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Crowdfunding American Soft Power

Given Trump’s betrayal, can we crowdfund American aid and soft power abroad?

The current debate between liberals and the Trump administration on American soft power abroad is not being framed correctly. Liberals should be arguing for more American citizen engagement overseas rather than for maintaining and extending into the future a dependency on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department.

Since World War II, America’s influence overseas has become dependent on two forces working in tandem. One was our military ability (aka, “hard power”) to keep sea lanes open, protect treaty partners from external threats, and stall or prevent disruptions by adversaries meant to interrupt American economic eminence.

Without question, there have been flaws in America’s performance—sometimes, or perhaps even often, tragic flaws. Nevertheless, Pax Americana arguably allowed post-war Western Europe to flourish, and it contributed to peace and prosperity for Japan, South Korea and some East Asian countries as well.

The second force is America’s soft power—a term coined by diplomat and scholar Joseph Nye—which has entailed the purveyance of American values overseas; to be that “city on the hill” for aspiring citizens of foreign countries worldwide. This power is diffuse and includes everything from cultural exchanges to cross-border knowledge transfers to overseas relief and development programs—often financed by the State Department (USAID) and implemented by large American charities.

And, yes, this presumption of influencing and developing the world according to the American narrative has also been shamed by our own domestic behavior on issues like race, as opposed to our ideals. But, on the whole, “America as a beacon” still persisted.

Few experts in international relations question that both soft and hard power are critical to American-led global stability.

Now, in the most threatening ways since World War II, the purveyors of soft power overseas are having their legs knocked out from under them. Whatever resonance they had for teaching and encouraging “right relations” and “rights” is fast disappearing in light of what is now emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The current messages of fear and exclusions throughout our national community not only serve to rip America apart, but also destroy the possibilities of our foundational values finding roots outside our borders—a grave issue for the ultimate security of America as well as for nation-states and their citizens across the globe.

In effect, those humanitarian efforts that are managed by USAID, an agency within the executive branch of government and tied to prevailing government policy, are left with no credible platform from which to preach traditional American values. Those contractors and charities that are dependent on funds from USAID are similarly compromised.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsWith the aforementioned in mind, I—as someone who spent 40 years overseas as that “purveyor” of American values—want to laud the current effort of those private charitable agencies who have removed themselves from their dependency on the executive branch and implement their work solely on the basis of direct citizen donations.

It was always a slippery slope for overseas charities to use a US government entity like USAID for sustenance not only for reasons attached to the partisan management of such, but equally for the ever-growing bureaucracy and associated costs assigned to the humanitarian effort overseas.

*[This article was originally published by Informed Comment. David Holdridge is the author of The Avant Garde of Western Civ.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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