Global Poverty and National Security: Soft Power and Prevention

Many people view foreign aid programs as acts of charity. However, through “soft power” and preventative measures, international assistance can play an important role in national security as well.

Poverty Reduction as Soft Power

Influential political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990 to describe the ability of one nation to influence another without resorting to force. It’s the alternative to “hard power,” which includes military force and economic sanctions.

Cultural influence and moral authority are important aspects of soft power. When a country is seen as being morally upstanding by the world community, it achieves greater influence. For instance, if a country is strongly democratic, it can influence others by promoting democracy abroad.

In a similar way, soft power can improve national security. In a world that is increasingly democratic and interconnected, national reputation has grown in importance. Through soft power, a country can seek to influence world opinion to prevent acts of aggression or terrorism.

Foreign assistance is an important tool to improve national reputation. When a country takes the lead in humanitarian relief or international development, it improves its standing and influence. It makes cooperation more likely and conflict less so.

Poverty Reduction as a Preventative Measure

It’s no secret that violent extremism tends to flourish in desperate places. Poverty grinds down civil society and weakens government institutions. Without strong governance, many people turn to armed rebel groups for services. For instance, during the civil wars in Afghanistan, many turned to extremist schools for education and to the Taliban for protection.

The U.S. Department of Defense has long recognized this reality. Robert Gates, former defense secretary, viewed international development as a way to prevent conflicts from starting.

“The way you do that is through development. Development creates stability, it contributes to better governance,” Gates said in 2010. “If you are able to do those things, if you are able to do it in a focused and sustainable way, then it may be unnecessary to send soldiers.”

Global poverty causes conflict and perpetuates it. While the United States has the strongest military in the world, it can only react to dangers as they arise. Increased spending for foreign assistance would improve national security by reducing the likelihood of conflict and unrest.

That’s a sentiment that President Obama agrees with as well. In a recent interview with, the president conveyed his view of foreign aid as a “tool in our national security portfolio, as opposed to charity.” The president proposed strategic investments in key countries to reduce the need to deploy the U.S. military abroad. “We would be in a better position,” he stated, “to work with other countries to stamp out violent extremism.”

– Kevin McLaughlin

Sources: Department of Defense, Foreign Affairs,
Photo: Flickr