Last week, the Netherlands announced that the amphibious transport ship HNLMS Johan de Witt will participate in Africa Partnership Station. The two month deployment is the Dutch Navy’s first major soft-power cruise. The deployment of the Johan de Witt demonstrates the growing Dutch interest in soft-power. But why?
Part of it has to do will the increasing acceptance of soft-power as a useful tool in international relations. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued as such two years ago and I whole-heartedly agree. However, there is likely another reason: soft-power cruises give navies missions for their ships.
The last eight years of war have been — apart from combat air support, sea-lift, and small maritime security operations — land-based affairs. As such, the US Navy played only a limited, supporting role in both conflicts. In Europe, national security threats are even more remote and European navies have few reasons to justify maintaining expensive blue-water fleets. Enter soft-power.
The possible benefits of soft-power cruises are numerous, but during the USS Nashville’s mission to West Africa, Captain Cindy Thebaud stated “the indicators [of success] will be long-term, not near-term”. In other words, soft-power is important, but impossible to measure. Thus, soft-power provides politicians and naval leaders with a politically convenient mission justifying naval budgets and not accountable for effectiveness.
I am a strong supporter of soft-power, particularly using naval assets. There are significant diplomatic and stability benefits to US armed forces providing services and training after disasters and in marginalized regions. But, soft-power mission effectiveness is measurable. If our goal is to develop soft-power into an meaningful tool of foreign relations, then missions must be judged on useful metrics.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.