Every empire in history has been plagued by angry forces on its fringes that refused to play by the rules. Romans were pestered and ultimately defeated by barbarians. The British dealt with and lost to colonial American guerilla patriots. The Habsburgs were plagued by what they derided as “anarchists”...and were eventually defeated. And today, if you're hugely outgunned — as all enemies of America are — you get creative. You shoot from the bushes like we did when we fought the Redcoats. Sure, we might like our enemies to follow our rules…to line up in formation so we can carpet-bomb them. But our enemies know that if someone decides to fight the US, they have two choices; be dead, or be “a terrorist.”
In our generation, America risks going broke and selling its soul to fight its “War on Terror.” The problem is that there's always been terrorism and there always will be terrorism. It's a technique, not an enemy. And because the targeted “enemy” is a technique, you can fight a “War on Terror”...but you cannot win it.
On a recent visit to Washington, DC, I heard lawmakers using the terms "hard power" and "soft power." Hard power assumes that military might is the best way to get what you want. Soft power respects the influence of something less tangible: goodwill. Winning the "hearts and minds" of our would-be enemies, and improving the so-called "Brand of America," makes it harder for foreign terrorists or bombastic leaders to mobilize people against us. Imagine a US president presenting himself in a way that makes it impossible for the leader of a country we're at odds with to demonize the American president in order to stay in power. Imagine using our military to build bridges and highways instead of blowing them up. It'd be better for the innocent people who live in those places (not to mention better for our troops). While this might seem a little too "touchy-feely" for our militaristic society, it's less expensive — and certainly less destructive — than hard power.
If we can soften the way we wield our power, we might find some solutions that work better for us...and for the rest of the planet. Is this naive? Maybe. But as we've seen, it's clear the opposite approach has its flaws.
Even when people around the world are frustrated by our policies, they're still inspired by the ideals of America. And, after nearly four decades of travels through political ups and downs — even when I talk with Salvadorans whose families were torn apart by US-funded soldiers — it's clear to me that people across the world want to like Americans. My travels have taught me that we have friends everywhere ready to put the past behind them and to once again be inspired by both our ideals and our leadership.
About This Entry
You are reading "American Empire? Part 2", an entry posted on 02 November 2009 by Rick Steves.