As Barack Obama begins the restoration of Democratic control of the White House, there’s a growing chorus calling for another restoration: civilian control over U.S. foreign policy. In other words, revitalizing diplomacy and development, which in recent years have lagged behind defense in the American statecraft toolbox.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, many activities normally undertaken by the State Department and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) have increasingly become the military’s purview. For example, the Department of Defense’s share of U.S. foreign aid funds skyrocketed from approximately 5 percent to 25 percent during the Bush administration. Soldiers took on many “nation-building” tasks previously eschewed by Republicans, such as building civilian police forces, judicial systems and basic services following conflict and disaster, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Africa and elsewhere. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned against the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy.
With America’s reputation abroad ebbing and increasing strains on the nation’s military, there is a growing consensus that boosting foreign aid staffing and funds and shifting control back to civilians may reverse this tide.
Yet debate remains over a number of thorny issues, including how the money and manpower should be used and divided, which will inevitably lead to turf wars with the Pentagon and other interagency infighting. There’s also the question of how to help a State Department chronically plagued by low staffing, low funding and low morale — but high in bureaucratic ineffectiveness — and what dynamic Hillary Clinton will bring to Foggy Bottom. That’s not to mention the broader questions over how to address nation building, conflict prevention and failed states, as well as the challenges of adapting a confusing, many say antiquated, foreign policy labyrinth to meet 21st-century international demands.
First, Follow the Money Clearly, one obstacle to restoring active civilian control over foreign assistance is anemic funding of State and USAID. The total international affairs budget request for the 2009 fiscal year comes to almost billion, with .2 billion appropriated to the State Department and .1 billion for other foreign operations and related agencies, including USAID.
In sharp contrast, the fiscal 2009 base budget request for the Defense Department exceeds 0 billion — a nearly 74 percent increase over 2001, according to the White House — which doesn’t include around 0 billion in emergency discretionary or supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the loosely defined “global war on terror.”
Of course, ongoing wars have necessitated ballooning defense budgets and more boots on the ground, which military proponents say are oftentimes better equipped to stabilize post-conflict situations. And under Bush, diplomacy and development budgets have expanded to historic levels, though critics counter that they still pale in comparison to what the Pentagon receives. Aid proponents also say the United States gets more bang for the buck with soft power than military might, arguing that civilian tasks are best left to civilians rather than an overstretched military.
The report “A Foreign Affairs Budget of the Future” issued in late 2008 by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center urged a 50 percent increase in the number of diplomats and development professionals — some 4,700 personnel — over the next five years, along with other reforms, including transferring authority over selected Security Assistance programs — totaling 5 million annually — from Defense over to State. But while the Pentagon is increasing the size of U.S. ground forces by more than 90,000 troops, State has failed to win congressional approval for just 1,150 Foreign Service officers, so aiming for another 5,000 is lofty.
Economic realities may also temper those hopes. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and former member of the State Department policy planning staff, said that the recession and competing political priorities are likely to limit a major increase in U.S. foreign assistance in the near term, despite Obama’s campaign pledge to double foreign aid.
“What we may [see] however are strategic, organizational and institutional reforms that are not particularly costly, as well as some modest expenses to build up the technical and professional expertise of civilian agencies,” Patrick speculated. He listed such possibilities as new directives on conflict prevention and response, high-level White House staff, improved intelligence on fragile states and a more multilateral approach.
Others though are lobbying for a more radical overhaul of foreign policy priorities. Thomas A. Schweich, who served under Bush as ambassador for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan and deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, lambasted what he described as the “silent military coup d’état” of the U.S. government in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
Criticizing the wide disparities in diplomatic and defense budgets, he cited the example that the State Department received an average of some million a year for rule-of-law programs in Afghanistan — “in stark contrast to the billions that the Pentagon got to train the Afghan army” — arguing that the Defense Department then botched the job and unnecessarily militarized what should have been a civilian police force. Among other measures, Schweich recommends a massive transfer of funds from the Pentagon to the State Department, Justice Department and USAID, as well as an influx of senior civilian officers — not military personnel — into key subsidiary positions in the intelligence community and the National Security Council.
But getting the Defense Department to give up control and influence — let alone money — is no small task, although the resource-strapped State Department may have found an unlikely ally in recent years at the Pentagon.
The Gates-Clinton Factor Key to any shift of development funds from defense back to civilian hands is the dynamic between Gates — who’s been tapped by Obama to stay on as defense secretary — and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In contrast to his predecessor, Gates advocates greater investments in USAID and State.
“The military and civilian elements of the United States’ national security apparatus have responded unevenly and have grown increasingly out of balance,” Gates wrote in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
He complained that in the 1990s, “with the complicity of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, key instruments of U.S. power abroad were reduced or allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers. The U.S. Agency for International Development dropped from a high of having 15,000 permanent staff members during the Vietnam War to having less than 3,000 today. And then there was the U.S. Information Agency, whose directors once included the likes of Edward R. Murrow. It was split into pieces and folded into a corner of the State Department.”
But Gates added: “Since 9/11, and through the efforts first of Secretary of State Colin Powell and now of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the State Department has made a comeback. Foreign Service officers are being hired again, and foreign affairs spending has about doubled since President Bush took office.”
Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations called Gates’s appeal for a more balanced foreign policy an “enlightened act of public service and a welcome breath of fresh air,” adding that Clinton is exploring ways to transfer some of the national security budget back to State (also see profile of Hillary Clinton).
“I would expect President Obama to be supportive of this trend and, provided that cuts to DoD’s budget are modest, he may find a receptive audience with Secretary Gates,” Patrick said.
But Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is skeptical of any rapid change, even with Gates at the helm. “A lot of people have highlighted Gates’s call for more State funding. The problem is that he requested an increase in the Defense budget in fiscal year 2009 that’s more than State’s entire budget,” Preble pointed out. “He’s done nothing to make his call happen.”
Indeed, in that same Foreign Affairs article, Gates pushed for a robust, more modernized Pentagon, arguing that defense is indispensable to U.S. strategy. “Yet even with a better-funded State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, future military commanders will not be able to rid themselves of the tasks of maintaining security and stability. To truly achieve victory,” he wrote, “the United States needs a military whose ability to kick down the door is matched by its ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.”
With or without the support of Gates, Patrick warned that persuading a traditionally noninterventionist American political culture to expand foreign outreach will be difficult, especially when much of the dirty work is already done by the Department of Defense (DoD). “Given the tremendous capabilities of the U.S. military, there will be a constant temptation to rely on DoD, which can usually get its budgets [easily] approved by Congress, to undertake activities that would more appropriately be undertaken by properly resourced civilian actors,” Patrick explained. “This will be a hard dynamic to break.”
Another potential obstacle will be convincing the remaining cadre of Bush staff at the Pentagon, many of them holdovers from Donald Rumsfeld, to give up funds and control over to foreign aid programs. And it remains to be seen whether the new administration will sweep out political appointees who resist such a funding shift and nation building in general.
A Wandering Eye Yet another challenge to a sustained increase in civilian diplomatic efforts is the short attention span of both politicians and voters on issues abroad. “It’s very tough to keep the U.S. government and the American people focused on the long term and to make multiyear commitments of attention and resources,” said Patrick. “The entire U.S. foreign policy apparatus, but particularly the State Department, is governed by the ‘tyranny of the inbox’: the urgent often crowds out the important.”
To combat that problem, Patrick proposes a Cabinet-level “Department of Global Development” that would elevate development as a priority for U.S. foreign policy on a par with defense and diplomacy. The plan is part of a larger strategy to enhance and streamline foreign aid programs advocated by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a coalition of foreign policy experts and think tanks created in early 2008 that includes Patrick, as well as Steve Radelet of the Center for Global Development, Francis Fukuyama and Gayle Smith.
Patrick argues that instead of replicating USAID, a Department of Global Development could streamline the bureaucracy by integrating “spigots” of U.S. development assistance that are currently scattered throughout the government, such as PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
Patrick noted that although the MCC was a positive step, its exclusive focus on states with good governance risks making fragile states “aid orphans.” Instead, he argues that the United States should view aid to fragile states like venture capital, with a higher rate of failure but potentially greater long-term reward when it succeeds.
Indeed, many aid advocates urge giving development a formal seat at the table like Britain’s Department for International Development to better organize such a vital component of U.S. global outreach. Patrick contends that at a minimum, there should be a State Department bureau and National Security Council (NSC) directorate with oversight of failing states, assessing U.S. interests at stake if a country “goes belly up” and conducting contingency planning on how to respond to or forestall a crisis. “Needless to say, the stakes for the U.S. will vary enormously, depending on whether the country is, say, Pakistan or Burkina Faso,” he said. “The hope here is to get ahead of the curve so that we are not always playing catch-up.”
Patrick noted that too often, the U.S. government doesn’t take action until a crisis has become so intense that it rises to the level of the Deputies Committee of the NSC. “By that time, it is largely too late,” he said. “This bottleneck also makes it tough for the U.S. to handle more than a couple of crises at once.”
Still, critics are wary about simply creating more bottlenecks in what they say is an already over-bloated bureaucracy laden with mismanagement. For instance, when Rice came on board at State in 2005, she tried to figure out how much the U.S. government was spending on democracy promotion programs overseas. It took her nine months to finally get an answer (at the time, class=”import-text”>2009February.Foreign Policy.txt.2 billion spread out among 23 overlapping programs and agencies).
Cato’s Preble warns against adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to this unwieldy foreign assistance apparatus. “Foreign aid is an unmitigated disaster,” he declared, citing economist Lord Peter Bauer’s characterization of foreign aid as the practice of poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries. “If we want to foster economic development, aid is not the answer,” he said, arguing for a fundamental rethinking of U.S. foreign policy, one not based on interventionism — whether it’s development or defense.
“The Washington foreign policy community ran out of ideas years ago. The clearest indication of that was is its embrace of the Iraq War,” Preble recently wrote for Cato. “They clamor for new and better ways to build foreign countries and fight other people’s wars. Beyond-the-beltway Americans, meanwhile, want to build our own country, and bring an end to our own wars.”
Failure Isn’t an Option That leads to one of the biggest questions in crafting U.S. foreign policy: how to combat the problem of so-called “failed states” such as Somalia.
Patrick, who led the State Department’s policy planning for Afghanistan after 9/11, dealt firsthand with spillover consequences from the failure of the Taliban regime. He is currently writing a book on fragile states, which lack of security, stable political institutions, effective economic management and social welfare delivery — and are currently host to some 1 billion people.
“Spending time in Afghanistan opened my eyes to the practical challenges of state building and the need for U.S. and international responses that rely not only on military force but also [civilians] to assist indigenous actors in promoting good governance, development and the rule of law,” Patrick said. “[It] also showed me the dangers of an international approach to post-conflict states that in practice often substituted for domestic capacity rather than building it.”
Patrick cites Somalia as an example of how traditional foreign aid too often provides fish instead of teaching a country how to fish, a practice that turns fragile states into safe havens for narcotics trafficking and breeding grounds for infectious diseases.
Yet others challenge the very notion of fragile states as a threat and doubt that the U.S. government can realistically do much to help them anyway.
Preble argues that America’s record of nation building hasn’t improved enough to justify an increase in such activity, citing Haiti and Kosovo as examples that “cost billions of dollars and resulted in neither the spread of liberal democracy nor the enhancement of U.S. national security.”
While acknowledging that there is a spillover effect of failed states on their neighbors, he says this rarely translates into a direct threat on the United States. “State failure in Somalia is chiefly a concern for Ethiopia,” he said. “We have to move away from the presumption that state weakness everywhere is an urgent threat to us.”
Preble also rejects the idea that poverty, disease and political instability in failed states cause terrorism, arguing that if this were the case, sub-Sahara Africa would be “awash” in it. And he warns that “mucking about” in nations such as Chad can only hurt the real war on terror by potentially strengthening Muslim resentment of American presence in their country, possibly leading to “terrorist blowback.” Instead, he recommends targeted strikes against such threats as al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as was possible with a strike against Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11 — rather than all-out nation-building campaigns, which he said lend themselves better to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
On that front, Preble says that because NGOs succeed in addressing the problems of failed states, he is not convinced that the U.S. government should be involved, nor that it would be effective if it were. “I don’t think that any agency is particularly effective at stabilizing fragile states,” he said.
Patrick on the other hand described NGOs “essential partners” with government, though he emphasized their distinct mandates and operational cultures. “NGOs, particularly humanitarian ones, jealously guard their independence from the government and advocate impartiality and neutrality in many cases,” Patrick said, citing the controversy caused when former Secretary of State Colin Powell called NGOs “force multipliers” for U.S. foreign policy.
Another contentious relationship NGOs can have is with the military, especially in what the Defense Department terms “non-permissive” environments, particularly when DoD takes on humanitarian assistance and rehabilitation. Many NGO actors believe this blurring of civilian and military functions unnecessarily puts them in harm’s way, and although DoD and NGOs have tried to reach an understanding on their roles in non-permissive zones, much remains unresolved.
Patrick says the line between government and NGOs in assistance efforts is often blurred, requiring better mechanisms of coordination and understanding of what NGOs can and cannot do. Indeed, any conflict zone is usually teeming with different entities all trying to help — not just USAID, State, Defense and other U.S. government agencies, but a competing web of NGOs, U.N. peacekeepers and other international humanitarian workers, all trying to navigate a nonfunctioning state.
Building on Bush? Former President Bush waded into the contentious arena of fixing failed states, to a large degree out of necessity in Iraq and Afghanistan. One Bush administration initiative to deal with failed states was the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) at the State Department, which included a proposed Civilian Response Corps (see “U.S. Beefs Up Civil Capacity” in the Sept. 25, 2008, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch).
Pundits agree though that S/CRS has been marginalized due to low funds (0 million originally proposed to build a corps of 750 civilians to deploy to failed states was “zeroed out” by Congress) and bureaucratic weakness. Think tank estimates of what the office would need to execute its ambitious mission range from 0 million to class=”import-text”>2009February.Foreign Policy.txt billion.
Still, the office isn’t dead and this cadre of “failed state-ready” diplomats and aid workers created by Bush in 2007 still has the potential for future funding. “The prospects for that are better than they have ever been, provided that the Obama administration and Congress build on [Bush’s] belated steps, rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Patrick said. “So far we’re still talking relatively small numbers, however, compared to the massive numbers of DoD personnel in the field,” he added, noting that a better definition is also needed of what this cadre would do differently from contractors and NGOs.
Patrick nevertheless sees the office as a cost-effective, preventive approach to addressing state failure before far more expensive military response is required. He also believes that many fragile states lack the capacity and/or will to address poverty issues through traditional donor engagement, necessitating an office like S/CRS. But Preble questioned the rationale behind S/CRS, pointing to its planning for nation-building operations in countries with little strategic interest to the United States such as Liberia, when bigger strategic state failure threats such as Pakistan remain unresolved.
He added that there is no clear institutional template for nation building and no guidance on authorization of S/CRS deployments, which could lead to dilemmas such as whether the U.S. military would retaliate should American personnel be killed.
Preble, a veteran Navy officer who fought in the Gulf War, said there’s also a practical argument against S/CRS: To succeed, its personnel need more protection from U.S. troops than is feasible. He cites studies estimating that a minimum of five to 20 foreign troops per 1,000 indigenous inhabitants is required to support nation-building efforts. According to Preble, that would mean sending tens of thousands to even hundreds of thousands of troops to fragile states and embroiling the United States in civil wars with little strategic consequence to America.
“Advocates of state building dramatically understate the cost of securing failed states,” Preble cautioned, noting that operations in the Balkans cost the U.S. government more than billion. “You can have the most well-intentioned USAID worker, but if they don’t have basic security, the mission will fail. Our military isn’t big enough and we don’t want it to be big enough to police the planet.”
Nevertheless, Preble acknowledged that congressional support for S/CRS is rising, even within conservative ranks. “Then again, the office is yet to receive even a fraction of what its advocates say is necessary,” he noted. “The open question is whether the GOP will revert to their previous opposition with a Democrat in the White House.”
About the Author
Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.