The Militarization of Foreign Policy: The Capacity Gap (Part III)

Blog | February 13, 2017


This is the last analysis in a series of three, focusing on how the military influences U.S. foreign policy—the reasons and its risks. Part I explains how the military’s conception of its mission incentivizes deepening involvement in foreign policy. Part II looks at the disproportionate influence that military perspectives and personalities have over the public debate on foreign policy. Part III looks at how the Defense Department’s size and resources, necessary for fighting wars, may exert disproportionate influence over the formulation and execution of foreign policy.

By virtue of its size, the Department of Defense (DoD) is a sort of “natural monopoly” within the U.S. government. The State Department employs approximately 24,000 foreign, and civil service employees across its embassies, consulates and offices globally. The Pentagon alone has over 23,000 military and civilian staff working within its five walls, with thousands more spread across Defense agencies, offices and headquarters. To be clear, these are not the “warfighters” carrying rifles, flying planes or driving ships, but the bureaucracy that runs the military.

Karl Ikenberry, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and retired three-star general, has highlighted that the State Department’s Bureau of Africa Affairs has about 180 staff, while the military’s analogous Africa Command headquarters has over 1,500, with additional staff covering various “Africa Desks” throughout the Pentagon and Defense agencies. This doesn’t mean the DoD is more efficient, has the expertise or required competency to take the lead on many foreign policy and foreign assistance programs. But because it can commit more staff-power, man-hours and, often, more money than other more thinly-manned and resourced departments, it simply has the bureaucratic capacity to do work others can’t.

In wartime, having staff-power to “make things happen” is a necessary virtue. In peacetime, however—especially in a quasi-bellicose environment, such as the period immediately following 9/11—it can weaken institutional checks by the State Department, nominally, the lead agency for foreign affairs responsible for creating the national policies traditionally relied upon to reconcile the military’s parochial interests with broader U.S. interests.

Who Directs Foreign Aid?

One area in which this plays out is foreign aid. Each year, the U.S. provides billions in aid to foreign partners. In the past, most of this money belonged to the State Department, though the DoD administered some. What foreign aid funds the Defense Department did have (which it calls security cooperation or security assistance) were largely subject to approval by the State Department as the lead agency for foreign policy. But after 9/11, the scale of aid rapidly increased, as did the share of exclusively DoD-administered funds. Just as military commanders’ disproportionate prestige can lend priority to their more limited issue portfolios, the DoD’s massive staff and funding can overwhelm the State Department’s ability to ensure that Defense security cooperation activities align with U.S. foreign policy—even in those cases where State has oversight.

One solution is to better resource the State Department. Instead, the DoD has sought greater authority over its security cooperation funds. The Pentagon cites efficiency; the State Department’s staff is too small to keep up with the pace and scale of assistance that DoD wants to disperse. The Pentagon believes its ability to rapidly deploy foreign aid is, at times, critical to preserving regional stability or propping up partner countries, reducing the likelihood of new regional conflicts or nation-building efforts.

Preventing conflicts before they happen is a compelling argument. But the Pentagon’s near-term quest to preserve stability has sometimes backfired. A case in point is after World War II when the U.S. Army founded the “School of the Americas” to train Latin American military leaders to defend against communist insurgencies and revolutions, not unlike training the U.S. provides to Iraqi and Afghani security forces today. However, part of this post-war legacy is that some of the school’s most high-profile graduates, like Manuel Noriega in Panama, went on to use what they learned to become despots who, themselves, required U.S. intervention to overthrow.

Oversight, Ends, Means and Effectiveness

More recently, some aid efforts surpass even the DoD’s capacity to manage. Because of widespread concern that large portions of reconstruction aid provided to Afghanistan was lost to waste and corruption, Congress established a unique, independent Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction in 2008. One report found that one-third of completed aid projects were unused, many more under-used, and nearly two-thirds failed to meet original project specifications or requirements. Of the latter, some were found to be totally unsafe or unusable because local contractors substituted cheaper, inferior materials or methods to increase profits. Some local contractors were even found to be using profits from DoD aid to support the insurgency.

Whether additional layers of bureaucracy or cross-departmental checks could have prevented these problems is outside the scope of this series. However, while perhaps less “efficient,” the State Department’s role is to provide input into what best serves long-term U.S. interests, veto potentially short-sighted Pentagon priorities or, at minimum, more deeply grapple with the tradeoffs involved. A 2016 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report concluded that when DoD controls assistance funds, it skews regional relationships, potentially giving Geographic Commanders more influence over a partner nation than the State Department-run U.S. Embassy.

The CRS report also echoes the concern that DoD’s capacity is disproportionate to its more limited goals and priorities: “DoD’s overwhelming advantage in personnel and funds allow it to evade State Department direction and oversight and to conduct activities better carried out by civilians, which may be to the detriment of long term U.S. interests.” Apart from the intense nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the DoD also provides a host of “institution building” services to help create effective foreign defense bureaucracies. Other activities defy intuitive links to Defense priorities, like DoD’s contribution to the Women, Peace, and Security effort that guides countries in women’s inclusion in peace-building, gender perspectives on peace and security policy, and other gender-specific issues. Institutional reform and gender issues are unquestionably important to long-term peace and stability, but is the military the best conduit for providing these kinds of services?

During his first year as defense secretary, Robert Gates advocated for a dramatic increase in funding for the State Department and “the civilian instruments of national security.” Later, he worked closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to create a stronger working relationship between the two departments, and clear recognition by Defense that “the Secretary of State is the principal spokesperson for United States foreign policy.” Since then, efforts to reconcile these dynamics have faded, and the Defense Department, because of its size, prestige and imperatives to simultaneously prevent, and prepare for, future conflict continues to accrue influence over the shape and execution of U.S. foreign policy.

Steven Stashwick is a writer and analyst based in New York City. He spent ten years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer with multiple deployments to the Western Pacific. He writes about maritime and security affairs in East Asia and serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.​