by DAVID AXE
Two years after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on the U.S. military to better use humanitarian aid, foreign training and diplomacy to advance U.S. interests, these so-called “soft-power” instruments are really catching on. U.S. Southern Command rotates hospital ships and assault ships on medical missions, while other vessels ply West Africa and the Pacific, winning new friends through good deeds.
The Navy has taken to soft power, but not without learning some hard lessons. Most ships assigned to soft missions are too big. The logistics have been dicey. And paranoid regional leaders have labeled humanitarian cruises as harbingers of renewed imperialism.
At the moment, nobody’s sure how to measure whether soft power makes the world safer. “The indicators will be long-term, not near-term,” said Captain Cindy Thebaud, the top officer on USS Nashville during that ship’s West African soft-power cruise this spring. But there are hints that can reveal whether soft power is working, she added. “Part of is receptivity of partner nations’ involvement in a program like this. If people say, ‘Thanks, not interested. Thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your interest, but we don’t want to see you again,’ clearly, we’re not succeeding.”
By that (admittedly non-scientific) measure, soft power is a big success. So much so that other world navies are copying the model. The Chinese asked to consult with the crew of the hospital ship Comfort in Colombia this year, and now the Dutch have launched their own soft-power mission, anchored on the amphibious ship Johan de Witt, pictured. Just as Dutch officers helped crew U.S. Navy soft missions, Americans have helped crew the Dutch mission.
The Dutch navy’s press release is, of course, in Dutch, but a helpful reader has sent along a translation:
The amphibious transport ship HNLMS Johan de Witt will be leaving today from Den Helder to participate in “Africa Partnership Station” for two months. With this operation the naval vessel will offer a contribution towards the realization of a stable coastal region in West and Central Africa.
During the tour HNLMS Johan de Witt will operate in the waters of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and around the Cape Verde islands. Together with these countries they will, amongst others, do hydrographic recordings of ports and do exercises. The vessel also carries, at the request of several non-governmental organizations (NGO), a large quantity of relief goods for the African coastal countries. Furthermore, Americans and Dutch on board will give training to many African sailors.
It will be interesting to see how the Dutch vessel handles in West Africa’s small, shallow ports; how the Dutch overcome the language barriers; and what metrics they come up with to measure soft power’s efficacy. For now, soft power — rich with potential, rife with pitfalls — is no longer just America’s problem.
(Photo: Dutch navy)