by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
January 13, 2009, ANSER Conference Center, Washington, DC
It is a pleasure and honor to be here. I benefited greatly from the introductory remarks by Congressman Skelton and Andrew Hoehn. They have gotten this workshop off to an excellent start. What they said serves to remind us that the worst thing that one can do is to project our misunderstandings of the present into the future. Defense planners need to do better than that.
I mention this because there is, I believe, very little reason to assume that the future defense environment will resemble that with which we are familiar. Let me cite some examples.
The fiscal constraints on defense spending have already been mentioned. Andrew Hoehn was, I believe, correct to posit that the biggest trade-offs will not be between the services but between defense spending an other priorities. Of course, some—like Marty Feldstein—advocate what might be called military Keynesianism: spending on defense to provide high tech jobs and to inflate the defense industrial base. But that view is probably in a minority. The bigger question, since we have gotten into the habit of running our country on credit rollovers and our creditors are Arab and Chinese is why we should expect them to continue to lend us money to build weapons and develop capabilities intended to bully them? This is a question worth pondering.
In recent years, we have alienated allies, offended friends, and ignored our partners internationally. In military science, we are constantly told, logistics is everything. Given the unwillingness of many people abroad to be seen in our company these days, why should be assume that the alliances, bases, and access rights on which we depend for our status as a world power will continue to be there for us? It is not impossible to imagine that they will not be. This too is something we must consider and address.
Then there is the issue of new technologies to counter our ability to project power abroad. There has been much discussion, in this context, of the concept of a “peer competitor,” which is a euphemism for “China.” But China doesn’t seem to be thinking of itself or behaving as a peer competitor. It has responded to the threat it perceives from our designation of it as such not by trying to match our capabilities and compete head-to-head with us like a peer but by exploring means of asymmetric warfare that can offset our military superiority. The result is an arms race between us in cyberspace and in outer space and the development of weapons systems that can take out aircraft carriers. The concept of peer competitor is a wonderful open-ended program driver for defense procurement but I, for one, am left to wonder whether it is a sound construct for defense planning.
Finally, we have the central lesson of 9/11, which we have so far seemed to miss. That is that if we bomb other peoples’ homelands, they will find a means to bomb ours. We are no longer immune to reprisal. The perpetrators of 9/11 saw themselves as conducting a reprisal for our direct and indirect interventions in Muslim lands. We must face the fact that what we do to others can now be done to us.
But I was asked to talk about non-military contributions to national security, not these things. Let me turn to the topic that was assigned to me.
This meeting was convened to strengthen the QDR process, and this is the Military Operations Research Society. In this context, the topic of non-military contributions to defense is entirely appropriate. It is also timely, given the failure of purely military means to deliver security or accomplish US foreign policy objectives in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. SecDef Gates has been eloquent on the consequences for our national security and our military of the hollowing out of US diplomatic, development, and other civilian capabilities to conduct operations abroad. I will not repeat what he has said. I am sure he himself will do so.
But, I must point out that the topic of non-military contributions to national security would be incomprehensible to most of the world. Few abroad equate national security with military capabilities as we and the Israelis have come to do. Others see military means as one among many contributing factors to national security, not its essence. They see coercive means, including the use of force, as a last resort, to be employed sparingly, if at all. For them, the topic that might resonate would be “military contributions to national security.”
Europeans, in particular, do not equate military capabilities or defense spending levels with security. That’s one reason we are having a hard time convincing them on issues like missile defense, NATO enlargement, or additional military commitments to Afghanistan. Different views on this, not anti-Semitism or the influence of domestic Muslim voting blocks, are behind our differences on the war Israel has launched in Gaza. No one in Europe believes that Israel’s attempt to bomb and strafe Palestinians into peaceful coexistence can work. Many here think it can. Without exception, our allies and friends abroad see Israel’s war on Hamas as a classic misapplication of military power to a problem beyond the capacity of military means to solve. They expect that this war will prove tactically counterproductive for Israel and strategically very costly to both it and its American backers. Time will tell who has it right.
Be that as it may, we are who we are and we are where we are. Who we are is the last country on earth to staff its national security system through the spoils system. This means that every four or eight years, we administer a frontal lobotomy to our national policymaking apparatus. We then spend a couple of years regrowing the brain cells we have gouged out, and learning by trial and error, often lots of error.
And where we are, after sixty years of effort during the Cold War and thereafter, is that we have the world’s most professional and lethal military, its least professional diplomatic service and national security policy apparatus, and—relative to our global ambitions—its most anemic development programs and staff.
Unique among the world’s nations, 1/3 of our country’s senior civilian representatives abroad – our ambassadors – are amateurs whose only known qualification is the campaign contributions they made. With a few exceptions, they were, in other words, appointed for the good of their political party, not the country, and if they have performed well, this was most likely a surprise to them and everyone else. For better or ill, they are also irrelevant to our future national security, as all of them are now leaving government.
Our foreign policy agencies – OSD, State, Treasury, and so forth—now have almost no truly senior career civilian staff. Political appointees today occupy policy positions down to levels in the bureaucracy that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. Very few in our Congress have military experience. Almost none have diplomatic experience. The civilian staff in the nations cooperating and competing with us internationally, by contrast, are almost all professionals—some of them with decades of experience in the national security arena.
Let me briefly digress at this point. Everyone knows—or thinks they do—what soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines do. Very few Americans, including those appointing men and women to diplomatic missions, know what diplomats do. Let me read an excerpt from my own book of a decade ago, “Arts of Power,” to describe what diplomacy is and what diplomats do and thereby illuminate what is lost when both are neglected.
“Diplomacy is the form that statecraft takes in times of peace. It is the elegantly unbloody arm of strategy in war.
“Diplomats work alongside spies and warriors to counsel statesmen and to monitor and guard the interests of their state in relation to others. They harness the power of other states to that of their own in coalitions to promote these interests. They shape the perceptions and actions of other states, harmonize their interests, and build cooperation between them. They erect and operate the framework for their nation’s political, economic, cultural, and military interaction with foreigners. Diplomats assist their fellow citizens in international trade, investment, and cultural exchange. They protect the interests of their compatriots abroad.
“The task of diplomats is the nonviolent advancement of the political, economic, cultural, and military interests of their state and people. They nurture relations with foreign states that will evoke cooperation or neutrality when war becomes necessary. Diplomats conduct the passage from protest to menace, from dialogue to negotiation, from ultimatum to reprisal, from war to settlement and reconciliation with other states. They build and tend the coalitions that deter or make war. Diplomats disrupt the alliances of enemies and sustain the passivity of potentially hostile powers. Their activity marks the phase of policy prior to war; it aggregates the power of allies; it helps to set the aims of war; it contrives war’s termination; it forms, strengthens, and sustains the peace.”
Or, when diplomacy and diplomats are not tasked to do these things or provided with the resources to do them, they do them poorly or not at all.
Let me return to our present circumstances.
Our diplomats have seldom been trained to work with our military and, until recently, had little experience of doing so. And there are far too few of them. 1/3 of foreign service positions in the US are now vacant. So are 12 percent of diplomatic positions around the world, other than Iraq and Afghanistan, which are fully staffed. 2/3 of our foreign service is forward-deployed abroad at any time; 70 percent of those so deployed are at hardship posts; in the past five years, over a fifth of our diplomats have served at posts where it is too dangerous to bring their families. The current situation allows no possibility of training in critical language and other skills to influence foreigners to see and do things our way. And the terms of service, which involve a 20.89 percent pay cut for service overseas and no equivalent of the veterans medical benefits and annuities for families conferred on military colleagues, are taking a predictable toll on retention rates.
After the end of the Cold War, we abolished the United States Information Agency and neglected public diplomacy. We have cut staffing at the Agency for International Development to about a fourth of what it was—even though doing various forms of nation-building, including rehabilitating failed states, is now seen as vital to the success of our national security policies. Our foreign assistance effort, as a percentage of our GDP, has been among the least generous of all developed countries.
The resulting imbalances have grave consequences. Military professionalism, numbers, funding, experience, competence, and dedication to a life in service to the country contrast with civilian unpreparedness, lack of resources, inexperience, incompetence, and lives dedicated to the enhancement of their personal egos and incomes. Our military have had to cope with a policy apparatus here that does not understand either the use of force or its limits and with the absence of adequate and effective civilian partners abroad.
This leads to wars with no clear objectives and no war termination strategies to end them. It leads to experiments in nation-building carried out by campaign gerbils assigned on the basis of their political loyalty rather than their expertise. It leads to stability operations supported by an inadequate number of government civilians who are not development professionals, do not speak the local language, have no prior relevant experience, and who do not stay long enough to get much done. It leads to the sort of disasters we all observe.
Inevitably, it leads to men and women in uniform having to be thrown into the resulting breach to make sure that what needs to get done actually does get done. And it leads to our once and future Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, having to assume the role of our most articulate advocate of a diplomatic, public diplomacy, and development plus-up. The fact that the SecDef has taken on this role leaves room for hope, provided the coming QDR cycle synchs with a serious effort on the part of the new Secretary of State and other cabinet officials to recover and build up civilian capacity. We all better hope it does.
This brings me to a final observation. The greatest deficit in our national security policy is the absence of grand strategy—a strategy that integrates the policies and armaments of our nation in such a way that resort to war is either rendered unnecessary or is undertaken with maximum chance of victory. We had such a strategy during the Cold War and it enabled us to win without fighting. We have shown no capacity to develop a grand strategy to deal with the challenges of the post Cold War era. Our inability to integrate civilian and military aspects of our interaction with allies, partners, friends, competitors, adversaries, and enemies is the ultimate cause for the imbalances in civilian and military capabilities to which I have referred. This is what has caused us to allow our civilian capabilities to atrophy even we enhanced our military power.
National security is not dependent upon and cannot be left to military power alone. It must enlist the other strengths of our nation—political, economic, and cultural—to engage the world persuasively, not just coercively. We must recall how to lead, not just bully others into doing things our way.
We face serious challenges that we cannot meet without partners.
We must redefine relations and establish manageable border between NATO and Russia if we are not to see a return to instability at the western end of the Eurasian landmass.
We must enlist the Muslim allies we need to be effective against the extremists who are our common enemies. We cannot do this if Muslims perceive an American crusade against Islam. That is what feeds the legitimacy of anti-American jihad.
We must develop a strategy to assure the security of the Persian Gulf region at levels or cost and effort that are affordable and sustainable. This is something we have not done that we must do before we leave Iraq.
We must manage a relationship with a rapidly strengthening China that is both our competitor and partner. We need China’s help, for example, in reforming the international financial system to assure our future prosperity and that of the world.
We must consider how best to sustain an overseas base structure and access rights that support our global operations. We cannot do so if ever fewer foreign partners are prepared to pay the price in their domestic politics of association with us.
There are other issues of this magnitude before us, but these will suffice to illustrate the need for the interagency process, which currently lacks any mechanism for strategic reconsideration of policy or long-term planning, to restore or create such capabilities. It is clear that we need to reconstitute and strengthen the civilian foreign policy capabilities we have let slide. Recognizing this, however, does not tell us what specific capabilities are most relevant and required. There is no way to determine that without a strategy that defines our long-term purposes internationally and measures our means of achieving them. We will not get by with more of the same. Unless the QDR is part of such a strategic planning process, however, that’s all it will be. Unless a reinvigorated strategic planning process reconstitutes diplomatic, public diplomacy, and development capabilities to complement our military capabilities, our defense effort will continue to be hobbled by these incapacities and our military will continue to be left to hold the bag in unnecessary misadventures abroad.