WASHINGTON – National Defense is the concept of a country’s governmental efforts to protect its interests both domestically and internationally. These efforts are often achieved by utilizing power strategies such as military force or economic coercion. Otherwise known as “hard powers,” these tactics often take center stage when applied and frequently command the most international attention. However, power is a unique tool capable of taking multiple forms and can be utilized without flexing military or economic might. Efforts to co-opt, influence, or attract international countries to peacefully and diplomatically adopt policies are known as “soft powers.” The International Affairs Budget is a separate allocation of funds in the United States designated to fuel and facilitate programs or organizations for this purpose.
The term soft power itself was first used by Harvard Professor Joesph Nye back in 1990, but the defense strategy has certainly existed for far longer. In 1940, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) was formed using International Affairs Budget funds and has since hosted more than 200,000 international constituents. The purpose of the program is to showcase American democratic society in order to strengthen international ties and influence progressive reforms. These visits give guests a visceral opportunity to experience American culture by staying in cities both large and small and have the chance to interact with ordinary citizens. Guests participate in professional scheduled appointments, but also have dinner and engage American citizens in everyday life in unscripted environments. This is a point of emphasis for the program as an effort to dispel media misinformation.
The IVLP has a remarkable track record of selecting up-and-coming influential leaders to partake in the programs. Of the 200,000 program alumni, over 300 have gone on to become presidents, prime ministers, or heads of states. F.W. DeKlerk, who was the last Apartheid-era president of South Africa, cites his program visit in 1976 as a key influence on his efforts to abolish his country’s systematic segregation. A 1989 article in the New York Times states that it was DeKlerk’s in depth observations of American race relations where he began to understand that “race relations could not be left to run their course.” Oftentimes the knowledge and understanding gained from these experiences are capable of achieving what brute military force or economic sanctions simply cannot.
The organization’s activity greatly peaked during the Cold War when the United States was vying for international control and influence with Soviet Russia. However, for the past 5 years, the International Affairs Budget has seen a 16% decline in government funding. As a result, the number of international leaders hosted per year has steadily declined in addition to the duration of each visit. There was a time when IVLP visits would last upwards of an entire month, thus maximizing exposure. It is now more common for visits to be shortened to around 10 days. In 2016, the budget for the IVLP is set to be reduced to only $88 million. The impact of such programs can be difficult to quantify at times, which could help explain the decrease in funding. But taking an in-depth look at the program’s history and alumni list indicate positive qualitative results and high level influence in diplomatic relations.
“It’s not just a U.S. operation. It’s about mutual interest. There’s this ongoing fascination with the U.S. We’re still in a world where we look to the U.S. for leadership, for influence, for potential sources of solutions” says Professor Giles Scott-Smith of Roosevelt Academy in the Netherlands. Soft power strategies have an opportunity to be applied with increased regularity in the world today. Considering the state of technology and global connectivity, the potential for soft power tactics is an intriguing concept. However, as quickly as technology has reshaped the world, twisted ideology and unconventional warfare has kept pace. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a strong supporter of soft power tactics, refers to the state of modern conflict and diplomacy: “Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior of friends, adversaries and, most importantly, the people in between.”
– Frasier Petersen