Hospital Ships: Soft Power Shock and Awe

The Navy shouldn't underestimate the strategic benefits of some of its less exciting tools.

As U.S. defense budgets continue to shrink, policymakers must use innovative strategies to project power worldwide. Power projection takes two forms: soft and hard power, the carrot and the stick. American policymakers have tended to neglect the former. Indeed, U.S. soft-power programs have been on the decline over the past half-century. This is to our detriment, as soft power can potentially pay huge long-term strategic dividends when utilized correctly. But winning the hearts and minds of a population isn’t easy. How can we foment pro-U.S. sentiments abroad?

Providing medical care in foreign countries is a great way to improve the U.S. image abroad. The U.S. Navy hospital ships Mercy and Comfort are prime examples of an effective soft power program. These hospital ships provide medical care to impoverished communities worldwide. The USNS Mercy is itself one of the largest trauma facilities in the United States. The Mercy hosts 1200 medical personnel, maintains up to five thousand units of blood, has a dozen operating rooms, and is equipped with CT scanners, radiology facilities, and a thousand patient beds.

Hospital ships have several unique advantages over other aid-delivery mechanisms. Most importantly, hospital ships are highly visible. The appearance of several hospital ships with a whole host of American doctors and state-of-the-art medical technology is soft power’s version of shock and awe. Healing the sick and treating the wounded may win more hearts and minds, especially in the short run, than putting up an electric grid or building a road. Furthermore, recent controversies surrounding USAID make hospital ships a particularly attractive soft-power weapon. A better-funded hospital ship program could produce positive effects that would be felt for decades.

Unfortunately, in our current defense-budget-cutting environment the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship program is likely poised to stagnate or downsize rather than grow. Soft-power programs are often first in line to get scaled back during budget-cut showdowns. While the Navy has a long history of soft-power projection, hospital ships justifiably take a backseat to the Navy’s primary mission of “maintain[ing], train[ing] and equip[ing] combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars.” Hospital ships already get a pittance for funding and spend most of their time moored up as floating museums. This is characteristic of all U.S. soft-power programs. In 2003 the U.S. spent a measly $150 million on public diplomacy in Muslim countries. Over time, this has led to a situation described by Harvard professor Joseph Nye as “the world’s only superpower…outgunned in the propaganda war by fundamentalists hiding in caves”.

The real reason behind this phenomenon is twofold: Soft power sounds like entitlement programs for foreigners to some in our electorate, and foreign aid isn’t as appealing as equipment like the F-35. Many believe soft-power programs are simply the product of pipe dreams cooked up by dovish types that want to hug our enemies to death. Quite the contrary. Truly strategic thinkers can use soft-power programs to win the long game.

Hard and soft power need to be used in tandem. Policymakers need to maximize the strategic benefit that we get for our tax dollars. A larger hospital-ship program is appealing due to the large bang for the buck we stand to reap. The national-security benefit we get out of an extra ten nuclear weapons may be less than using those tax dollars for hospital ships.