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.”