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January 2008

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Mobilizing American Soft Power for Twenty-First Century Conflict
By J. R. Bullington, editor

The U.S. military role in Iraq will almost certainly diminish and may well end under the next president, no matter who wins the election. Yet regardless of the outcome of the war in Iraq, the requirement for active, robust U.S. engagement in difficult, dangerous areas and situations throughout the world will surely endure.

  • We will still need to fight violent Islamist extremists determined to attack us and our allies.
  • We will still need to prop up and try to reform failing states, and help re-build those that have already failed.
  • We will still need to assist threatened populations, facilitate political processes, and protect our citizens and interests in conflict zones.

Moreover, everyone agrees that these enduring global challenges cannot be met successfully by military force alone, no matter how strong and competent it may be. Diplomacy, intelligence, communications, economic development, and other non-military instruments are also required. These instruments constitute the nation's 'soft power,' the ability to influence, persuade, even inspire, as opposed to coerce.

But even though both the global challenges and what must be done to deal with them effectively are known and generally accepted, it is increasingly clear that the Foreign Service and other civilian components of U.S. soft power lack sufficient resources and are ill prepared to meet the demands of twenty-first century conflict.

Consequently, the U.S. military has found it necessary to develop its own substitutes for the missing soft power capabilities of the civilian agencies. The Defense Department share of official development assistance, for example, has risen from 6% in 2002 to 22% currently. Moreover, more and more soldiers are doing civilian-type jobs, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but in other conflict zones and potential conflict zones as well. As these trends continue, American foreign policy assumes an increasingly military coloration.

The military does not want to take on these traditionally civilian roles, but is doing so by default. This was made clear in the new Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which states the official doctrine that military force is a last resort and cannot be more than a part of any successful strategy. And Defense Secretary Gates, in a widely-noted speech November 27, called for “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security — diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development.”

One import proposal to boost civilian soft power capability is in legislation currently pending in Congress. As described by Secretary Rice and Senator Lugar in a December 17, 2007, Washington Post op-ed, it would create “a volunteer cadre of civilian experts who can work with our military to perform the urgent jobs of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.” The legislation provides for:

  • A 250-member corps of State and AID Foreign Service Officers who have trained with the military and are ready to deploy to conflict zones.
  • A “ready reserve” of 2000 other federal employees with appropriate language and technical skills for such deployments.
  • A “Civilian Reserve Corps,” at an initial strength of 500, with expertise in such areas as engineering, medicine, and police work, that would be trained and could be called on for deployment in conflict zones.

Also pending in Congress is the Administration's FY-2009 budget request that seeks to add 1076 new positions for the State Department and 300 for AID, almost all for Foreign Service personnel.

Moreover, several think tank studies, looking especially to influence the Administration and Congress that will take office in 2009, have called for both increased soft power resources and major changes in how they are organized and coordinated.

One of the most important of these studies is the report of the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) Commission on Smart Power, co-chaired by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense. (Read the report at: http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/071106_csissmartpowerreport.pdf ) The Commission members were a distinguished bipartisan group of political leaders and foreign policy experts.

Other studies are currently in progress, such as one managed by the American Academy of Diplomacy (http://www.academyofdiplomacy.org) that is designed to produce hard budget and personnel numbers to support the increased demands on traditional, public, and development diplomacy as well as for stabilization and reconstruction needs in conflict zones.

Will any of these efforts to bolster American soft power bear fruit? Most of the foreign policy establishment seems to support the need to take action along these lines, and soon, in order to re-build the country's global strength and position. Budgets, however, are tight, and public support for non-military foreign affairs expenditures has been historically difficult to generate and sustain. Moreover, the highly partisan and heated nature of the current foreign policy debate militates against important new initiatives. Leadership and statesmanship of a sort not recently evident in Washington will be required to move beyond talk to action.

But failure to act will imperil American security in a dangerous world and further erode U.S. ability to conduct an effective foreign policy.



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