The Strength of U.S. Soft Power

Below are photographs of three two-year old girls.  I combined them into one slide and shared them at the conclusion of a lecture I delivered on March 14, 2017 titled “A New Perspective on the 2015 Refugee Crises: The German Response.”









In the photograph on the left, I am standing behind my parents with my little hands holding onto them. This is me 48 years ago – a little girl born into a Christian family in a Muslim country, who went on to find herself caught up in the political upheavals of her country. This resulted in migrating with my family to Germany to find refuge in a foreign land. It entailed being embraced by “the other”—making a life amidst strangers who differed from me culturally, linguistically, socially and politically.

The middle photograph is of me holding a 33-year-old Iranian-German woman named Neda. Neda was two at the time I was a refugee in Germany. We lived in the same camp at the same time. I met her by chance in the fall of 2015 at a Middle East Conference in Bochum, Germany where I spent three months doing volunteer work with refugees. Today Neda works for a non-for-profit organization in Germany that conducts public diplomacy with Iran. She organizes people-to-people programs between Germans and Iranians. The goal is to create dialogue and provide education as a way to promote peace and diplomacy between the two nations. Neda travels often to Iran and coordinates a network from her personal contacts creating a bridge between her two homelands. This is a classic example of the use of soft power—diplomacy, foreign aid, and collaboration with international organizations.

The photograph on the right is of a two-year-old Iraqi girl who recently escaped the terror and political chaos in her homeland that has been seized upon, exacerbated, and exploited so brutally by ISIS. She and her mother were the first refugees I worked with in my refugee work in Germany in 2015.

According to UN statistics, 65.3 Million people are now displaced around the world. This translates to nearly 1 in 100 people who have lost or fled their homes. Everyday nearly 34,000 people are made homeless as a result of conflict or persecution. About one third, or 21.3 Million persons are refugees. Nearly one half of them are 18 and younger. About 6.5 percent or 10 million people are stateless—that means they do not have citizenship from any of the 195 countries in the world. Lack of nationality means they have been denied access to such basic rights as education, healthcare, employment, or freedom of movement.

People like Neda, the little Iraqi refugee girl, and myself are (and often feel) blessed to have found refuge in the embrace of “the other” in a country like Germany or America that we can now call our “home.” Despite the traumas and challenges of our own identity crises, we were finally able to formulate new identities, richer, deeper, and more powerful than the ones we possessed before we were refugees.

There remain millions of displaced migrants fleeing crisis who are not as lucky as we. Too often they become victims of criminals, sex traffickers and terrorists. According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report:

Migrants, including asylum-seekers, and refugees are susceptible to many crimes, including extortion, rape, and human trafficking. Many migrants fleeing conflict rely on smugglers at some point during their journeys and, in some instances, their smugglers are involved in schemes designed to deceive and trap them in sex or labor trafficking. Women, unaccompanied minors, and those denied asylum are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, including while in transit and upon arrival in destination countries.

Some government and government supported militias in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries force children to man checkpoints and serve as front-line soldiers, porters, domestic servants, and sex slaves to combatants. In addition to the imminent danger battle poses to children, some child soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addictions, and other physical and mental health problems after their release or escape from forced armed service.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on January 10, 2017, Homeland Security Secretary, John F. Kelly said the following about border security:

I believe the defense of the southwest border starts 1,500 miles south and that is partnering with great countries as far south as Peru who are very cooperative with us in terms of getting after the drug production transport.

What Secretary Kelly is referring to is the importance of the U.S. exercising soft power. He is arguing that if indeed we are serious about fighting criminals and drug traffickers (to which we can add terrorism, rising extremism and homegrown terrorism), then we have no choice but to help “the other” by cooperating with our partners across the globe, and reach out to help take care of the displaced millions who are the world’s most vulnerable people.

Our national security is strengthened when we invest in America’s soft power and its generous spirit. Soft power allows us to teach others our values of democracy, peace and diplomacy.

One of the greatest weapons of criminals and terrorists is the youth of those around the globe who are poor and alienated, and who feel socially and economically helpless. These young people are seeking meaning in their lives. They are in search of dignity, hope and a place of belonging. Through carefully designed programs, terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and their proxies target precisely such populations. The U.S. must do the same: recruit young people around the world to its causes of peace, freedom, life, and liberty under the law for all, even in the midst of increasingly militarized global conflict.

Military force cannot counter the persuasiveness of extremist ideology employed by terrorists. Soft power is a critical component of America’s smart power (hard power plus soft power). Government alone cannot achieve the goal of defeating terrorism. As Amal Clooney, Internal Law and Human Rights Lawyer, recently said in her interview with Fareed Zekaria, “ISIS is a global threat and needs a global response.” This response entails the cooperation and contributions of private citizens, small businesses, non-governmental organizations, and even large corporations. Thus, it is critical for the State Department to coordinate, implement, and oversee such cooperation. Perhaps, President Trump will reconsider his proposed budget which will cut spending on America’s soft power by 28 percent. And, instead, his administration will invest in national and international projects that will embrace “the other” and at the same time increase our national security.

It is necessary to invest in the lives of the most vulnerable, especially in young displaced people around the world so that they do not become the prey and weapons of the extremists and terrorists.

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