Soft Power, Hard Hearts and the Bottom Line


When it comes to the suffering of poor folks, the Trump administration is turning the same deaf ear to the world as at home. And in the process, placing an increasingly dangerous world at even greater peril.

Yet we saw it coming, this “America First” shrinking from peacekeeping and other global commitments. Indeed, candidate Trump was uncharacteristically consistent with promises to reevaluate and re-negotiate trade treaties and foreign aid agreements.

And that promise is being made good as silhouetted but nonetheless effective neo-con appointees take to their task, eliminating or cutting essential relief programs that deliver food, potable water and medical services to some of the neediest people on the planet.

Lost on both the president and his myopic budget hawks is the value of “soft power” programs that not only save lives and distribute resources, but advance diplomatic influence without resorting to “hard power” measures such as sanctions, boycotts or military actions.

This seemingly irresistible (mostly GOP) congressional urge to cut aid to global trouble spots will no doubt affect whole corners of the earth, none more than the continent of Africa, home to 19 of the world’s 23 poorest nations. Should the cuts be implemented, Africa’s already colossal misery index will increase in direct proportion.

Take, for instance, South Sudan — the world’s newest country where since 2013 a brutal, ethnic civil war has claimed 300,000 lives, and resulted in widespread displacement and famine.

South Sudan has been a land of great agony over most of its six-year existence. Even now, war crimes against innocents are the order of the day, including rape, torture and murder. Children are regularly recruited, trained and equipped for combat. Starvation and blocking access to medical care are used as weapons of attrition.

Since its secession from Sudan, South Sudan has remained a top ten recipient of US civilian aid, the bulk of the of the funding earmarked for relief services, education and infrastructure. (Humanitarian funding for the embattled nation topped $1 billion under the Obama department of state.)

But while such high levels of aid often signal genuine concern, major world powers rarely bankroll landlocked, largely resourceless parts of the world out of the goodness of their hearts.

In South Sudan’s case, the broader objectives seem almost rote when it comes to utilizing US assistance in the modern era: stabilize a governing body; broker a truce, then peace; inoculate the society from becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, and; help create sustainable political, economic and diplomatic infrastructures.

There is no shortage of criticism aimed at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the point government agency on distributing such aid. USAID’s leadership have been roundly maligned for lack of clear ends and measurements; and there is mounting anxiety that a weak USAID will prove useless in keeping South Sudan’s internal war from becoming regional.

Yet there is neither an ethical nor strategic argument for abandoning the South Sudans of the world. As president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, cited in a recent article, too much is at stake.

Miliband makes the case that exiting or even significantly reducing support for South Sudan would “...remove basic and life-saving assistance — food, water, medicine — from 11 million people fleeing conflict and disaster, nearly 1 million in South Sudan alone. They would make 4 million new HIV, tuberculosis and malaria infections impossible to prevent. They would cut off 2 million from drinkable water. They would condemn at least two million girls to a life without an education. They would make a global pandemic like Zika or Ebola not only far more likely, but deadly enough to take millions of lives — Americans’ included.”

Likewise, there is mounting GOP congressional resistance to the proposed 32% decrease in foreign aid. Republican wild card, Sen. Lindsey Graham, recently decried attempts to “gut soft power”. Likewise chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.): “Given the growing threats we face, we should be supporting — not slashing — anti-terrorism … and humanitarian programs.”

It’s a long shot, but we can hope clear-minded Republican lawmakers like Graham and Royce school their colleagues in the twin arts of compassion and diplomacy. Because hard power and hard hearts rarely make for a safer world. Just a better bottom line.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2017

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