The Liberal Arts: Why They’re Crucial to US Security Interests

Policymakers would be wise to ensure that the United States continues to be at the forefront of generating intellectual capital or else risk losing one of its most powerful assets in the arena of international affairs.

By Samuel Doo
October 7, 2013

What do cursive writing, The Iliad, and Andy Warhol have to do with US security? Why should American schools teach liberal arts material when the United States is losing its competitive edge in research and development? Annual OECD reports show that US students have perennially lagged behind their counterparts on math and science test scores. As policymakers have voiced concerns on issues ranging from economic competitiveness to cyber-security gaps, American public schools are pushing towards a STEM-orientated curriculum. A study published by the Center on Education Policy found that since 2001, 71 percent of school districts across the country reduced the hours spent on teaching history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. What this policy shift ignores, however, is a crucial element of power in international relations: the value of intellectual capital.

Dr. James Flynn, an expert in intelligence who is renowned for his study on the Flynn effect, recently stated that while global IQ scores have risen with each subsequent generation, youth have become progressively less involved in learning history. What does this trend mean for future US foreign policy? Policymakers would do well to remember that the United States didn’t win the Cold War solely because of superior technological and economic prowess; it won because it also triumphed in the realm of ideas. Czech revolutionary Václav Havel and former Soviet premier Boris Yeltsin both noted that American culture, projected through media like the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, created socio-political conditions that led to the Soviet Union's collapse. In one particularly inspiring application of soft power, testimonies from retired case officers and declassified documents revealed that the CIA actively promoted abstract expressionism artwork by organizing art exhibitions, international conferences, and public accolades for prominent artists like Jackson Pollock. As U.S. policy concerns grew over Communism’s appeal to Western intellectuals and artists, the CIA channeled millions of public dollars into organizations like the Congress of Cultural Freedom. They championed Abstract Expressionism as proof of the United States' unbridled creativity and intellectual freedom over Socialist Realism’s rigid and conformist allegiance to Communism. In subsequent years, Abstract Expressionism became the first American artistic movement to become internationally recognized, which led to the United States replacing France as the de facto center of the Western art world.

Dr. Joseph Nye, dean of The Harvard Kennedy School of Government, coined the phrase "soft power" to describe this concept of using ideas to attract and persuade rather than coerce. U.S. policymakers and practitioners stress the importance of “winning hearts and minds,” and the 9/11 Commission report concluded that eliminating Al-Qaeda requires “prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism.” While technological innovations can produce tools to better combat terrorist groups and help develop robust economies that are more resilient to attacks, the next generation of US policymakers must take into consideration the cultural and historical grievances of the Middle East to better understand and confront the roots of terrorism. China has taken center stage in U.S. security concerns; much of the discussion focuses on its economic and military ascent. In recent years, however, Chinese projection of soft power has begun to take on a more prominent position in the discourse. According to Dr. Deborah Brautigam, China has successfully framed its involvement in Africa as a cooperative partnership between two developing regions, a case of “the poor helping the poor.” The Chinese emphasis on relationship building has resonated strongly with African intellectuals who bristle at the paternalistic way that Western countries come across while stipulating the terms of foreign aid.

The impact of liberal arts on national security isn’t as quantifiable as technological and scientific innovations. It is easy to grasp how a new source of energy or innovative weapons system benefits a country. Things become less clear when it comes to intellectual matters, but they have much to offer if policymakers are willing and able to address them. History isn’t just memorizing facts and dates; it is about learning lessons for future application. Sociology challenges us to look at our collective shortcomings and to act upon them. Art and literature allow us to transcend cultural boundaries by celebrating our creativity, the most defining feature of human beings. Philosophy compels us to constantly reevaluate ourselves and to question what we know. For better or worse, the United States has held the predominant role in setting the agenda of international affairs and the primacy of American ideas and culture has been a decisive factor in its capacity to do so.

As we enter a world where U.S. military power declines in relation to other emerging powers and unilateral action becomes less feasible, soft power will continue to gain prominence. Still, it would be a mistake for policymakers to push a top-down approach towards promoting soft power. While the CIA’s sponsorship of Abstract Expressionism was a resounding policy success, the intellectual legitimacy of this artistic movement would have been jeopardized if the CIA’s involvement had been exposed. The government’s role should be limited to ensuring an environment where intellectualism can flourish and the liberal arts are valued. Powerful ideas are best produced in the competitive environment of the public sphere where they are vigorously debated and refined. With that in mind, policymakers would be wise to ensure that the United States continues to be at the forefront of generating intellectual capital or else risk losing one of its most powerful assets in the arena of international affairs.

Samuel Doo is a first-year M.A. candidate in the Security Policies Studies program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He previously earned his B.A. in Political Science at the University of Michigan.

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