Playing Hardball for Soft Power

I’m just back from a trip to Washington, D.C. and it was an eye-opener. The main purpose of my visit was to accept the Wittenberg Award from the Luther Institute for service to the public and my church. It was a great honor, and the event gave me a chance to give my “Travel as a Political Act” talk to an audience in a city that lives and breathes politics.

Sitting in that packed church, a travel writer from Seattle, listening to music chosen and sung in my honor (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Songs of Travel”) and listening to church and seminary leaders talk about my work was a little intimidating. But having the opportunity to give my talk to this crowd inspired me as much as anyone. The reception was a festival, and it turned out to be a great and energizing way to kick off an intense and very political couple of days.

While I was in D.C., I worked with the citizens’ action group Bread for the World to lobby members of Congress to follow through on America’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (to join other nations in giving one percent of their budgets to developmental aid), and to encourage our nation’s decision-makers to see that people need development aid beyond military aid.

In a week when Colombia was given $5 billion in military aid to fight its drug war (as one Congressman put it, “That sells American helicopters”), Bread for the World lobbyists and I were busy buttonholing congressional members and staffers to advocate for the needs of hungry people around the world and to ask for $5 billion in developmental aid.

The schedule was brutal, and in my pint-sized escort, Rachel, I met my match when it comes to walking fast down long, long corridors.

I was fortunate to have in-person visits with Senator Patty Murray (who has since voted in favor of the Biden-Luger Amendment to keep our developmental aid strong, for which all BFTW members and I are thankful), Congressman Norm Dicks, Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, and the staffs of Mark Kirk, John Carter and Tom Latham.

BFTW knew who was Lutheran, who was a fan of my guidebooks, and who had been on recent trips and wanted to meet me. They were unabashed about using these excuses to get into those offices and sit down to lobby for the needs of the hungry and homeless.

My own congressional Representative, Jay Inslee, and Representative Rick Larsen of Washington’s 2nd district, sponsored an event in the Rayburn House Office Building attended by 60 church leaders, Congressional staffers and others. I spoke for half an hour, followed by a spirited question-and-answer period and messages from three members of Congress.

I was also invited to be the featured speaker at a German Marshall Fund luncheon, where 40 people with a passion is transatlantic cooperation gathered to hear my take on the value of the US overcoming its isolation and working more constructively with its international friends on poverty, peace and justice issues.

During my many conversations, I picked up on some interesting phrases that are trendy in D.C. these days:

“Soft Power” — The idea that the US can wield its influence and accomplish its goals more effectively by helping people with constructive developmental aid, rather than threatening with military force and rewarding with military aid.

“The Brand of America” — The notion that the goal of the US being liked and respected is that people worldwide will be inclined to buy our products…and the realization across the political spectrum that this “brand” has taken a pretty big beating in the past decade.

“Quietism” — The sense among progressive Christians who, while frustrated by our government’s priorities, feel (unlike some conservative Christians) that it’s inappropriate to incorporate their religious values in political discourse.

I returned home impressed with the constant grind of people advocating for their financial needs in the Capitol. The math is depressingly simple: Any interest (no matter how noble) that is not forcefully lobbied for will simply be pushed aside by others that are. If a Congressman gives money to Interest A at the expense of Interest B, it’s not because he doesn’t like B…it’s just that he gave in to A’s demands, and the money had to come from somewhere. That’s how good and caring members of Congress appropriate funds in ways that hurt hungry and desperate people.

I left Washington D.C. with a deeper appreciation than ever for the dogged work done by Bread for the World. And, frankly, exhausted after two days of playing hardball for soft power.