The Ethical Implications of Soft Power: Reexamining the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia

As we enter Obama's second term, U.S. state-funded international volunteer programs pose the greatest ethical challenge in U.S.-ASEAN relations. Many of these programs that promote Western ideals and reaffirm U.S. power through peace-oriented development programs, have been in existence for decades. One example, the Peace Corps, was established in the wake of the Cold War, to exert U.S. soft power upon the world through cultural exchange programs. Thus, these programs have served as diplomatic tools necessary to promote cultural awareness and exchange in this globalized world in which we live. Underlying those ideals are the self-interest of multiple agents - states seeking to exert soft power, and volunteers seeking to satiate their “need-to-save” complex and fulfill their international experience quota for the sake of accelerating their career advancement. How much agency do the partnering states have in these programs, and more importantly, how much agency do the communities with which these programs work, have? Therein lies the paradox - what are the real objectives of these ethically dubious programs, and are they truly necessary to foster U.S.-ASEAN relations in our world today?


State Interests

In the past few years, due to the increasing economic growth in the Asian region, the rising power of China, and the security issue that arose from the territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, the Obama administration began to shift its aims to focus more of their attention in the region. This foreign policy strategy is popularly known as the “American pivot to Asia.” As the U.S. seeks to exert its influence to balance China’s power, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to increase ties with the ASEAN countries, visiting all ten in 2010. Seeking to exert their soft power, there has been an increasing trend of U.S. state funded international volunteer programs being initiated and re-initiated in Asia, in particular the Southeast Asian region. The objectives for these programs, such as the Peace Corps, traditionally known to have goals to increase technical skills in developing countries, and to foster two-way cultural exchange among the U.S. and its partnering country, have become unclear due to this strategic foreign policy pivot.

In 2011, in a conversation at the ASEAN-U.S. Conference in New York City, President Obama and the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, came to an agreement over the revival of the U.S. Department of State-sponsored Peace Corps program as an immediate initiative that could be undertaken by the United States to “foster close relations with ASEAN nations.” Former Malaysian Prime Minister condemned the Peace Corps return, explicitly stating, “Now there is no Peace Corps and no aid except when tied to the fulfillment of the policies of the donor.” While the Malaysian Peace Corps failed to be established, in 2010, under Obama’s administration, the U.S. reinitiated the Peace Corps program in Indonesia. The people of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, have been apprehensive towards this reinitiation - questioning not only the diplomatic purposes, but also the implications of condescension and the age-old savior complex stemming from imperialism. One thing is clear though, that these institutions have always been used as tools to exert U.S. soft power - values and ideologies - on their partner countries and regions. These raise questions about the extent to which the state intent behind these programs are ethical.

The Peace Corps

The Peace Corps vision and mission according to the official website have three objectives: the first to contribute towards respective countries’ skilled members of communities, the second and third aim to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and of other peoples on the part of Americans. Some have argued that the Peace Corps itself is undecided about its own definition - a development organization or one with a mission to “promote world peace and friendship.” This indecision has led to multiple interpretations on the part of its applicants and volunteers. To reference Easterly’s idea of “Rhetoric versus Reality,” with the loose supervision, volunteers, once in these foreign country possess a great degree of independence for their self-interested purposes to thrive. Of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers, how many join these programs because of their personal “need-to-save” complex - the moral obligation to help alleviate global poverty and save the world; how many others go because of the idea of having fun in an insensitive and non-culturally aware manner in an exotic foreign Asian land; and how many go to simply build up their credentials after college? With the multitude of interpretations, the implementation does not always reflect the intended mission. Especially so in the case of ASEAN, where so many of these countries are already on the developing train, which interpretation takes prevalence? Furthermore, each interpretation leads to different points of action.

In order for cultural exchange programs to be effective, it is necessary for the volunteers to fully understand the social, political, and cultural complexities of the environment they are immersed in. These Peace Corps volunteers have two years to immerse themselves, thus have an appropriate, if not always adequate amount of time to gain in depth knowledge of the ASEAN community they are meant to serve. However, they are given tasks, by the Peace Corps administration that are not always pertinent to the community’s needs. Because of tight bureaucratic structures, volunteers do not have the ability to act effectively. Moreover, because of the two year time limit, it would be challenging for the next volunteer to resume the work of his or her predecessor with the same degree of understanding. Furthermore, there are multiple agents involved in the Peace Corps assignments - the U.S. state, the foreign state, the volunteer, and the community - all of which have differing interpretations of what it means to be part of the Peace Corps.

Is the Peace Corps still necessary?

The relevance of these programs today are questionable. They were first created by Kennedy during the Cold War to impose US “soft power” in response to communist expansion. Despite the fact that the Cold War ended more than twenty years ago, the peace corps mission remains the same - “to promote world peace and friendship.” Because of the changing political environment, the Peace Corps has started to become a development agency by default. One, however, that is inadequate due to the lack of structure to create effective development programs. As a result, its mission is left broad and ambiguous. Furthermore, should American taxpayers fund these flawed programs in times of harsh budget cuts? The U.S. could find new ways to effectively allocate $377,295 million whether it may be to promote their smart power or to support better development programs. But what would we be losing if these programs were to be eliminated?

This agency is still relevant and necessary because it provides the opportunity to partake in a cultural exchange and gain exposure. Volunteers are chosen because they are passionate, dynamic and adaptable. These programs are still important to have because there are great benefits to these rich cultural exchanges. Volunteers come out with life changing experiences and new perspectives on the world that make them more culturally sensitive. Many go on to continue to volunteer, and influence those among them to be more culturally aware as well. The partner states benefit from the development work the Americans assist them with. Additionally, it is important for the U.S. to pursue these programs in order to strengthen ties with these states by interacting with their communities at the local level. This has been the case in Southeast Asia where the U.S. has decided to start programs in Malaysia and in Indonesia as part of their political strategy to impose their smart power in the region. Likewise, these Southeast Asian nations have welcomed the revival of these programs for their strategic advantage as well, namely, to foster good relations with the U.S., and to borrow technical skills of U.S. youth.  


At the end of the day, although U.S. state-funded international volunteer programs may be thought of as unethical, they are still relevant and necessary. Their missions and visions are fundamentally sound. Nevertheless, as long as these programs continue to possess broadly defined goals and missions, there will always be room for unethical self-interested motives. However, their existence is still important for both the U.S., and the partnering develop country. For the U.S., these programs allow the propagation of their soft power, establishing their presence in a philanthropic manner and improving state-to-state relations. For the partner state, these programs allow for closer ties with the U.S., and also a realistic, non-idealized understanding of the U.S. via its volunteers. Given Obama’s intention to strategically “pivot” towards Asia, it is likely that the U.S. would want to exert more of its soft influence in the region. Nonetheless, we have seen the reactions of the Malaysian and Indonesian states, but as ASEAN countries are becoming increasingly developed and need not depend solely on U.S.-ASEAN relations, these programs will become even more of an ethical challenge. The Peace Corps is not an ideal agency, however if the goals and mission were more specific, or the U.S. creates similar programs that are reorganized in such a way that permits a more developed two-way exchange, they will, a) have the potential to foster culturally aware relationships between volunteers and particular communities, that go far beyond interventionist neo-imperial tendencies, and b) promote state-to-state relations.

Sara Loh

Smith College

Nationality: Malaysia


Isabelle Marie Lopez

Smith College

Nationality: United States