The news of the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in southern Turkey and Syria has been distressing, to say the least. Massive urban destruction, millions without basic services, thousands of people still trapped under rubble, and so far, more than 20,000 people have been declared dead.
The quake hit a challenged region at a deeply inopportune moment. Syria has been enmeshed in a civil war that has lasted over a decade, often spilling over into the Turkish borderlands; the epicenter of the disaster heaped even greater cataclysm on an area that has already dealt with so much. What’s more, the harsh winter weather has made rescue efforts more difficult and survival less likely.
The international response has been swift, with relief agencies from around the world converging on the region to lend assistance and provide support. Still, there is much to be done. The U.S. has already begun its disaster relief in Turkey, but it can and should do more. Not only is this a righteous undertaking, but it is also well within the ambit of our geopolitical interests. This sort of emergency aid, provided by competent American experts on the ground, is a perfect example of something the United States truly excels at: soft power.
Soft power, a concept coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye Jr., is “a country’s ability to influence others without resorting to coercive pressure.” In his book on the subject, Nye details three key sources of a nation’s soft power: culture, political values, and foreign policies. All of these are “attractive” forces that do not compel but convince foreign nations to work in our interests. Traditionally, soft power has been wielded by the private sector — think Coca-Cola, Hollywood, and pop music — although governments can use this approach as well. Soft power can enhance our reputation abroad, with both governments and populations, leading to stronger relationships that can be used to forward our interests.
One of the prime ways for the government to get involved in the soft power game is through foreign aid and humanitarian assistance. These are often unpopular programs on the political right, but they need not be. The goal of this aid should be to enhance the U.S.’s international image in order to better achieve our geopolitical ends; unfortunately, this realist understanding is too often subsumed by a bureaucracy that seeks to promote radical leftism overseas.
Nonmilitary aid (around 0.5 percent of the annual federal budget) allows us to reach a broad group of countries and expand our influence to regions in which we do not desire military involvement. It is an incredibly useful diplomatic tool that should not be discarded by conservatives just because it is associated with Democrat causes.
A conservative approach to American foreign aid would entail remaining noncontroversial at home and abroad, as well as looking for ways to get the most bang for our buck. We should focus on leveraging our unique expertise and abilities, as well as the basic values of freedom and liberty, which form the foundation of our national creed. These strategies would allow us to gain the most reputationally while remaining efficient and task-focused. Disaster relief is a perfect example of this style of soft power.
The U.S. is a world leader in international disaster relief, handled mostly by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This agency provides support in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, as well as expertise in resilience and mitigation. OFDA sends Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DARTs) abroad to respond to disasters, coordinate recovery efforts, and help in search and rescue — some of which are already on the ground in Turkey. This emergency triage is vital in the early period after a catastrophe, and the U.S. is one of few nations capable of such a response.
Our major foreign rivals — China, Russia, and Iran — rarely involve themselves in disaster relief, and their ceding of the field can be to America’s benefit. We are very good at disaster relief for two important reasons: our experience and federalism. The U.S. deals with almost every type of natural disaster given our continent-spanning territory. We have tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, blizzards, wildfires, and droughts — almost always multiple types in the same year. Our federalism allows the expertise gleaned from responding to these disasters to proliferate throughout the country at federal, state, and local levels. That allows for a blend of specialization and broad knowledge that nobody else possesses.
Disaster relief efforts are the best kind of soft power, as they display our competence while also showcasing our generosity and selflessness. Disaster response is necessary, and timely provision of this aid is life-saving. The tangible benefits that an affected nation receives are immense and long-lasting. The nation providing that assistance also gains reputationally; after all, who wouldn’t have a positive view of a country that helped rescue you from a devastating natural crisis?
But what about the cost? As of now, spending on this function of the federal government is infinitesimal, comprising a meager 0.05 percent of the annual budget. Not only is this a drop in the federal ocean, but it is also a relatively minor fraction of our overall foreign aid budget.
Other foreign aid programs are highly controversial, both in the U.S. and in the countries we are attempting to influence. The woke cultural ideas and leftist policies that fill the ledger today are often at odds with our foreign counterparts. They alienate the nations we are trying to conciliate. Instead of exporting luxury beliefs to the developing world — spending $2.6 billion on “gender equity,” $2.3 billion on the climate, and $6.5 billion on pandemic awareness (worked great last time!) — we should focus on concrete goals and programs that work in our national interests.
Moving even some of that wasteful spending into something as beneficial as disaster relief would redound to our benefit. We could respond to more crises, involve more American experts, and earn more goodwill. Prioritizing this spending would greatly assist in reorienting the State Department to properly focus on American interests over left-wing politics. We don’t need to increase spending to have this effect — only redirect it.
That conservative approach, in the case of the recent earthquake, could realize great results. Surging emergency aid, even more than we have thus far, would promote the U.S. as a positive force in the minds of aid recipients. That, in turn, would put pressure on the often-unreliable Erdogan regime to be more friendly with the U.S., especially as an important Turkish election nears. Perhaps a friendlier regime in Turkey, even if still led by Erdogan, would be more likely to work with the U.S. on this and other issues. If so, it would be our use of soft power that made the crucial difference.
A Republican administration would do well to incorporate a conservative vision of foreign aid into its international diplomatic toolbox. Disaster relief must play a huge role in that strategy.