Development-Oriented Deployments in Latin America: Soft Power or Politicized Instrument?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Carla Martinez Machain, Michael E. Flynn, and Alissandra Stoyan . They are all faculty in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University.

190702-N-FO574-1011 MANTA, Ecuador (June 2, 2019) Lt. Troy Underbrink, a Navy doctor assigned to the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), administers acupuncture therapy to a patient at a temporary medical treatment facility. Comfort is working with health and government partners in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean to provide care on the ship and at land-based medical sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems strained by an increase in Venezuelan migrants. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jordan R. Bair).
Image source: Navy Live: The Official Blog of the U.S. Navy

Can the U.S. military be an effective soft power instrument? Unlike the more traditional instruments of hard power (military force, sanctions, etc), soft power involves using persuasion to shape the preferences of other actors so that they will do what you want them to out of their own will. Soft power tools are usually thought of as emphasizing diplomacy, culture, and education. This matters because while coercing or “buying off” other countries can be expensive, soft power can lead to the outcomes you want (such as privileges to place a military base on another country’s soil) at a comparatively lower cost.

The military is usually thought of as a hard power tool, but, for the past 20 years, the U.S. military has been sending troops to Latin America to provide free healthcare and veterinary services, as well as to develop needed infrastructure and build schools and clinics in remote areas. The United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) recently publicized the annual Enduring Promise deployment of the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which made stops in Colombia and Ecuador, as well as 9 countries in the Caribbean and Central America.

While this may seem like a continuation of SOUTHCOM’s annual exercises throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, this particular deployment has had a greater emphasis on addressing the humanitarian crisis created by the instability in Venezuela. It also carries a much stronger political message against the Maduro regime. Can using the military in this way be an effective means of building goodwill in the region? Looking at the effect of past deployments may help us understand the potential implications of this shift in approach.

Previous Development-Oriented Deployments

U.S. development-oriented deployments are not new to Latin America. Since the 1990s, through the Beyond the Horizon (Army), New Horizons (Air Force), and Continuing Promise (Navy) programs, members of the U.S. military have visited three to five countries within SOUTHCOM’s Area of Responsibility each year. These exercises have provided basic services to communities in need, including building schools and clinics, providing medical and dental care, and vaccinating livestock.

The communities that receive these deployments are usually some of the poorest and most remote in the host countries and are chosen based on need, in coordination with host-country governments. Importantly, impoverished communities are also the most likely to harbor anti-U.S. sentiments. Though one aim of the deployments is to train U.S. forces, another objective is to build positive relationships with local populations. The question is, are they effective in doing so?

In our research we focus on the case of Peru. Between 1998 and 2012 Peru received 14 development-oriented deployments, spread out over 13 different provinces. This subnational variation allows us to study the effect of the deployments on perceptions of the U.S. We find that even when taking a variety of demographic factors into account, exposure to a development-oriented deployment made individuals more likely to express high levels of trust for the U.S. military and government. These individuals were also more likely to perceive U.S. influence as significant and positive.

Why Aid through the Military?

Development-oriented deployments are similar to development-focused foreign aid in that they address the needs of communities abroad. At the same time, they have particular advantages. Foreign aid often fails to create positive perceptions of the donor country because of attribution problems: Locals know that they are receiving aid, but they do not necessarily know who is providing the aid. Development-oriented deployments are able to overcome this problem because members of the U.S. military deliver the aid directly. The service members, who are often in their uniforms, are thus easily identified as affiliated with the U.S. and its military, a direct government agent.

An interview subject (interviewed for a different, related project), who worked with Continuing Promise in Colombia in 2007, confirmed this. She stated that local government officials sometimes try to take credit for the projects, but that this is hard to do because it is so obvious that those providing the aid are Americans. She described locals’ sentiment as, “It’s the American doctors and they must be better than ours.” During this particular deployment, 22,000 individuals received medical treatment.

In addition, for aid to be the most effective in creating positive perceptions of the donor, it should be sustained. This means that it should not be a one-time event. These SOUTHCOM deployments return to the same towns and regions to continue building relationships. In our analysis, we find that the effect of a visit on trust of the U.S. is greatest when the visit is most recent.

The Future of Military Soft Power

To be clear, our work does not argue that development-oriented deployments should take the place of traditional development aid. Existing work shows that the militarization of foreign aid can shift the focus of aid from higher-need regions to those with greater security salience. Notably, we do not study the effect of U.S. development-oriented deployments on development outcomes. Rather, our findings indicate that these deployments are effective in increasing locals’ trust of the U.S. government and military, as well as creating positive perceptions of U.S. influence in the host country.

Despite the effectiveness of development-oriented deployments in creating positive perceptions of the United States, some have experienced reductions in recent years as resources have shifted to crisis response missions that some see as more politically motivated. Since 2016 Continuing Promise has dwindled in its scope and its resources have been cut. The hospital ship USNS Comfort, which was previously used for Continuing Promise, is now used for Enduring Promise missions. Enduring Promise aims to address the humanitarian crisis caused by Venezuelan refugees is neighboring states. Since 2017 the USNS Spearhead, a much smaller ship used to transport medical personnel to host countries, has become the deploying platform for Continuing Promise.  According to our interview subject, locals no longer view the deployments as a routine occurrence, but as a one-off mission.

The reduction of development-oriented programs is problematic. While providing medical care to refugees during times of crisis is important, crisis responses should not take away from development-oriented deployments such as Continuing Promise. Crisis responses are generally not sustained, but rather temporary. This, coupled with the more explicitly political motivation that can be attributed by locals to missions such as Enduring Promise, makes them less effective at building trust.

Our research shows the effectiveness of regular development-oriented deployments in increasing trust in the U.S. Reducing these programs risks eroding that trust and missing an opportunity to have the U.S. military engage with local populations in a constructive way.

This material is partly based upon work supported by, or in part by, the Minerva Research Initiative, U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office under grant number W911NF-18-1-0087. Opinions and interpretations are those of the author and not the Army or Department of Defense.

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