Airport Security and the Erosion of Soft Power

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It was five in the morning at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. I had already passed through two security checkpoints on my way back to the States and now was standing in line for a third.  A twenty-something girl in front of me was busy explaining to the Delta agent that she had only come to Europe to volunteer for three months and was heading back home for Christmas. The official, who spoke in English with a heavy Dutch accent, continued to follow up, insisting on further details regarding her stay. Welcome to fortress America, I thought.

My interview was a bit shorter. After the nosy interrogator deviated from routine security questions regarding my luggage, I cut him short: “Was this the U.S. government’s rules, an airline policy, or the airport’s prerogative?” I asked. The official obfuscated but ultimately claimed it was a combination of all three. Later, I found out that the U.S. government does require airlines to ask “certain questions” although I have yet to see any such list of said questions.

Additional screening at airports for U.S. bound flights is nothing new.  Some carriers will search your carry-on by hand at the gate; others will demand to see your documents seemingly a dozen times before you board. These measures are annoying (and almost certainly unnecessary), but recent changes like those that apparently have taken place at Schiphol go far beyond the routine. Questioning now dips into the personal, raising serious ethical questions about privacy rights.

Is airport security overstepping its bounds?

If this was the policy of just the airline or the airport, I wouldn’t have such a problem with it. After all, it’s not my airplane, and the carrier has a right to know who and what is on it; I could always fly with someone else. Nonetheless, as an American, citizen I should have every right to travel to my country, and barring an arrest warrant, my return shouldn’t be hampered by the personal inquiries of a Dutch ticket agent at the behest of the U.S. government.

Personal inconveniences aside, U.S. security paranoia does have some far-reaching consequences, particularly, when it comes to soft power. Soft power is the ability of a nation to influence another through non-coercive means. In essence, it is the sum of a country’s cultural influence. The U.S. largely created the global world that we live in today by exporting its culture that emphasizes classical liberal values and consumerism.

However, while the current system has been immensely beneficial to the U.S., it has also globalized the very culture that made America unique. Concepts like the modern shopping mall, which only a few decades ago only really existed in the U.S., are now found in cities around the globe. Hollywood, at one time the undisputed Mecca of the film industry, now has to compete with Chinese blockbusters. Everywhere, the U.S. is seeing its culture appropriated as the world remakes itself for better or for worse in its likeness. What was once exclusively American has become a global cultural phenomenon.

The modern world has been largely shaped by U.S. soft power.

Because of this, travel is playing an increasingly important soft power role. With the advent of mass tourism, foreigners are coming in ever larger numbers to the U.S. for non-migration purposes. Never before have so many people been in such direct contact with America. Naturally, their experience in the U.S. has a strong effect on how they perceive this country.

Unfortunately, for many foreigners, their first point of contact with the U.S. tends to be off-putting. From the very beginning, foreign tourists are subjected to an intense level of screening. The process begins at the U.S. embassy where tourists from the majority of nations must not only fill out pages of paperwork but also must submit to an onsite interview. Applicants often have to wait more than 100 days just to get an appointment. If a visa is issued, a foreign tourist’s next point of contact with the U.S. is an unfriendly security apparatus like the one I described at Schiphol. And even when a foreigner lands in the U.S., after already having received a visa and clearance to fly, they are again subjected to another round of questions and screening.

Some may say that this is necessary to protect the United States from foreign threats and that we don’t need additional tourists anyway.  But the negative economic effects are staggering.  Before September 11, the U.S. government spent only $16 billion on homeland security. By 2011 that amount had increased by over 300 percent to $69.1 billion.  Several newspapers reported that the U.S. was losing out on about $60 billion a year in tourist revenue because of its bureaucratic visa system.  Even more ridiculous is the fact that most foreign tourists receive a free visa upon arrival in Europe, putting the U.S. at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Billions of dollars are spent every year on airport security.

Beyond the economic impact, U.S. visa policy and security measures are greatly undermining our ability to project soft power.  With every rejected visa or intrusive question, the U.S. government erodes the goodwill felt for it around the world.  For many, the idea of America conjures up visions of a police state rather than the land of liberty and economic progress.

This may seem like a minor consequence of keeping America safe, but it has a tremendous impact on the ability of the U.S. to operate outside of its borders.  As trust in America is eroded abroad, so is our ability to sign treaties, engage in business, and protect our citizens from actual threats.  And when we begin to hinder the free movement of our own citizenry to chase the phantom of security, the very concept of America inevitably withers.

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