My initial response to the horrific earthquake in Japan last Friday was the normal human response: shock and sympathy. My second response: satisfaction when news outlets started reporting that forward-deployed US military assets were on the move, constituting a ‘sea base’ off northeastern Japan to succor the afflicted. Joining aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan will be amphibious helicopter carrier Essex, dock landing ships Harpers Ferry, Germantown, and Tortuga, command ship Blue Ridge, oiler Bridge, and an assortment of smaller vessels.
Relief aircraft and small ships can congregate at this makeshift floating base, using it as a transfer hub for equipment and supplies destined for recipients ashore. An influx of goods and relief personnel would likely overburden seaports and airfields hard-hit by the quake. Accordingly, the US Navy dipped into its playbook from the Haitian earthquake last year, when supercarrier Carl Vinson rushed to the Caribbean to form the nucleus of an offshore base.
That US forces were moving into position to render assistance came as no surprise. America helps after natural disasters. And it does so in a matter-of-fact way that represents a boon to US diplomacy. Washington neither preens itself over its magnanimity nor asks anything in return, but simply lets capabilities and deeds speak for themselves. Nor is this low-profile approach to disaster and humanitarian relief new for the United States.
Consider an example from long ago. On the homeward leg of its ‘round-the-world voyage, the US Navy’s ‘Great White Fleet’ paused in the Mediterranean Sea to provide assistance following an earthquake that struck Messina, on Sicily. Despite the fanfare surrounding the cruise, the humanitarian effort merited only a throwaway mention in President Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography. TR evidently applied his famous maxim of politics—speak softly and carry a big stick—not only to facing down great powers but to errands of mercy.
At one time I believed abjuring self-promotion left the United States at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China, which had undertaken seemingly masterful efforts to burnish its image. Joseph Nye defines ‘soft power’ as the ‘power of attraction’ one nation or civilization exerts on others. It emanates from institutions, policies, and cultural traits others find appealing. But my friend Toshi Yoshihara asks whether soft power is perfume or a pheromone. That is, can national leaders can put it on through conscious action—by telling their nation’s story well—or is it an aura that comes to surround a nation over a long period of time? Beijing has dabbed on perfume in recent years, marshaling China’s rich culture and history, venerated figures such as Confucius and Zheng He, and events like the Beijing Olympics for a charm offensive toward Asian peoples. By portraying China as a society that inevitably pursues policies grounded in Confucian virtue, Chinese statesmen persuade Asian peoples to want what Beijing wants.
In theory, anyway. Unlike China, the United States has never been especially good at telling its story. What it does well is field capabilities like carrier, amphibious, and air expeditionary groups that can perform double duty, executing either combat or humanitarian missions. And US leaders seldom hesitate to deploy these capabilities in times of need. This speaks volumes about US purposes, and it is not lost on audiences in places like Japan and Haiti. Juxtapose that against Chinese behavior over the past year.
Overbearing, self-serving actions contradict China’s tale of itself as an intrinsically benevolent great power. Repeated confrontations in the China seas have rubbed off much of any scent Beijing applied. Chinese civilization holds enormous allure, but the People’s Republic of China remains a new regime. It must compile a sustained, consistent record as a good neighbor to match its platitudes about Confucius and Zheng He. In short, Beijing must show it is a worthy descendant of these forefathers.
Give me American pheromones over Chinese perfume any day.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.