Thursday, February 16, 2006

Beacon No. 78: Think Decades, Not Days


I’ve been pessimistic about soft power and public diplomacy lately.

I shouldn’t be, considering how much is going right today: the appointment of the energetic Karen Hughes as America’s top-ranking public diplomat, Condoleezza Rice’s determination to be at least as capable abroad as her predecessor (and with greater effect), President Bush’s increases in funding for language and cultural programs, and the efforts of private groups like Keith Reinhard’s Business for Diplomatic Action.

But public diplomacy, which has been a focus of American government policy since 9/11, appears to be showing few results in the face of the Muhammad-cartoon controversy, the French banlieue riots, Pakistani KFC-torchings, and other events. I hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that soft power/PD won’t produce results for the U.S. in time to avert a Western-Muslim clash of civilizations that’s starting to boil.

Until this morning, that is.

I was walking around, trying to clarify my thinking, and seeking a metaphor for the whole business of soft power/PD that would illustrate what sorts of results we should expect from it. And suddenly I realized that the business of soft power/PD is a lot like asteroid deflection.

Some background: Many comets and asteroids have elliptical orbits that occasionally cross Earth’s orbit. When they do, impacts range from minor to the end of civilization or even life on earth. NASA and its counterparts worldwide are trying to track the orbits of every sizeable object that could collide with the earth (a 320-meter object may do so on April 13, 2036), and studies are also under way to determine how to deflect these objects.

The most obvious strategy is to fire a nuclear-tipped warhead or warheads at the threatening asteroid to either knock it off course or blow it into smaller, less harmful pieces. The drawback is that most of those pieces are still on a collision course with earth, only now they’ll hit it at different times and places—think of a pearl necklace strung across a globe. Lots of little impacts that still add up to a crippling amount of shock and debris.

Think of this option as “hard power”: a direct approach that is incomplete and usually has unintended side effects (“blowback”).

Back to astronomy: Luckily, there are many ways to deflect an asteroid without destroying it. Key to all of these is detecting and reaching it soon enough, while it’s still billions of miles and decades away. This gives you time to assess the threat, develop the technology to deal with it, and deliver the solution to the target.

Given adequate time, you could install a propulsion device on the asteroid to gently nudge it out of the way; attach a solar sail to it so that the outbound solar wind performs a similar function; or hover a massive spacecraft over the asteroid and let their mutual gravitational attraction do the deflection. (The “hovering” method seems far-fetched but would work no matter how delicate or rapidly spinning an asteroid or comet might be.)

A little intervention in the outer solar system snowballs over time into a major deflection of the asteroid’s trajectory, all with little risk to earth. And if early intervention doesn’t work, you’ve still got nukes on rockets as a stopgap measure.

The point about deflection is that it takes time. Let’s say you attach a propulsion device to a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid and turn it on. To the naked eye, nothing happens. The asteroid doesn’t suddenly swoop and dive around the solar system like a jet fighter over Nevada. The engine is so tiny and the asteroid so massive that an observer might question whether there’s any effect at all.

But astronomers would notice the effects over time, and the earth would be safe.

The goals of asteroid deflection and soft power/PD are the same: Make timely moves to prevent the destruction of civilization—our civilization, Muslim civilization, everyone’s civilization—by a cataclysm.

Like deflection, public diplomacy is not meant to show immediate results. With the technology and tools we have right now, it would not show results for years. And like deflection, soft power and public diplomacy also require foresight, patience, faith in the tools you have or develop, and a good back-up plan in case a long-term threat mutates into a short-term crisis.

Despite the best-laid plans, you’re going to get hit sometimes; but with sufficient foresight and advance planning, you can make sure that the hits are few, small, and far between.

No comments:

Site Meter