When President Obama launched a massive humanitarian-aid response to Haiti's earthquake last month, not everyone took his magnanimity at face value. Hugo Chavez, for example, accused him of "occupying Haiti undercover" and then upped the ante by saying the earthquake had been caused by an American "tectonic weapon." A minister from France, Haiti's former colonial ruler, complained that the U.S. response should be "about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti."
Taken literally, these charges are absurd: Why would the United States want—let alone look for an excuse—to occupy and govern such a place? (Let's not get started on the secret earthquake weapon.) But they do get at a larger issue that's worth examining.
The fact is that—while undoubtedly humane and moral—the vast, sophisticated U.S. effort hasn't been motivated solely by humanitarian concerns. It has also been part of a calculated attempt to showcase American values and boost American "soft power" in an age when the White House considers the development of anti-American feeling—especially in places that could become failed states or gravitate toward hostile powers—a strategic threat. Nor is the United States the only nation that sees humanitarian aid as a cutting-edge way to advance its interests. Which means that the once cooperative realm of disaster relief is rapidly becoming the new battlefield of great-power conflict.
Great powers have occasionally used humanitarian aid as a proxy to accomplish their strategic goals. During the American Revolutionary War, for example, the British Parliament delivered hurricane and fire relief to its Caribbean colonies in order to remind them of “the good will borne them by the people of this country, [which] ought to remove every ground of jealousy or distrust.” But such efforts were sporadic; now they are becoming the norm. China has employed offers of disaster aid in attempts to affect politics in Taiwan (weirdly, Taiwan has also tried to do the same to China), and it has been using aid deliveries to improve its image in Africa and Southeast Asia. Israel has long engaged in high-profile disaster relief efforts aimed at building international goodwill. And Obama himself has described the Haiti effort as a descendant of Cold War policies like the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift, writing in Newsweek that, "above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do."
The most high-profile event that sparked the U.S. government's enthusiasm for large, Haiti-style disaster-relief efforts was the December 2004 tsunami that inundated much of South and Southeast Asia. Motivated in part by criticism from the UN, President Bush deployed an array of aircraft carriers, destroyers, and hospital ships on a high-profile relief mission to the area. Meanwhile, the U.S. government and private donors sent over $4 billion—much of it via the internet—in an unprecedented outpouring.
Both inside and outside the U.S. government, the effort was considered an unvarnished political success. In contrast with the global surge of anti-Americanism after the 2003 invasion of Iraq—especially in Muslim countries—the tsunami relief built enormous goodwill in the world's largest Muslim nation: The number of Indonesians who held favorable views of the United States shot up from 15 percent to 44 percent, while the number holding very unfavorable views dropped from 48 percent to 13 percent. Opposition to the war on terrorism dropped from 72 percent to 36 percent. What's more, the devastation, coupled with tsunami aid, actually ended a 29-year-old Islamic-nationalist insurgency in the Indonesian province of Aceh, by enabling Jakarta to rapidly push for a peace agreement. The U.S. response also trumped China's, which was considered ineffectual—even in Beijing—despite what China watchers called a deliberate effort to "project a caring attitude toward Southeast Asia." This, critics and supporters of the president concluded, was a model use of American soft power.
The U.S. government has sought to replicate this effect, for example sending assistance to Pakistan in the wake of the October 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and to Burma in May 2008, after Cyclone Nargis. To be sure, these deployments were also expressions of America's humanitarian concern, but the political overtones in each case were obvious. When the Burmese Junta refused U.S. help, for example, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quick to contrast its actions with American magnanimity. "It has not been us who has been deaf and dumb in response to the pleas of the international community, but the government of Burma," he told reporters. "We have reached out. They have kept their hands in their pockets."
In fact, recognizing their potential to advance American interests, Gates has enshrined such operations as an official element of U.S. military strategy. He has been on a crusade to reshape the U.S. defense establishment so that it can fight "the long war"—essentially a global counterinsurgency campaign that aims to combat violent extremism and prevent threats from emerging in failed states—and he sees such humanitarian efforts as part of an effort to ‘shape the battlefield’ and prevent the emergence of anti-Americanism. "I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use 'soft power' and for better integrating it with 'hard power,'" he told an audience at Kansas State University in November 2007.
To that end, Gates, along with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, elevated disaster-relief efforts to one of the six "core capabilities" outlined in the U.S Navy's 2007 strategic blueprint, "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower." The paper, which also updates the roles of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, reformulated the U.S. Navy's strategic goals for the first time since 1982. It explains that naval humanitarian-aid efforts are an important way of tamping down anti-American extremism in a world of "catastrophic storms, loss of arable lands, and coastal flooding," where "mass communications will highlight the drama of human suffering." These conditions, it explains, "cause us to think anew about how we view seapower."
The U.S. Navy will still perform its traditional power-projection functions, of course, but its Southern Command, which controls all U.S. military activity in Central and South America, including Haiti, will be transformed. According to the United States Naval Institute: "Major changes are under way in the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which is altering its traditional military responsibilities. More focus will be placed on humanitarian relief efforts and cooperative military engagements; less on the security assistance and defensive procedures of the past 45 years. This reflects a new Navy-wide emphasis on soft power and coincides with the establishment of a Fourth Fleet (headquartered in Mayport, Florida) to execute the new objectives."
This new emphasis on humanitarian aid and soft-power projection is not just aimed at preventing the emergence of Al Qaeda safe-havens. It's also designed to maintain America’s market share of goodwill in a world where "emerging superpowers like China and India might compete for spheres of influence previously occupied by the United States." In other words, the U.S. military's rapid, sophisticated response to the Haitian earthquake has not been a haphazard affair. On the contrary, it is the inaugural engagement in a new humanitarian proxy war to defend U.S. prestige in Latin America.
It's not just the United States that wants to use disaster relief as a way to boost its global prestige. The French aid minister's comments about U.S. "occupation" carried more than a whiff of petulant great-power jealousy—especially considering that France is busy sending its own ships, police, and aircraft in a bid to emphasize its own relevance. China, stung by its inability to respond to the 2004 tsunami, has purchased amphibious vessels, transport planes, and a hospital ship in order to get on the disaster-relief game. And Hugo Chavez is certainly cognizant of the propaganda value that humanitarian aid brings with it: Not only has he sent aid shipments to countries all over South and Latin America (including Haiti)—he has regularly tried to embarrass the United States by, for example, delivering subsidized heating oil to homes in Massachusetts and the Bronx.
Indeed, as great powers like China and India—as well as regional powers like Iran and Venezuela—continue to rise, they may increasingly see disaster relief as one of the easiest ways to extend their influence and boost their own global prestige. We may soon reach a point where, every time a natural disaster happens (and let's not forget, we'll be getting more of them as climate change intensifies), we'll be treated to the spectacle of governments ostentatiously rushing to do as much good as possible, as fast as possible, like catty celebrities competing at a benefit concert. Oh well, it sure beats the alternative.