IN 2003, THE U.S. ARMY SPONSORED a conference in Washington to consider the possibilities of soft power, among other things. When asked by the media what he thought of the insights into soft power that had just been presented, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared a bit miffed and answered, “I don’t know what it means.” That lack of understanding and appreciation of power in its other low-key forms would ultimately contribute to the chaotic nature of the Iraq war.
But, in truth, the lack of knowledge of soft power is part of our problem as well, especially as Canada continues to mull over its role as part of the 65-member coalition fighting ISIS. And when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wanted to help lead and not just merely support efforts to combat terrorism, he raised the bar to a level not many are sure we can reach. Canada has accomplished much in this field before, however, and can do so again.
Rumsfeld equated “soft” power with “weak” power, contributing to the perception that he could only envision the greatest form of power itself as something equated with planes, cruise missiles, bombs, and ground forces on the attack. In retrospect, numerous observers now believe that it was the very absence of soft power that made its harder cousin unworkable and unsustainable.
Soft power is the ability to achieve your goals through providing resources and understanding through the local culture as opposed to just winning a war. It isn’t the opposite of military might but a vital complement to it. It isn’t about attracting others to our values, but the recognition that the enduring values of humanitarianism are found in every culture and must be built upon. Yes, it could well involve building democracy in troubled regions, but it could just as easily entail the understanding that the Muslim faith carries deep and abiding values of human respect that go as far back as our own.
Power is about resources just as much as might. Insightful NGOs (non-governmental organizations), often working with military personnel, have used water as a means of conflict management. Often accomplished by the provision of secure corridors for travel or through equipment providing clean water itself, access to this natural resource often alleviates the tensions that trouble regions, clans, and tribes who normally fight over it.
Fourteen years ago, the NGO my wife and I direct in South Sudan was approached to build a secondary school in the region that would be the only one for 600 kilometres. We agreed to try, but only if a 50/50 student ratio would be honoured between boys and girls (girls were often kept from educational opportunities during that time of war). Negotiations ensued for a lengthy time until at last agreement was reached. In five weeks time we travel to South Sudan to officially open the school and hand it over to the Ministry of Education. They have honoured their commitment, and already the possibility of education for girls is transforming the landscape – something seemingly impossible through the medium of bombs, planes, or tanks.
Canadian troops – women and men – have performed remarkable acts of valour in a troubled world for over a century. But we can never overlook all the Canadian humanitarian efforts, sometimes employing military “soft” resources like the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team). It is these activities, as much as our combat efforts, that have earned Canada’s hard-won reputation as a nation that comprehends the value of soft power.
So will it be hard or soft power for Canada? Some will say that it should be both. Perhaps. But our current prime minister is correct in maintaining that it’s difficult to create peace on the ground if you are a nation that is also pummeling the earth and people with bombs. Gandhi was right, too, when he maintained that, “an eye for an eye only makes the world blind.” A military action might promote even more terrorism if we aren’t careful. Canada’s role can be as equally daring, brave, and innovative as any bombing sortie, merely by helping remove the dire conditions on the ground that create the context for terror itself. We are a brave people, and if we must battle we will. But we prefer to fight with our minds and our collective conditioning for peace – a reality as powerful as any military force on earth.