go to top

U.S. Foreign Military Bases as Soft Power

Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

I'm presently putting together an upcoming feature issue on culture and international relations, of which one article will focus on culture as an instrument, and object, of national power -- essentially a discussion of certain elements of soft power. So this article in Der Spiegel about how 1980s-era nightclubs catering to U.S. military personnel stationed in West Berlin and elsewhere in West Germany impacted West German culture -- in this case, popular music -- leaped out at me. It echoes an article I read several years ago about the way in which American GIs made a real cultural impact in the regions where they were stationed in post-War France, before Charles de Gaulle kicked them out.

Obviously, there are ways in which the presence of U.S. military personnel in allied countries has the opposite effect. I'm thinking of things like accidents or crimes where local residents are the victims. And I'd like to see a lot more citizen diplomacy programs that facilitate cultural exchanges for Americans who might not otherwise have the means to travel abroad, in order to develop grassroots ties with our allies. The U.S. is pretty good at identifying grassroots leaders in friendly countries and bringing them to the U.S. in order to establish those kinds of bonds. There's been a lot of coverage over the past few years of just such a program targeting the Parisian banliues. But we should be more active with outward-directed programs, as well.

In the meantime, for better and worse, U.S. military bases continue to be a point of contact between American culture and that of the host country. That's not necessarily an argument for maintaining a global basing structure, but it is an underappreciated side-effect of having one.