TURES COLUMN: Post-9/11: hard lessons from ignoring soft power

Published 10:30 am Friday, September 9, 2022

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In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, we need to ask ourselves about America’s power, and how best to use it. A pair of my graduates, both involved in this country’s foreign policy learned that lesson well and shared what they discovered while working for our Defense Department, and State Department: the subtle strength of soft power.

One of my happiest LaGrange College graduation days occurred in 2008. Vince Thompson, one of my political science graduates, was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Marine Corps, right in our Wesley Chapel (my apologies for any military errors I make). Not long afterwards, he was in Helman Province in Southern Afghanistan, commanding a platoon of Marines.

“I thought it would be a lot of kicking down doors and shooting,” Thompson told our students and staff. “And there was some of that.” But he went on to describe much of his work in Afghanistan. “The people wanted prosperity and security. So we built a well for them, which you had to dig down deep. It was pretty important for the region. We also built a school for girls and helped escort the girls from the villagers there when the Taliban threatened them.”

As Mr. Thompson explained to our students “I thought my reading days were done, but I had to read quite a bit to learn about what I was doing.” He cited David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare Theory and Practice and Steve Coll’s Ghost War. There’s a myth that Marines aren’t so smart. But it’s wrong. Marines definitely study, both their opponent and the latest intel. And now Major Thompson is student again, at the Air Command and Staff College in Alabama.

Robert Allen, another political science graduate, had aspirations of serving his country too. In 2019, he joined the Peace Corps, serving in Moldova, the poorest European country, a former member of the USSR. He had to take a crash course in Moldovan and maybe some Russian too, so he’s another example of the importance of learning to study while in college, for what you have to learn after it.

He pointed out the value of soft power, the kinds of things he and Mr. Thompson were doing to engage the local population and win them over. Moldova’s in the same region as Ukraine, and probably on Vladimir Putin’s “to do list” in his quest to rebuild the Soviet empire. His football playing skills came in handy on “America Day” in the country, where he taught the kids how to throw a tight spiral, when he wasn’t teaching them English or American values. Allen recommended readings by G. John Ikenberry for our students. He won the prestigious national Pickering Fellowship and earning his graduate degree at the University of Texas.

Amoralistic realists see the world often only in terms of “hard power” and military assets or might and tangible examples. They tend to pooh-pooh soft power, the value of one’s economy, ideas and ideology, or even the importance reaching out to prove a helping hand. But in today’s foreign policy, you need both to succeed. Our soft power was also important at winning the Cold War. If you don’t believe me, read Ronald Reagan’s speech to the British Parliament.

Our adversaries, which loaded up on hard power during the Cold War to no avail, are now 

understanding the importance of soft power. They’re using it to hit us with cyberwarfare, and economic policy designed to undermine our wealth. 

From Russia and China to Iran and North Korea, they’re also loading up on propaganda and social media, appealing to extremists on both sides of the spectrum, all in an effort to try and divide us. With our soft power, we can repulse such attacks. And that’s a lesson from the post-9/11 world we should not forget.