America's Soft Power Future
Image Credit: Chris Gilmore

America's Soft Power Future


During my recent busman’s holiday in the United States, I drove down to Annapolis, home to the U.S. Naval Academy.

The first thing that surprised me was how much the city had grown – it now virtually surrounds the entire naval campus, a far cry indeed from its very modest beginnings, when it was first selected to be the training home of the U.S. Navy officers corps.

Interacting with a few midshipmen and faculty officers it was evident that the Navy was in fine fettle and good spirits, especially following President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia. That the Navy and the Marine Corps would logically be at the forefront of this pivot appeared to have boosted morale in the two services, judging from the conversations I had. These conversations were very instructive – one of the best ways to assess a service is to go to where it all starts, for therein lies the future leadership and the evidence of how it may perform in the decades ahead.

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The interstate highway system along the eastern seaboard – interstates 295/ 495/ 695/895 et al that link the cities of Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Annapolis and New York – offers an interesting glimpse of U.S. power. The ease of travelling on these relatively well-maintained highways helps boost tourism and the economy generally. And although the recovery is slow, the United States is gradually getting back on its feet.

This is both bad news and good news for potential adversaries. The bad news for U.S. rivals is clear – the country has the chance to regain its confidence faster than some may have hoped.  The good news, though, is that potential adversaries have a window of opportunity in this still uncertain period to interact positively with the United States. With Europe set to be on the ropes for years to come, eyes are on the U.S.

Interacting with fresh MBA graduates at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School around Baltimore’s famous harbour, it was clear the future holds no fear for them. But another thing they noted was that the world had seen enough of America’s hard power.  One student suggested an “Alliance for Progress” such as was called for with Latin America by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960’s.

Send a million young graduates across the world to work toward peace, was another suggestion. This sounds similar to the idea behind the “Innovation for Humanity” project implemented by the Carey Business School and its MBA students, who work the summer in Latin America, India, Africa and Asia. Their chosen fields are healthcare, energy and technology – all areas where the United States is strong.

Perhaps the State Department should take a leaf out of the ideas book of establishments like Johns Hopkins. A pivot to Asia led by talented young U.S. graduates is what the world now needs to see – the country’s many hard power assets can follow discreetly at the rear. This would help show that the United States is ready to provide the kind of leadership that it did in the wake of World War II.

It’s true that grand strategy encompasses military, political and economic strategic approaches. But it also requires the support of the people, and the war weary young people of the United States are looking for a new way of doing things from their political leaders.

In the future, military strategy will need to take a much lower profile than it has previously done in U.S. diplomacy. “It’s the economy, stupid” applies just as much for dealings with China or India as it did in that famous 1992 U.S. election.

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