networks and overall corruption. The U.S. cannot tolerate and should openly condemn extra-constitutional coups such as military takeover or illegitimate judicial activism. Military aid should be conditioned on a guarantee by the Pakistani military not to tolerate or even actively goad militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

On the civilian side, an international escrow account would be beneficial, in which funds would be available upon the completion of reforms such as economic/educational infrastructure and subject to independent inspection. Aid can again be doled to local NGOs and governments with good track records.

The U.S. can also encourage considerable tax reform, which is notorious for providing little revenue. Tariffs for cotton and textiles, Pakistan’s core industry, could be feasibly lowered. Most importantly, the U.S. must address the root cause of Pakistani intransigence: its paranoia over India. [side note: negotiations had a real chance of succeeding in 2004–2007 before they fell apart.] The U.S. should encourage negotiations over the disputes of Kashmir, and encourage partnerships among businessmen in India and Pakistan to promote bilateral trade.

In Africa, aid has produced mixed results. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations and other major donors have dramatically decreased the potency of infectious diseases such as malaria, and also increased maternal health and overall life expectancy. However, Africa has huge levels of debt and its economy hasn’t been doing spectacularly. One way to promote economic development is to increase trade with the continent. The U.S. could provide low-interest loans, subject to anti-corruption measures, to build economic infrastructure such as bridges and ports. This would allow for bigger ships to visit African ports rather than sloops that invite piracy. It would also allow the U.S. to compete with China over a potentially lucrative new market.

Finally, the U.S. will have a strategic pivot to Asia as its complicated relationship with China grows. In North Korea, the U.S. could provide food aid and lift blanket sanctions to help out its suffering populace. The U.S. could also coordinate North Korean escapees to provide a unified message over how much better life in the outside road is; it can simultaneously encourage the donation of used laptops and other equipment that can allow for greater information about the outside world and erode the legitimacy of the dictatorship.

With China and ASEAN, the U.S. could promote adherence to UNCLOS over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. It could start by passing the UNCLOS treaty itself, which has come under fire from the Republican opposition. The U.S. should loosen intellectual property requirements to make negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnerships more feasible. While encouraging China to let its currency appreciate, the U.S. should tread carefully because China’s generous status as a creditor contributes to historically low 10-year yields on U.S. bonds.

On the domestic side, the U.S. should make draconian cuts in defense spending while increasing its budget in diplomacy. Right now, the U.S. spends more on defense than the next 25 countries combined, and most of those next countries are our allies. The U.S. could also take care to increase spending in cyberdefense rather than expensive fighter planes.

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While soft power isn’t 100% effective, the U.S. can do so much more to repair its image and provide concrete results that would enhance national interests, national security, and simultaneously improve the lives of millions and even billions.


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