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Youth Views: Is War as Diplomacy Obsolete?

The United States government has done very little to utilize the soft power dynamic, relegating the model to the domain of N.G.O.'s and nonprofit organizations.

Five years ago in May, President Bush, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, proudly declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq and stated that major combat operations were over.

The event comes as a reminder of the limits of American military might, or "hard power." Indeed, the United States easily toppled the Iraqi regime in days but it failed to win the peace after the conventional conflict ended. As a result, it is clear that the United States must place greater emphasis on soft power than ever before. But what is soft power?

The term can be traced back to Joseph Nye who defines it as a country's "power of attraction" and influence "that is associated with [it's] ideas, cultures, and policies." Many point to soft power as the main reason the United States outlasted the Soviet Union in the cold war. Certainly, this historical event was accompanied in part by hard power: the United States built up a formidable defensive shield to counter the Soviets, but ultimately it was not violent combat that led to the current detente.

Today, soft power proponents are saying we can take these historic lessons and apply them to the challenge of violent religious extremism. Unfortunately however, the United States government has done very little to utilize the soft power dynamic, relegating the model to the domain of N.G.O.'s and nonprofit organizations.

Further, there are several indicators that the United States is missing out on key soft power opportunities; Americans are going abroad less and the rules governing foreign student visas are elastic and frequently change, making it difficult for them to enter the United States. These students act as goodwill ambassadors between countries, and this decline suggests that Americans are paying less attention to the world and becoming disengaged. Ultimately, this leads to a lack of communication and encourages policymakers to fall back on hard power measures.

But what can be done?

In the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami in Asia we saw an example of how the United States government can use its existing infrastructure, personnel, and equipment to provide humanitarian aid, an example of soft power. So successful was the aid mission in the Indian Ocean that Robert Kaplan stated," [the American disaster relief forces] probably did more to improve America's image in Asia than any conventional training deployment."

The United States needs to look outside of the "military might" box when it comes to foreign engagement. Warfare is no longer the straightforward task of prior ages but a delicate affair that should only be used in the direst circumstances.

Interestingly, some of the backers of this idea are coming from the most unlikely of places: the military. Former NATO general Rupert Smith has stated the war has moved from the battlefields to among the people. Indeed civilians now suffer more than ever before in war: in World War I approximately 10 percent of all deaths were civilian while in modern conflicts, such as in Iraq, civilian causalities account for 90 percent of all fatalities. Now that the battle is moving among the people, the United States government must take an active lead in developing soft power approaches to mitigate conflict.

One such example, the "civilian reserve corps," has long been on the political backburner of many American policymakers. The term was first used by presidential candidates in the 2004 election, but President Bush also mentioned it in his 2007 State of the Union address: "[the] corps would function much like our military reserve … allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them. It would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve." I would go one step further, suggesting that a service-based civilian corps should be at the center of United States engagement strategy rather than serving as a complement to military engagement.

While the 20th century was predominantly shaped by hard power, the 21st may prove to be the opposite. The United States must adopt more soft power measures and recognize that today's "mission accomplished" will look very different from that of five years ago.

Stephen Coulthart is a graduate student studying diplomacy and international affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall in New Jersey. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.

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