Chen Weihua

Soft power more effective than force

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-05-19 07:56
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My love-hate relationship with the United States continues as I was struck last week by two different stories both testifying to the great power of this country.

On Tuesday, PBS' Frontline aired the documentary Kill/Capture. It details the campaign by elite US soldiers to take thousands of insurgents off the battlegrounds in Afghanistan.

The US military in Afghanistan, led by General David Petraeus, who is to become the new CIA chief, claims the escalated operation has led to the killing or detention of some 12,000 Taliban insurgents over the past year, but scenes from the documentary are, to say the least, disturbing.

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In the middle of the night, units under the Joint Special Operations Command(JSOC) raid private homes based on, sometimes fraudulent, tips they have received about suspected insurgents.

When US soldiers with night vision goggles and other high-tech gear burst the doors open and ransack the houses, you can see the fear and anger in the eyes of the local inhabitants.

Even top Afghan officials have criticized the night raids, saying they alienate the locals and serve to encourage people to join the Taliban. According to one former Taliban insurgent who now works for the Afghan government army, he felt much more welcome in the villages as a Taliban fighter than as a government soldier.

Kill/Capture showed that the costly hard power projected by the US military is ultimately doomed to failure. An operation, which aims to reduce violence, is actually sowing the seeds of hatred among the local people. We have seen that not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and Pakistan.

In stark contrast to the disaster unfolding in the rugged Afghan terrain, several Chinese students graduating from Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York on Thursday evening revealed another powerful weapon the US has at its disposal. The US schools that enroll international students and offer some of them financial aid are probably more effective in promoting peace and winning hearts and minds than any display of force.

The cellist at the Bard recital that evening will start her graduate education at the Yale School of Music with a full scholarship. Meanwhile, two other Chinese students will move on to the Curtis Institute of Music also with full financial assistance. One of them has been invited to attend a major international competition to be held in New Zealand next month.

As the first group of Chinese music students brought to the Bard College Conservatory six years ago, most of them have finished two bachelor's degrees during their years at Bard. Their lives have been totally changed thanks to this opportunity. The road ahead now looks even more promising.

Recalling her six years at school, the cellist, a Shanghai native, could not hold back her tears during and after the concert.

Despite the financial crisis in the past few years, many US schools continue to offer generous funding support to international students. The US still remains the world leader both in total private philanthropy and government development aid.

While the army shoots and kills, schools and the financial aid they offer help to win the hearts and minds of people all around the world. The students, on their return home, will influence their own countries for a long time to come.

It is easy to forget that the cost of one bomb is often more than the cost of building a school in developing countries. The cost of the US' war in Afghanistan has now reached $405 billion and in Iraq $790 billion.

If that money is used to build tens of thousands of schools and finance Afghan and Iraqi students to study in US schools, the US has a much better chance of being welcomed and loved by villagers in the two countries.

Soft power projection is more subtle than hard military power, yet it is often more effective. It lasts longer by changing a generation of young people who go back home to influence their countrymen.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail:

(China Daily 05/19/2011 page8)