Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged in November that a new government organization of "civilian experts" help the U.S. shore up its dwindling reputation in the rest of the world, as part of the larger effort to "defeat terrorism." Speaking at Kansas State University, Gates reminded his audience that "soft" power—those forms of influence, like the appeal of national culture, that do not come from the barrel of a gun—will be as instrumental as military hard power in the years to come. Gates called on private experts and university members especially, to sign on.
In fact, though 'soft power' is a newish phrase (coined by Joseph Nye in the 1980s), it is not entirely a new thought. In World Wars I and II, the United States made ample use of both overt and covert "soft" power to cajole foreign audiences to doubt America's enemies, while trusting the U.S. The American government was particularly inventive after World War II in figuring out how to promote American values. By way of example, there is significant evidence that Jackson Pollack, among a number of other non-representational artists, was covertly funded (even he didn't know about it) by the U.S. government. In one view, his wild splatter paintings represented perfectly a uniquely American capitalist spirit -- free, innovative, frontier seeking (unlike the ho-hum dullness presumed of socialist realism).
Gates' argument that "Success will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping behavior — of friends, adversaries and, most importantly, the people in between," has become a common refrain in the context of current military efforts. It makes sense if you understand how the government sees the shape of this war: in official understanding, there are two sides (jihadists and American allies, essentially), and then there is everyone else—"the people in between."
This is not an entirely implausible account in a few narrow battlefield contexts, but it is strangely unimaginative otherwise. In fact, there are more than two choices, two brands, two visions, two flavors—of democracy, of security and certainly, of historical injustice and how to repair it, as the government that came up with the motto "e pluribus unum" ("from many, one") should well know. Many patriotic Americans understand from their own experiences how complex and multi-faceted political and social loyalties can be. I hope that these sorts of empathatic citizens will be among those considered expert enough to represent this vision abroad.