05/07/2015 05:39 pm ET Updated May 07, 2016

Foreign Aid

A recent report in The Washington Post that the people of Pakistan are beginning to warm up to Americans again, after many years of hostility and estrangement, underscores a pet theme of mine, namely that to influence world events we must rely more on soft power and less on our military prowess.

Of course, public opinion in Pakistan has been radically impacted by the Taliban's atrocity last December in which it attacked a school and murdered 150 students and teachers. It brought home to the Pakistanis the true nature of the radical Islamists, and that their survival depends on alliances with other civilized nations like the U.S. But then that outrage was no isolated event, but rather was reflective of the murderous inclinations of all the Islamic radicals. In the final analysis, the primary victims of the radicalism are not people of the west, but rather other Muslims, most of whom would vastly prefer to live in peace.

The U.S. does have the capacity to reach out to developing nations and help them develop the infrastructure - roads, hospitals, schools - they need to improve their standards of living. One of our most effective programs, and one I got to know as a young officer serving in El Salvador and India, is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that has been diligently representing the best of America and making friends all over the world for many years. There are other agencies and organizations, not all of them U.S. based, doing similar work. Political passions wax and wane, but the good will engendered by this kind of work endures.

In fact, I believe what's happening today - the random brutality and bloodshed - is creating a remarkable opportunity for the U.S. to propagate its values through soft power - helping people in poor countries improve their lot in life. We have a great military but there are limits to what you can accomplish at the point of a gun. There is no limit to what you can accomplish when you reach out to help people.

I am aware that the American people for some reason have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that sounds like foreign aid. Millions of Americans believe we are sending vast sums abroad. This is pure nonsense. The total of all our foreign aid programs comprises a miniscule percentage of our total GDP. It is actually quite miserly.

The news media should correct this misinformation so our government can undertake an accelerated outreach effort to help developing nations prosper and grow. The Islamic radicals offer nothing but butchery and destruction. We can offer a much more attractive alternative and in so doing make the world more resistant to extremism.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.