As the Pentagon’s budget has come under increasing pressure, strategists inside and out have debated the military utility of soft power, with some arguing that war fighting should be the sole mission of the US military — especially a cash-strapped one.
While fighting and winning the nation’s wars remains the central mission of the armed forces, its capacity as a humanitarian force is equally important.
Just as after the Indonesian tsunami, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the US military is responding in force to the powerful typhoon that has swept the Philippines, killing more than 3,000 and leaving millions with little more than devastation.
The very attributes that set the US military apart from all others in the world as a war-fighting force — its ability to deploy globally by marshaling the necessary air, sea and land assets, troops, command-and-control and prolonged operations — also make it an invaluable humanitarian tool. And in those acts of national kindness during crisis, the US distinguishes itself, changing perceptions and planting the seeds of long-lasting friendships.
The stakes in the Philippines are especially high for Washington, the island nation’s one-time colonial master. It was a newly democratic Philippines that expelled US forces from regionally valuable bases on its shores. Relations, however, are warming as China bullies Manila into territorial concessions.
As the administration works to resource its renewed focus on Asia, such humanitarian and disaster relief missions become all the more important. Moreover, as the world’s climate changes and sea levels rise, it is a mission that is likely to grow in popularity, not shrink.
While such missions are costly at a time when each dollar counts, they are critical in helping Washington build new, or strengthen existing, relationships that will bear fruit for decades to come.