November 12, 2015


Obama's Failure to Demilitarize US Foreign Policy (John R. Deni, 10/30/15, ISN Blog)

In the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama pledged to correct what he perceived as a fundamental imbalance between the three-legged stool that comprises U.S. foreign policy ­-- defense, diplomacy, and development -- through such measures as expanding the State Department's Foreign Service. Once in office, the Obama administration expressed its intent to rebalance away from defense and toward diplomacy and development though a variety of strategies as well as policy statements. Most recently, the 2015 National Security Strategy explicitly notes that military force is not the sole means of achieving U.S. national security objectives, arguing, "our first line of action is principled and clear-eyed diplomacy, combined with the central role of development in the forward defense and promotion of America's interests."

In addition to published strategies and policy pronouncements, the Obama administration repeatedly emphasized diplomacy and development in policy implementation over, or instead of, large-scale military measures. Across a number of issues, the administration has sought to rely less on overwhelming American military power to accomplish foreign policy objectives. A short list of examples could include maintaining drawdown timelines in Iraq and (with some modification) in Afghanistan, "leading from behind" in Libya, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and relying on sanctions to pressure Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine.

Relying on diplomatic, political, and development-based solutions typically takes time to bear fruit. In contrast, wielding military force often yields results more quickly, even if the apparent success is illusory in the long run. Critics of the Obama approach conflate the emphasis on diplomacy with indecision, and hence weakness.

However, the tragedy of President Obama's rebalance toward diplomacy and development is not that it represents an America in retreat, but rather that the rebalance has not succeeded in demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy, as seen in three separate contexts. First, available fiscal data show the continuing dominance of defense spending relative to international affairs spending. Even under sequestration scenarios, that budget will continue to dwarf the amount of money spent on diplomacy and development.

Second, despite congressional concerns about the risks of granting the Department of Defense increased authority in security cooperation, Congress continues to do just that. The Department of Defense continues to expand its activities into areas over which the State Department previously had purview.

Finally, based on several examples over the last two decades or more, many experts, practitioners, and observers have concluded that the civilian instruments of American foreign policy simply lack the capacity and capability to handle the complex, large-scale challenges facing U.S. national security. In particular, the challenge of failed or failing states has laid bare Washington's inability to implement so-called "whole of government" solutions. As a result, the Department of Defense continues to be the problem-solving agency of choice for legislators as well as those in the executive branch.

Posted by at November 12, 2015 5:23 PM