The U.S. Navy’s emerging “soft-power” strategy in Africa and Latin America has been hugely controversial. The Navy’s aim is to win friends and allies by handing out medicine, engineering assistance and military training, all for free. But many Africans and Latin Americans view the squat gray shapes of U.S. naval vessels as the vanguard of an invasion force.
Commodore Frank Ponds, senior officer about the USS Kearsarge, is keenly aware of the perception problem. He spoke to a roundtable of bloggers (pdf!) by phone yesterday as Kearsarge prepares to wrap up a four-month soft-power medical mission to Latin America. His main point: that actions ultimately speak louder than words. Consider:
CAPT. PONDS: As always, my old adage is perception is reality. … If somebody perceives it to be their perception, it could possibly be true. (Inaudible) — strategic communication aspect to what we’re doing. We don’t view it through our lens, per se. We try to view it through the lens of the host nation. And we’ve come away with some valuable lessons learned. And we’ve used those lessons in stride to adjust our mission as we have gone along.
Let me give you, for example: When we went to the — when we went to Nicaragua, we found a tremendous need. Very little infrastructure; very little — how can I say, professional capacity there. So, we were able to go in and — how can I say, provide our capability to a country that needed us tremendously.
Now we find ourselves in Trinidad and Tobago, and there’s a need there. But there’s a tremendous amount of professionalism here; they have a tremendous amount of capacity. So, we adjusted what we thought we would do based on what their desires were. So, we find ourselves partnering, more and more, with Trinidad and Tobago in doing this mission professionally than we did with Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua it was about really delivering a capability and capacity. Here in Trinidad and Tobago we found that we have been — we have been partnering with a country that has a tremendous capacity. So, the emphasis here in Trinidad and Tobago has been “partnering.” And we also partner with the previous countries, but we also knew there was a tremendous gap in capability, and we also tried to fill that gap more so than we have had to do here in Trinidad and Tobago.
But, let me go back to your question about strategic communication. The strategic communication is about security, and I think we’ve been able to emphasize that through our cooperation. The strategic communication has been stability. I think we’ve been able to communicate that through our cooperation and our partnering with our host nations.
And the strategic communication has been about prosperity. And I’m going to take you (through ?) prosperity because prosperity starts with education, and the health and welfare of the citizens of those host nations. And if you look at our projects, the preponderance of our projects have been in schools and clinics. And so we think that because we have been fostering and focusing on those areas, we have been able to further prosperity, not only in those countries but in the region alike.
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