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by Charles Ray


The issue of militarization of American foreign policy is one that has simmered for decades. The American preference for employment of economic pressure and/or military force as a ‘quick-fix’ to deal with international problems instead of a more nuanced diplomatic approach is not a phenomenon of the 20th or 21st century. The increased militarization of U.S. foreign policy of the last decade is a continuation of a trend that has existed in one form or another for most of the nation’s history.

The over-reliance on military power in foreign affairs, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, dramatically increased with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  However, almost from the beginning of the founding of the republic, under pressure from business interests concerned with maintaining or increasing their prosperity or groups interested in maintaining their positions of influence or power, American political leaders have often resorted to use of force for a short-term solution.

Why the preference for the military over diplomacy?

According to Roger Whitcomb, in the August 24, 2015 issue of The Morning Call, “we Americans have long had a deep-seated distrust of diplomacy.” This is, Whitcomb writes, because of the following factors:

-We think of solving problems instead of living with them.

-We view compromise as an unnatural alternative to victory.

This reflects our frontier mentality, a cult of individualism, and our national experience in which success is regarded as the result of persistent effort. Compromise, from the American cultural viewpoint, is equivalent to appeasement, which is equivalent to surrender.

After the establishment of the republic, we viewed diplomacy as an Old World construct that was incompatible with our national values.

Geoffrey Wiseman, a professor at the School of International Relations of the University of California, in his article, “The Distinctive Characteristics of American Diplomacy” in the August 2011 edition of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, outlined what he describes as the distinct way in which the United States practices diplomacy.  He also described this long-held dislike and distrust of diplomacy. “The United States,” he wrote, “conducts a form of anti-diplomacy, accepting in practice many diplomatic norms and practices while remaining reluctant to acknowledge it.

Wiseman listed seven factors that contribute to this attitude:

  • A long-held distrust and negative view of diplomacy.
  • A higher degree of domestic influence on foreign affairs and diplomacy than one finds in countries of comparable size and power.
  • A tendency of the United States to prefer hard power over soft power.
  • American preference for bilateral rather than multilateral diplomacy.
  • An American ideological tradition of isolating and shunning states with which we disagree.
  • A higher percentage of non-career diplomats than any other industrialized nation.
  • A strong cultural disposition toward a direct, low-context negotiating style.

At the founding, there was a similar view about the military. To much of the population of the new republic, having lived under the heel of the British army, a standing army was anathema. The Continental Army, formed to fight in the Revolution, was effectively disbanded, and citizens looked to the state militias for defense. The navy became a shell of what it had become at the height of the conflict. Even during the conflict, the Congress relied on the states to financially support the army, in addition to providing militias to support its operations.

Over time, American attitudes toward the military have evolved. Our standing military force, including the Coast Guard, the newly-established Space Force, and reserves, is over two million strong. This number does not include the state National Guard units. Popular media glorifies the military, and the defense budget accounts for approximately 20 percent of the federal budget.

Popular media, movies, TV shows, books, etc., generally portray the military as heroic, while there are few diplomatic ‘heroes.’

There are a number of reasons that the military would seem more appealing to the average American than diplomacy. The military is a mission-oriented organization, designed to ‘get things done.’ The desired end result of a military mission is victory, not compromise; one only has to look at the reaction to our adventure in Vietnam, or the stalemate that resulted in an armistice in Korea to understand that Americans don’t like to lose, and view compromise as losing. Korea was not the forgotten war for no reason, and we still occasionally hear arguments about who ‘lost’ Vietnam. Winning is so important to the American psyche, that when Mao’s Communists took over in China in 1949, many of the politicians who had ignored the warnings from American diplomats assigned there then blamed and punished those same diplomats for ‘losing’ China.

Bigger is not always better, but it usually wins the fight

Over the centuries, the U.S. foreign policy department, the Department of State, has been sidelined, maligned, ignored, underfunded, and marginalized repeatedly. Diplomacy has only occasionally been considered as an important national asset, usually when trade and commerce are at stake. Thomas Jefferson, the first U.S. Secretary of State, believed that an independent America had no need of diplomats beyond a few commercial consuls. The United States even refused to send ambassadors abroad until 1893, over a hundred years after gaining its independence, when Thomas Bayard, who had served as Secretary of State for President Grover Cleveland, was sent to the Court of Saint James in London as the first ever Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States. Until that time, the country had been represented by ministers who ranked below ambassadors, even those from the smallest and most insignificant nations.

Thomas Bayard in 1893 became the first ambassador appointed to represent the U.S. abroad.

In 1901, the Department of State had a total of 82 domestic employees, and 75 diplomatic representatives overseas at 35 missions. There were, of course, a large number of consulates run by businessmen who had political connections with the administration in office, and whose salary came from the fees they collected for their services. There were no career diplomats until passage of the Foreign Service Act of 1924, called the Rogers Act, which combined the diplomatic and consular services into one United States Foreign Service, with merit-based entry and promotion.

In contrast, the U.S. Army of the same period consisted of a total of 28,100, mostly stationed at 55 posts west of the Mississippi. To put this disparity in numbers into more detailed perspective, the army of that time included ten cavalry regiments, with a total of 6,400 officers and enlisted men assigned. The cavalry units, along with ten infantry regiments, were primarily engaged in quelling Native American uprisings that took place while the U.S. Government was engaged in the Civil War.

The disparity between personnel and budget devoted to the military and that devoted to diplomacy has continued down to the present day. The current American military establishment has nearly 3 million people and a budget in excess of $700 billion, compared to combined Department of State/USAID strength of around 73,000 (including 45,000 locally employed foreign nationals), and combined budgets of just over $90 billion. Since 2017, there have been repeated attempts by the Executive branch to reduce the State/USAID budget, while increasing the Defense budget, which have fortunately been rebuffed by the Legislative branch. What this demonstrates is a marked preference on the part of America’s political leadership for the employment and support of hard power over soft that has been part of American politics from the beginning.

The military as proconsuls

An American ambassador is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Upon being sworn in, the ambassador is given a letter from the President conferring responsibility for and authority over all U.S. Government programs and personnel in the country of assignment, except those under a Regional Combatant Commander (COCOM). At first glance this would appear to recognize that the ambassador is the American official in the country who in the vast majority of instances has the last word. Having served as an ambassador twice, though, I can attest that the reality is quite different.

There is a long history of ambassadors being upstaged, outmaneuvered, or just ignored by senior defense officials, who act almost as proconsuls in the ancient Roman tradition. At times, this has probably been necessary, as in the military governments in occupied Germany and Japan after World War II, and has worked out well, while at other times, it has led to foreign policy disasters, such as the Coalition Provisional Authority after the end of the 2003 Iraq War.

Potential conflicts between ambassadors and defense officials exist in many countries, and not just those with a large American military presence. Examples include the Defense Department (DOD) proposing to send special operations personnel to embassies who would report directly to DOD and not through the ambassador, or designating embassy defense attaches (DATTS) as senior defense officials (SDOs) reporting directly to the COCOM. At these times, the authority of the senior U.S. official was severely undercut. In the first instance, it placed often young military personnel with limited local knowledge in situations where they engaged in activities without the approval or oversight of the ambassador, leading to diplomatic incidents that the ambassador then had to resolve. In the case of the DATTS, it added another chain of command to an individual who, as a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) official was already reporting to two bosses, the ambassador and DIA. This move was further complicated when the senior military officer in a country was not the DATT, such as when there was a Military Advisory Group (MAG) in the country and the group commander outranked the DATT.

The author, when he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, along with Rear Admiral Donna Crisp, commander of the Joint Personnel Accounting Command, visiting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) archives in Beijing in 2008. They were the first foreign officials allowed to do so. In his DOD position, the author was authorized to negotiate and sign agreements with foreign governments, such as the agreement that granted U.S. POW/MIA researchers access to PLA archives in their efforts to resolve MIA cases from the Korean and Vietnam wars. While diplomats usually participate in negotiations between countries, including status of forces agreements negotiated by embassies with DOD participation, negotiations relating to accounting for MIAs did not involve the State Department during the author’s tenure.

Restoring the proper balance between diplomacy and defense

In today’s complex world, no one organization, not even the resource-rich Department of Defense, has all of the skills and capabilities needed to ensure our security and prosperity. While the Department of State should be the preeminent agency in the foreign affairs arena, this is not to suggest that there is no role for other agencies to play.

Some wags compare diplomacy to Venus and defense to Mars, describing the soft approach of diplomacy to the less-nuanced, mission-oriented approach of defense, and with the American cultural tendency to solve problems rather than find ways to live with them. Opting for the short-term quick-fix, however, is not always the most desirable. We must never lose sight of our long-term objectives in our quest to ‘get it done.’

There are, I believe, a number of things that are essential if we are to restore the proper balance between solving immediate problems and maintaining the essential relationships necessary to cope with unforeseen future crises.

At the national political level, a new, or renewed, appreciation for the need to keep our long-term national interests in mind while coping with the wolf at the door, or to paraphrase an old Korean adage, we shouldn’t burn the house down to get rid of bed bugs.

The first thing needed is an adequately resourced Department of State, both in terms of budget and personnel. The staffing of State should be increased, not only to ensure fully staffing all of our overseas and domestic positions, but to provide for a ‘training float’ to enable our diplomats to get the training and education necessary to cope with current and future events without missions and bureaus having to endure extended vacancies in their staffs. The diplomatic service should be as diverse as the country it represents, including gender, race and ethnicity, and geographic diversity.

The practice of appointing non-career individuals to diplomatic positions should be reformed, with a reduction of appointments of those lacking the necessary qualifications, or who are appointed on the basis of political donations. Political patronage is hard-wired into the American system, but we should adhere to the letter and spirit of the 1980 Foreign Service Act by limiting such appointments to those who have an important and critical contribution to make to the implementation of our nation’s foreign policy.

The State Department, working with the White House and Congress where necessary, needs to get away from its attitude of risk avoidance regarding assignment of personnel to hazardous areas, and adopt risk management and mitigation, analyzing the risks and rewards of assignments. State must also develop closer and more effective relations with the legislative branch when it comes to taking on new missions. Doing more with less has never been an effective way to get things done. The only thing that can be done with less is less.

Benjamin Franklin featured in exhibit
The National Museum of American Diplomacy tells the story of the history, practice, and challenges of American diplomacy.

While the Defense Department has an edge over State in regards to domestic constituencies, the leadership at State must recognize that the department does have a domestic constituency, one that we don’t do enough to tap into. Establishment of the National Museum of American Diplomacy is a good first step in the process of educating the American public on what diplomacy is, and what it does for every American, but it’s just a baby step. More needs to be done, and it can be done. The Hometown Diplomat Program, for instance, where Foreign Service Officers and Specialists, returning from overseas tours, or on home leave, were provided stipends to do speaking engagements and other outreach in their home areas, should be revived and expanded. The Diplomat-in-Residence program should be expanded to more colleges and universities; in addition to the mid-level officers now assigned to these positions to engage in recruitment, State should again assign more senior officers, especially those who have served as ambassadors, to engage in public outreach in areas away from the metropole.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the third leg of the foreign policy triangle, development. Ensuring our national security requires development along with diplomacy and defense. This was recognized in 2009 when the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was started. To be done every four years, the QDDR was designed to identify major global trends that constitute threats or opportunities, and to outline priorities and reforms to ensure that our civilian foreign affairs agencies are in a position to respond to and shape events in a rapidly changing world. A joint effort of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the QDDR was meant to be a companion to the Defense Department’s congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which establishes long-term priorities for defense. Taken together, these two reviews, if properly harmonized, could be a blueprint for the path the U.S. should take in an increasingly multi-polar and dangerous world. The next QDDR was due in 2019, but a search of the State Department’s official web site reveals the last issued was in 2015, leaving one to believe that this, along with many other policies of the previous administration, has been abandoned.

None of the above will be easy, but necessary is hardly ever easy. If, however, the U.S. is to regain the global leadership that it held from the end of World War II, and help not only to ensure a more peaceful and prosperous world but the survival of life on the planet as the specter of climate change looms over us all, it is an undertaking that we eschew at our own peril.

Venus and Mars might be significantly different planets, but in our solar system, the orbit of one impacts the orbit of the other. Diplomacy and defense are no different. Neither can do the job alone.End.

Charles A. Ray

Charles Ray served 30 years in the Foreign Service 1982-2012), after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army. He was the first American consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and subsequently ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. In addition, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006 to 2009.

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