Defense Policy

Jane Harman Makes a Hard Case for Soft Power

June 16, 2021  • Marko Mavrovic

After featuring the most notable authors of our time for 17 years, the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series came to a close earlier this month. The final event featured Aspen Strategy Group member Jane Harman and the program’s Executive Director Nicholas Burns in conversation about Harman’s new book, Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe. Burns is a professor of diplomacy and international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School. Harman is an Institute trustee and president emerita of the Wilson Center. Together, they explored a range of challenges to the US including climate change, present and future pandemics, and China’s rising global influence—all of which demonstrate the need for a new foreign policy approach.

The title of Harman’s book alludes to the aphorism, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” It serves as an implicit criticism of the US foreign policy establishment’s inability to transform itself after the Cold War. Harman, who served in Congress for 16 years, uses the book to explain that a foreign policy transformation is desperately needed. She says the problems of the world “are more dangerous than when the Cold War ended.” Harman believes the US could course correct by reinvesting in diplomacy and “soft power”—critical tools underutilized by American officials following the end of the Cold War.

Harman also reflected on her initial support of the Iraq War as the then-ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. She recalled a conversation with her late husband, Sidney, who disagreed with her on the issue. Harman believes that the Middle East has become a foreign policy purgatory for the US. She identified China, Russia, terrorism, the pandemic, and climate change as more important priorities, while advocating that the US should begin to project soft power in the Middle East.

Burns closed the conversation by asking Harman what she is hopeful about. She described how the Covid-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to advance technology, correct recurring US foreign policy mistakes, and foster international cooperation. Harman, who joined the discussion from her family home in California, also spoke of her grandchildren saying that she hopes that “their world is better than our world.”

You can watch the entire Gildenhorn book talk here.

Women in Leadership
Three Important Female Firsts in US National Security and Foreign Policy
March 19, 2021 •