President Obama at West Point

Thursday, May 29th 2014

The President’s foreign policy speech at West Point described a world full of challenges.  He affirmed that they require American leadership, and he provided his vision for how America – “the one indispensable nation” -- should address them.  Already the columnists and the talking heads are in overdrive.


He emphasized the need for strong American military power, personified by the graduating cadets.  He added, however, “To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”  I took the speech, then, as a call to increase the sway of the other elements of American power.


The vision part is easy.  The hard task for the President and his administration is getting there from here.  In the din of commentary, I offer one specific, focused, and presumably bipartisan initiative – to strengthen our weak and neglected Foreign Service. 


I am an alumnus of the armed forces and fiercely proud of what they have done and what they can do.  I am distressed by the recent reductions in the defense budget.  That said, however, there is an imbalance between our large armed forces and the other elements of American power, particularly our starved and parched American diplomacy.  (I speak of the Foreign Service, but American diplomacy also relies on the Civil Service and the many civil society and non-governmental organizations that implement programs.)  Consider these round figures:


The 2014 defense budget is $615 billion.  There are 1.4 million men and women on active duty and another 1.1 million members of the National Guard and the reserves.  The Department of Defense employs an additional 718,000 civilian personnel.


The international affairs budget is $48 billion.  The Department of State, USAID, and the Peace Corps have about 86 thousand employees.  Among all these, only about 11,000 are core American diplomats in State and USAID.


In money, then, our nation provides more than 12 times the amount for military power as for diplomacy and development.  In people, the disproportion is 24 times.  If you don’t believe that America has a diplomacy deficit, ask former Secretary of Defense Gates, who testified in 2008 that “It has become clear that America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long.”


The President’s address to the cadets – with its tour d’horizon of alternatives to military power -- prompts these questions:


Who mobilizes “allies and partners to take collective action”?  Who will conduct “diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, [and] appeals to international law”?  Who persuades governments to take “collective action”?  That’s the work of the Foreign Service.


It’s not only the combatant commands that “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”  The regional combatant commanders will be the first to acknowledge that they work hand in hand with the Foreign Service.


Even for tasks that will be military – “training security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaida, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and facilitating French operations in Mali” – the Foreign Service plays a strong role. 


Will peacekeepers be needed somewhere on the globe?  It may be American aircraft that transport peacekeepers from one nation to a crisis spot, and it may be that they are trained by American forces.  But who persuades a government to deploy peacekeepers?  It’s ambassadors and Foreign Service Officers that do that work.


The President spoke of Syria.  Who will “coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people”?  It’s the Foreign Service. 


Who gets out and meets “those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators”?  The intelligence community does some of this, but so does the Foreign Service.


If disorder and dictatorships move people to flee their homes, it is the Foreign Service that helps cope with the refugee flows.


Will “institutions to keep the peace and support human progress -- from NATO and the United Nations, to the World Bank and IMF” – play a role to reduce “the need for unilateral American action and increase restraint among other nations”?  This is an arena for American diplomats.


The President affirmed the importance of long term work to support democracy, transition to market and enterprise economies, end corruption, cope with famines, and respect human rights.  It’s America’s diplomats and development specialists that do this.


He spoke of the need to explain our policies, face propaganda and international suspicion, and “shape world opinion.”  Exchanges were praised.  This is the work of the State Department’s Public Diplomacy.


Hopefully the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram will soon be freed.  Afterwards, Nigeria must turn away from corruption, educate its youth, and provide its energetic people with the prosperity they deserve.  Diplomacy and development will be the needed tools.


The President recognized all of this when he told the new Army second lieutenants that “you will work as a team with diplomats and development experts.”  During my career, I worked with the armed forces in Korea, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, and the plain facts are that the enormous size and funding of the armed forces easily overwhelm diplomacy.


Scaling up American diplomacy cannot be accomplished in the few remaining years of President Obama’s term, but he has the opportunity to begin the task.  His speech is welcome, but more than words are needed to strengthen America’s role in the world. 


For diplomacy and the Foreign Service, the nation needs “walk” more than “talk.”  Cuba Gooding, Jr. said it right to Tom Cruise.  “Show me the money!”  I add:  “Show us the people,” “show us reform,” and “show us the leadership.”

6 people have commented on this article so far

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors. authors name for more info

Author: Donald M. Bishop

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Balancing COIN

Your insights are right on target, Donald. But would the current president know what you are talking about, much less the average citizen?

The president obviously prefers "soft power" over military "hard power" in his "play nice" policies on international relations. But history fails to bear out his premise. In most countries run by despots, dictators and those whom consider themselves strong men of destiny--soft power is laughable unless it is backed up by overwhelming hard power.

We've seen this time and again since World War II. How many more lessons do we need than Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, etcetera ad nauseam!

President Obama at West Point

I could not agree more with the comments of Donald Bishop about the absolute and critical significance of the Foreign Service. To his comments, I would add that the higher education system that has helped initiate the development and training of those very vital Foreign Service Officers also merits attention and further financial support. I am advocating for the colleges and universities around the country that provide education and training in foreign language learning and world area studies. Let us also promote increased funding for this sector which has helped create so many valuable American diplomats.

What the President Said Really Meant...

Don Bishop is right on the money with his call for some long overdue attention to America's civilian institutions of diplomacy and development.

The Washington Post's lead editorial on May 29 says "President Obama (in his speech at West Point the day before) has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries."

The Post concluded, "This binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II."

If this is not the signal that the President meant to send, then the Administration needs to show what he did mean to say.  What is this Administration doing that does not signal a global retreat?

The President said the question is “not whether America will lead but how we will lead.” As the New York Times replied in their editorial, "what matters ultimately is his record in the next two and a half years."

Don Bishop concluded: “Show us the leadership.”  That might start with the White House seeking some resources for U.S. diplomacy, and a Presidential  commitment not to nominate even one more third-rate contributor to be an American ambassador.

The president's neglect of public diplomacy

While I agreed with much of the president’s West Point speech, I was stunned to see that he did not mention public diplomacy once, even though many aspects of the speech were about just that. In particular, he called for greater transparency about US counter-terrorism training operations and drone warfare, and announced that he was going to ask the military to “take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts.”

First question: Did he mean the American public only, or overseas publics as well? Probably he was thinking of the former. But in the larger context of the speech, one could take him to be referring to the public in other countries, including those in which these operations are being conducted. Obviously, transparency is a relative term in all of these settings!

Second question: Have the president's speechwriters forgotten that the military already "took the lead", back in the 2000s, and that “strategic communication” was subsequently judged a failure by Secretaries Rumsfeld and Gates, prior to being mothballed in 2012? I find it troubling that the president didn’t use the phrase "public diplomacy" or allude to the impressive work being done by America's few but devoted civilian PD officers.


Commenting on former Secretary Clinton's concept of defense, diplomacy and development as a three legged stool, I wrote in the SAIS Review in 2009: "With defense funded at twelve times the level of all other instruments of statecraft, the U.S. actually has a single large pogo stick with development and diplomacy as atrophied appendages that provide little to balance the military thrust of America’s global engagement." Five years on, as Don makes clear, nothing has changed. A president asserting global leadership while astride a pogo stick is a sadly comic figure.

Obama is doing good now. As

Obama is doing good now. As he said that he will invest on the environmental issues, he will be doing the best thing now.

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