Small Wars Journal

Projecting Soft Power Through the State Partnership Program

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 12:36am

Projecting Soft Power Through the State Partnership Program

Matthew A. Hughes


Power is a relative term, especially when referring to the amount of control and influence a nation wields in the global community. In analyzing nations’ sources of power, American political scientist Joseph Nye popularized the concepts of hard power, or “the ability to use carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will,” and soft power, an influence which “co-opts [nations] rather than coerces them.”[1] Whereas nations mainly derive hard power from military forces, Nye asserts a nation’s soft power stems from “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority).”[2] Soft power grows through cultural diffusion, which often occurs more rapidly thanks to globalization, but there are also institutions which directly contribute to soft power projection. The United States Department of State (DoS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are chief among these institutions cultivating American soft power through initiatives and foreign presence.

Investment into these soft power tools has been under tight scrutiny as U.S. policy shifts toward hard power. A common theme in executive budget proposals between 2017 and 2019 involved funding cuts between 23 and 32 percent for diplomacy and international aid.[3] Although Congress countered these proposals, albeit narrowly by one vote in the Senate in 2018, these proposals mark a clear shift in power priorities rendering the budget for soft power tools volatile and unpredictable.[4] As policymakers consider significant budget cuts in traditional soft power tools, however, other countries are investing resources toward soft power projection. China’s national strategy, for instance, now includes the political jargon wenhua ruan shili (cultural soft power) and plans for cultural influence to permeate.

In the midst of budget cut proposals and foreign competition in the sphere of soft power, the government must continually explore avenues to improve efficacy. One means is to recognize that while there are distinct, traditional tools to project soft power and hard power, roles, responsibilities, and effects can overlap. Joseph Nye noted, “Sometimes the same power resources can affect the entire spectrum of behavior from coercion to attraction.”[5] The National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP) is one such power resource that can have this strategic effect—a traditional hard power entity with great capacity to project soft power abroad. Established in 1993, the SPP involves partnerships between individual states and sovereign nations whereby states’ National Guard units conduct engagements with partner nations’ security forces, emergency response personnel, and other organizations. In standing up new partnerships, the U.S. sought to optimize efficiency and partner-building capacity by establishing partnerships on factors such as parity in ethnic composition or disparities in state National Guard unit strengths and partner nation (PN) security force weaknesses. In a perennial shaping operation, the SPP yields strategic dividends by fostering trust, shared values, and interoperability with partners in ways that support U.S. policy objectives.

The longevity of SPP partnerships and the civilian occupations of Guardsmen foster conditions to shape conditions abroad, but partnerships do not yet fully exploit this capacity to project soft power. As American leaders consider budget cuts to diplomacy, leaders should explore the feasibility of leveraging the State Partnership Program to hedge losses in soft power. Investing in the preparation of personnel coordinating SPP events by training them in the partner nation’s language and providing education on soft power and interagency collaboration can enhance SPP efficacy. Consulting with and including diplomatic considerations in planning and assessments may also enable NG units to project influence. States can further capitalize on opportunities to project soft power through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program by training key SPP personnel in foreign language and soft power considerations and by taking a hybrid approach to gap analysis.

Key Players Require Language Training and Familiarization with Soft Power Considerations

Despite the strategic role and expansive scope of partnerships, program responsibility funnels down to a small group of individuals. Funding for a typical state partnership supports one SPP bilateral affairs officer (BAO) assigned to the U.S. Embassy in the partner nation, one SPP state coordinator located within the state, and five to seven events annually.[6] Partnerships lacking a full-time BAO have a traditional combatant commander’s activities (TCA) coordinator on six-month temporary duty assignment or a state coordinator who travels to the partner nation to coordinate events.[7] Partner nation representatives, security cooperation personnel, or other military or civilian leaders propose events or activities, often based on a partner nation’s requests to help build capabilities by providing expertise. Leaders including, but not limited to, the relevant service section chief (e.g., Army Section Chief), BAO or TCA Coordinator, Senior Defense Attaché, and State Coordinator discuss proposed events and activities to ensure they nest with long-term strategic plans for the partner nation and region. The BAO further develops this plan and, in collaboration with other security cooperation leaders, proposes the plan to state and COCOM leaders for approval. Hence, the SPP model invests a significant amount of influence into one or two individuals—the BAO or TCA coordinator and/or the state coordinator—making them single points of success or failure for a partnership.

The level of training provided to the BAO or TCA coordinator and the state coordinator have significant second- and third-order effects on the outcome of partnerships. BAOs, TCA coordinators, and state coordinators should also have a strong grasp on diplomacy and soft power, including relevant government agencies and the role of the SPP in projecting this type of influence. Historical lessons learned note, however, the need to “educat[e] BAOs that […] building capacity” in sectors such as health through medical engagements “can provide access, influence, and soft power.”[8] (Penn 2012). To properly train personnel on such facets of security cooperation, the Security Cooperation Management State Partnership Course, managed by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies (DISCS), includes a one-hour introduction to USAID and a three-hour block of instruction on SPP operations that addresses DoS and civilian programs enhancing SPP planning and PN interaction.[9] Such training helps to reduce knowledge gaps among State Coordinators, but BAOs and TCA coordinators do not attend this course. This lack of training is detrimental to partnerships heavily reliant on TCA coordinators, especially in SOUTHCOM where TCA coordinators outnumber BAOs.

Remarks in after action reviews and lessons learned raise other concerns about BAO knowledge gaps, especially with regard to foreign language proficiency. Generally, units identify Officers who are already proficient in the PN’s official language or push to provide a new BAO with rudimentary training or foreign immersion. Occasionally, however, BAOs or TCAs report without proficiency in the language. The fact that these billets are not language-coded billets perpetuates this issue, as the billets do not necessitate language proficiency, despite the bilateral nature of that office and the inherent benefits of speaking that language. Not only would language training help new BAOs or TCAs develop rapport with PN officials, but these personnel would better be equipped to analyze DOTMLPF and identify gaps and opportunities as they read PN military doctrine and other publications, such as PN Officers’ professional military education reports on their nation’s readiness and capability gaps.

States Should Adopt a Hybrid Approach to Partner Nation Gap Analysis

States conduct gap analysis at the commencement of a new partnership and periodically (e.g., every five years) thereafter. This process involves key stakeholders or an analysis team assessing a Partner Nation’s current capabilities in a series of focus areas (e.g., human resources, security forces, training, logistics and maintenance, etc.), describing the desired state in each area, and identifying gaps between the present and desired states. This analysis informs SPP planners and facilitates planning for effective SPP activities. Regularly conducting this process helps to steer partnerships by objectively evaluating efficacy of engagements through measured progress in these focus areas.

Despite the common practice of performing gap analysis for partnerships, there is a limited amount of doctrine or tactics, techniques, and procedures shared among units regarding this process. The Army’s Center for Lessons Learned published a bulletin on SPP best practices, which provides general guidance on SPP functions and objectives, but does not discuss the concept of gap analysis or the mission analysis process behind planning SPP activities. Without doctrine, a handbook outlining best practices or providing templates, or a dialogue on lessons learned, gap analysis products vary significantly in scope, focus, and detail by partnership, as does the efficacy of partnership activities. Increased interagency collaboration can help to remedy this deficiency and optimize partnership gap analysis.

Similarly, dialogue between National Guard units and other government agencies is rare. Instead, gap analysis usually involves key stakeholders and staff from the National Guard unit with limited to no consultation with agencies such as USAID or the DoS.[10] National Guard units can enhance gap analysis by utilizing USAID and DoS reports and historical data as inputs to their partnership analysis. States should also institutionalize a formal gap analysis similar to USAID, which typically involves stakeholders and assessment teams conducting desktop research and team discussions, a gap assessment workshop, field visits, focus group discussions, analysis and report writing, and a validation workshop yielding comprehensive analysis products. Incorporating USAID and DoS will approach the measure of interagency collaboration outlined in Presidential Policy Directive 23, which calls for “the establishment of a common, collaborative and effective approach to the planning [of] successful security sector assistance activities.”[11] Such collaboration will also help to resolve incomplete gap analysis mentioned in after action reviews and lessons learned regarding SPP activities, such as failing to explore possible soft power engagements as key stakeholders do not recognize the potential payoff of such events.[12] Similarly, historical partnership assessment products list operational capacity and capability among evaluation variables, but scoring criteria is vague and subjective.

A recent initial partner gap analysis conducted by the Nevada National Guard for its new partnership with Fiji reveals the utility of taking a hybrid approach. Leaders referenced USAID and DoS assessments of Fiji as inputs and included diplomatic considerations among their key indicators.[13] This approach deviated from the traditional list of indicators directly relating to war fighting functions or staff sectors (e.g., human resources, security forces, logistics, information systems, etc.), typical of a SPP partnership gap analysis. The Nevada National Guard Gap Analysis Team assessed these areas, yielding several potential high-payoff engagements. This innovative approach cultivated informed discussion and fostered interagency collaboration in coordinating whole-of-government efforts behind SPP objectives.

The Nevada National Guard’s best practice of making interagency collaboration a fundamental facet of gap analysis should be transformed to doctrine; this should be the norm, rather than the exception. These tactics, techniques, and procedures, such as using key indicators like medical care and emergency response, ensure planners consider soft power projection in determining the most meaningful SPP activities to pursue. Considering these soft power sectors also enables the National Guard to leverage units and individual Guardsmen with unique skillsets. Institutionalizing a hybrid approach to gap analysis by incorporating soft power variables and considerations can help planners identify new opportunities to network with DoS, USAID, and partner nation organizations.


As countries dedicate more resources toward diplomacy, budgets for U.S. traditional soft power tools seem uncertain. The National Guard’s State Partnership Program is one means whereby the United States can hedge against potential losses in influence threatened by budget cuts. While SPP activities have influenced partner nations and strengthened their ties to the U.S., this program is capable of projecting more soft power by ensuring key SPP personnel satisfy training requirements and by refining planning and assessments. Training BAOs or TCA coordinators and SPP state coordinators on soft power and exposing them to organizations engaged in diplomacy will foster inclusion of soft power considerations in state partnership planning. Strong language proficiency among these key players will help them to build rapport with partner nation counterparts and develop meaningful SPP activities addressing partner nation concerns raised in their own reports and studies. States should also strive to incorporate soft power considerations into partnership activity planning and assessments. Formal gap analysis involving interagency collaboration can help to identify opportunities to influence partner nations through engagements promoting American soft power. These changes will better enable leaders to leverage the National Guard State Partnership Program as a tool to project soft power.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

End Notes

[1] Nye, Joseph S. “Propaganda Isn’t the Way: Soft Power.” International Herald Tribune, 10 January 2003. Available at (accessed 19 August 2019); Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

[2] Nye, Joseph. The Future of Power. (New York: Public Affairs, 2011). P. 84. ISBN 9781586488925.

[3] Rabinowitz, Kate and Kevin Uhrmacher. “What Trump proposed in his 2020 budget.” The Washington Post, 12 March 2019. Available at (accessed 16 August 2019).

[4] Wong, Edward. “U.S. Orders Freeze of Foreign Aid, Bypassing Congress.” The New York Times (7 August 2019). Accessible at (accessed 15 August 2019).

[5] Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

[6] “Security Cooperation and the State Partnership Program.” Center for Army Lessons Learned, Bulletin no. 19-01 (October 2018), 15.

[7] Ibid., 25.

[8] Penn, Timothy. “State Partnership Program in support of COCOMs.” Created/posted 29 September 2010. Updated 6 January 2012. Accessed through JLLIS (8 August 2019).

[9] Syllabus, Security Cooperation Management State Partnership Course. Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies, Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Available at (accessed 19 August 2019).

[10] Braun, Michael. 9 August 2019. Interviewed by Matthew A. Hughes.

[11] “Performance Management Framework for Security Sector Assistance.” 2 November 2016. Accessible  at  (accessed 19 August 2019).

[12] Penn, Timothy. “State Partnership Program in support of COCOMs.” Created/posted 29 September 2010. Updated 6 January 2012. Accessed through JLLIS (8 August 2019).

[13] Anderson, Kirk. 12 August 2019. Interviewed by Matthew A. Hughes.

Categories: Soft Power - national guard

About the Author(s)

Captain Matthew A. Hughes serves as a Western Hemisphere Foreign Area Officer. He is currently a Master of International Public Policy student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He earned a BS in Arabic/Spanish and a minor in Terrorism Studies at the United States Military Academy and earned a MA in Intelligence Studies at American Military University.



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