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by Mike Anderson

American foreign policy is complex, and its application by diplomats and military practitioners is challenging in the diverse nature of the current environment. Military and diplomatic advisors during the post-9/11 period have concentrated on non-state threats, conditioning them to resort quickly to military options. In the face of emerging state competitors such as the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China, a broader range of options beyond only military force is required. This generation of policy advisors must unlearn some of what they have learned over the course of the last fifteen years of conflict, as they shift from dealing with non-state actors to addressing the resurgence of near-peer statecraft based on national security threats. These threats have been long ignored during the war on terror. The diplomatic craft represented during the Cold War must be embraced by both the military and diplomatic personnel in practice, and emphasized by the uniformed armed forces and professional diplomatic advisors to policy and decision makers.

Post 9/11 the United States and its allies returned to the hard lessons, costliness, and demands of effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency techniques gained from experiences fighting counterinsurgencies in the Philippines, Malaya, and Vietnam in both the 19th and 20th centuries. However, that swing of the pendulum bred a generation of practitioners who relied too much on military force alone; both military and diplomats increased the focus on countering insurgency and terrorism, at the expense of more traditional state-to-state diplomacy. While Obama’s second term saw a return to a stronger focus on state-to-state competitors, which is continued to the present day, this pivot largely resulted in more military exercises and deployments. Unfortunately, this shift has come at the expense of degrading future ability to effectively address insurgency, terrorism, and irregular warfare, returning to over-reliance on small, specialized military formations, use of local forces, and military sales with ineffectively controlled aid in the Middle East and African regions. The result has been a swinging pendulum of policies, instead of the balanced approach needed in the complex global environment.

Meanwhile, opponent nation-states such as Russia and China took advantage of the American focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare in the fight against violent extremist groups. Russia seized on opportunities provided by the Olympics, our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, war-weariness, and political controversies that directed media attention elsewhere. Firstly, Russia took advantage of the U.S. shifts in manpower, budget, and policy towards crises in the Middle East to invade Georgia during the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. Before the world even fully reacted to Russia’s intervention in Georgia, the Russians secured South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In doing so they achieved significant policy goals, both against Georgia specifically and NATO as a whole, as Georgia had actively courted NATO membership.[i] This issue of territorial sovereignty of the so-called “breakaway republics” is still unresolved, though the violence has subsided.

Secondly, the next opportunity was during the 2012 Winter Olympics in Russia. Even as the games came to a close on 23 February, Putin and his team were discussing their move on Crimea in support of the deposed Ukrainian president. On the last day of the games, a pro-Russian demonstration was held in the Crimea, followed four days later on 27 February with masked, allegedly Russian troops seizing critical infrastructure and sites across the Crimea, supporting the “separatist” groups in response to the Ukrainian government’s recent political upheaval and subsequent more Western leanings.[ii]

The slow and inconsistent response from the West doomed the Crimea (and further emboldened subsequent Russian desire for eastern Ukraine). After these two successful cases of abuses of a distracted world, Putin’s Russia seized on the continuing Ukrainian political weakness and six months later invaded eastern Ukraine. Only because of the limited nature of Russian intervention, the outcry after the Crimean annexation, and faster Western response to the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, is the eastern Ukrainian conflict ongoing and Russia expansion stymied.[iii]

In the Asian-Pacific sphere, China has continued its regional hegemonic ambitions with the South China Sea dispute, an on-going flashpoint. Escalating over the years, China militarized its lengthy dispute over territorial claims with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea waters. They added military forces to the islands including ports, installations, and airfields supporting bombers and missiles, even creating artificial islands since 2014 and continuing to expand this base for operations and expansion within the disputed area.[iv]

Elsewhere in the Asian-Pacific region, the nuclear ambitions of North Korea have befuddled four successive U.S. presidencies since 1992 when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uncovered North Korean nuclear advances. The North Koreans withdrew from the IAEA in 1994, and the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have dealt with an ever-increasing North Korean capability. A string of broken agreements, such as the Agreed Framework allowing IAEA inspectors back in 2002, to North Korea’s withdrawal from the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, culminating in the failure of the lauded Six-Party Talks in 2009, led to limited impact to curb North Korean ambitions until recently, and even the effectiveness of these efforts remains to be seen.[v]

Over the last decade and a half, the Russian agitations in former Soviet states and continued advancements of Chinese military and political expansion received little attention in American foreign policy discussions.[vi] The United States overlooked the broader picture of longer-term impacts. For example, in President Obama’s National Security Strategy for 2010, neither Russia nor China was mentioned in the top national security priorities, whereas the military campaigns and actions against counter extremist groups received bulk coverage.[vii] Comments on China mirrored those of the Bush-era with focus on economic and political reforms, while the portion specific to Russia made no mention of Russian interference in Georgia, even though two years after its invasion Russia still had not withdrawn its forces.[viii]

In summary, U.S. administrations over the past nearly 20 years have focused so much on non-state actors and ongoing military campaigns against terrorism that the education, growth and experience of career diplomats and defense leaders has become defined by reliance on military force or threat of force to achieve foreign policy ends. American foreign policy must address both peer competitor and non-state group threats in the current global environment. This balance requires diplomats experienced and schooled in state to state diplomacy and a more flexible state of mind from military advisors to policy makers, even while maintaining the knowledge of non-state conflicts gained since 9/11.

The ability to give a little up to get more to one’s benefit, not a black and white “you’re either with us or against us” and an unconditional “American way or the highway” approach with diplomacy between nation states does not come naturally to the current generation of senior advisors. However, both Beijing and Moscow seem to grasp and understand the old sense of giving priority to diplomacy backed by action, seizing opportunities, taking advantage of circumstances, and achieving deliberate foreign policy means at the expense of others, giving in some areas while securing their broader goals in others.

As Russia, China, and Iran increase regional influence and hegemony, only their current lack of capacity for expeditionary force projection limits their military reach. The United States’ monopoly in expeditionary force projection may only last a matter of time, until one of the regional powers, or both Russia and China, begin to move beyond their regional spheres. As it stands, their current pursuit of regional dominance impacts American power and influence in their regions and other regions near their base.

Military and political advisors should place higher priority on balancing benefit and risk in their advice to policy makers in the foreign policy arena, rejecting the false sense that military force alone can solve anything. Dealing with aggressive leaders is nothing new; Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously pounded the podium of the United Nations and told a gathering of western diplomats, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”[ix] Even with these types of leaders, diplomatic talk with balanced demonstrations of military force can work, as it did with Khrushchev when the Kennedy Administration defused the highly volatile Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of costly military conflict, the crisis was abated by a compromise of trading missiles in Cuba for missiles in Turkey, arrangements made in secret to the benefit of both sides, with the Americans allowing the Soviets a face-saving and “honorable” way out of the standoff.[x]

The approach of relying on using military force is reflected in budgetary emphasis. For example, at General James Mattis’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee as the Central Command (CENTCOM) commander on 5 March 2013, Senator Roger Wicker asked, “Have you observed that the International Development budget is helpful to us in providing national defense for our country?” Mattis’s response rings true, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it’s a cost benefit ratio.” This principle goes beyond a budgetary discussion and into one on focus and emphasis. Budgetary funding is a clear indication of government priorities, and a shift towards more diplomatic support could benefit diplomatic policy before violent conflict is started to avoid costly conflict.

An essential way to return focus to nation-state diplomacy, overshadowed since 9/11 by reliance on military might, lies through a liberal arts-based education initiative for military and civilian state department employees with incentives both in professional training programs but also in increased exposure to civilian institutions. Incorporating a broad study of interpretive history and international relations into professional military education systems and State Department careers would ensure the exposure to all senior leaders of valuable concepts of diplomacy blended with military strength, including case studies of successes and failures. There is nothing new in this, in fact it means relearning an approach to dealing with other nations that was familiar to an earlier generation of advisors at senior levels. Moreover, there is a need to increase and incentivize higher education opportunities for military personnel to attend civilian institutions for history, political sciences, and sociology/psychology studies similar to current programs funded by the government focused on science, technologies, engineering, math, and cyber education.

Another method to improve military understanding of the art of diplomacy would be expanded cross-disciplinary assignments between the Department of State and the Department of Defense with an emphasis on shared experiences. This already exists, but incorporating it into more duty career paths is important. Additional rotations of support personnel to embassies outside of the narrow Foreign Area Officer (FAO) functional area, or to the intelligence community, could expand military understanding of the State Department’s capabilities, limitations, and art of diplomacy.

Similarly, tours in military commands should be expanded for Foreign Service officers, such as in the Africa Command (AFRICOM), where the office of the foreign policy advisor is embedded in the command team for the organization. This attempt at blending State and Defense into actionable and reactive foreign policy serves as a good model. State Department liaisons could be managed at lower levels as well with conflict and stability officers serving as go-betweens from the country teams to the military maneuver commands. This allows State Department Foreign Service Officers to see the capabilities, limitations, and environment affecting the use of military force, providing them knowledge and experience to share within their career fields. This would provide an excellent counterpart to military officers gaining experience working within the State Department.

The overemphasis on the military instrument after 9/11 changed in President Obama’s 2015 national strategy, reflecting challenges from Chinese modernization and expansion and Russian incursions in Eastern Europe. The 2015 strategy acknowledged that “power among states is more dynamic” than in the past.[xi] The growing focus on a “whole of government approach” in the same 2015 strategy, is the right path. This correct strategy of a whole of government approach is simply theory, however, without adequate fiscal support and personnel.

To conclude, a generation of military and diplomatic professionals have come of age with education, training, and experience in fighting non-state actors and insurgency. These skill sets must be maintained as this arena of conflict is bound to continue; indeed, a military study of history shows that insurgency and irregular war are the most common types of conflict. However, on the world stage, while counterterrorism and counterinsurgency took the spotlight, rival state actors capitalized on the opportunities presented by our distracted attention. The most effective of these actors are the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, and the Iranian Republic. The U.S. must return to a focus on state to state diplomacy and restrained use of military force as the means to persuade nation-states to work with or support American foreign policy objectives for national security to maintain the favorable global environment created by our economic power and global influence. With this enduring influence, and military might, the United States cannot withdraw from leadership in the global community. Either through action or inaction, it remains a world influencer, leaving only the question of how it will approach this role in the future.End.



[i] Ariel Cohen and Robert E. Hamilton, The Russian Military and the Georgia War: Lessons and Implications, Strategic Studies Institute: Pennsylvania (2011), 1-6, 20-23, 74-77.

[ii] Paul Roderick Gregory, “International Criminal Court: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine is a ‘Crime,’ Not a Civil War”, Forbes, 20 November 2016 and Michael Kofman, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, et al, Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Rand Corporation: Santa Monica (2017), 6-12.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 44-45.

[iv] “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea”, Council on Foreign Relations,!/conflict/territorial-disputes-in-the-south-china-sea. Accessed 31 MAY 2018.

[v] “North Korean Nuclear Weapons Threat: Nuclear Proliferation North Korea”, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Accessed 31 May 2018.

[vi] National Security Strategy 2006, 39, 41-42.

[vii] National Security Strategy, May 2010, 4-6.

[viii] National Security Strategy 2010, 43-44.

[ix] Nina Khrushcheva, “The case of Khrushchev’s shoe”, New Statesmen, 2 October 2000 and “Envoys Stalk Again as Nikita Rants”, The Milwaukee Sentinel, (19 November 1956).

[x] “The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962”, Office of the Historian, Department of State, Accessed 12 February 2018.

[xi] National Security Strategy, February 2015, 4, 10-11, and 24-25.



Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson

Michael Anderson is an army officer currently serving in the National Capital Region with deployments to the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Africa. He holds a master’s in Military History from Norwich University, VT, and a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science/International Relations from the University of Central Florida, where he also served as an assistant professor of military science. He has published in Army Magazine, Small Wars Journal, Infantry Magazine, Journal of the West, and a battlefield study from the Combat Studies Institute Press.

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