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US power abroad: Development, ‘soft’ power, and Washington conservatives

AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib
The U.S. Flag flies at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. President Joe Biden on Tuesday night will stand before a joint session of Congress for the first time since voters in the midtem elections handed control of the House to Republicans.

There is no denying that many conservatives have soured on what they perceive to be the wishy-washy nature of the “soft power” that, more often than not, has been wielded as a reproach to policies adapted during the Trump administration, which sought, as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it in his recently published memoir, “a bold and unapologetic reassertion of American sovereignty and national interests in our foreign policy.” What is forgotten in the fight over the term is that, when coined in the 1980s by Harvard University political science professor (and later assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Clinton administration) Joseph S. Nye, Jr., it was not intended to be prescriptive — much less a liberal cudgel — but descriptive.

In a seminal 1990 essay, Nye worried about the ability of great powers like the United States to shape the global environment, given the changing issues in world politics. It is worth recalling these were the heady days when even a flinty realist like the late Charles Krauthammer had penned an article entitled “The Unipolar Moment.” To this end, Nye proposed “soft power” — defined as getting other countries to want what the great power sought — in “contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” Nye even went so far as to argue: “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eye of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow. If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change. If it can support institutions that make other states wish to channel or limit their activities in ways the dominant state prefers, it may be spared the costly exercise of coercive or hard power.”

This is where Daniel Runde, a veteran of the World Bank and the George W. Bush administration’s U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), takes up the argument in his new book, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power.” Runde, now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), does not eschew the diplomacy and defense legs of the tripod of the “three Ds,” but does focus on his chosen field of development, believing that “America’s long-term interests are best served by ensuring the rise of like-minded partner countries around the world that can maintain the rules-based liberal world order that has kept the peace for nearly four generations.”

Clear-eyed about the new era of great power competition, Runde pushes back against isolationist impulses on the right, arguing that the response to the current challenge from Russia — not just in Ukraine, but also in the Middle East and Africa — will condition the approach to China, so that “even though Russia offers no compelling economic vision, the United States and its allies can offer a meaningful development alternative based on freedom and prosperity.”

To this end, in what is, unfortunately, perhaps the most significant but least reader-friendly section of his book, Runde draws upon his more than two decades of experience in the arcane world of international development programming and finance and teases out a number of proposals — some “big picture,” while others quite small-bore — that could be implemented in a future Republican administration if there is focus from the start.

Runde acknowledges that “while it sounds nice to say the intrinsic value of the work is enough, we cannot forget that that assistance is also motivated by enlightened self-interest.” Therein is perhaps the major shortcoming of the book: While it covers a range of complicated issues and, generally, does so well, it would have been even better if it addressed what to do when soft power fails to have any effect.

Arguably, no African country has benefited as much from development programs under both Democratic and Republican administrations as post-apartheid South Africa. Since its inception in 2003, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has lavished more than $8 billion dollars on South Africa alone — more than any other country — strengthening the country’s health system and providing life-saving anti-retroviral medications to more than 4 million South Africans. South Africa is likewise the leading beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a system of preferential access to the American market begun under the Clinton administration and subsequently expanded and extended under Presidents Bush and Obama, with exports ranging from motor vehicles to wines to jewelry entering the United States duty-free. And yet, with the possible exception of the Eritrean dictatorship, no country on the African continent has a foreign policy as much at odds with U.S. interests.

Not only is the voting coincidence of South Africa with the United States at the United Nations and other international organizations among the lowest in the world, with Pretoria aligning with Washington less than a quarter of the time, but opportunities to thumb the nose at America and her allies apparently plays in the internal politicking of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). How else does one explain South Africa’s decision to hold naval maneuvers with Russia and China during the anniversary of the Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Clearly in this instance significant soft power investment has not had anywhere near the desired effect.

This, too, needs to be a part of any discussion of the future of American global leadership in general and her international development programs in particular. In either case, the impassioned case of Runde’s “The American Imperative” is an excellent place to begin the conversation.

Ambassador (ret.) J. Peter Pham is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a senior adviser at the Krach Institute; he served as U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes Regions of Africa.

Tags AGOA Center for Strategic and International Studies China conservatives countering China countering Russia George W. Bush global leadership International development Mike Pompeo PEPFAR Russia soft power South Africa U.S. Agency for International Development US foreign policy USAID World Bank

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