The Militarization of Foreign Policy: The Prestige Gap (Part II)

Blog | February 06, 2017


The following is the second of three parts about military influence on U.S. foreign policy and its risks. Part I examines 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 U.S. Defense Department’s size and resources, necessary for fighting wars, translates into disproportionate influence over the formulation and execution of foreign policy.

Part I of this series described the doctrinal and organizational imperatives that cause—even require—senior military commanders to publicly advocate for their preferred policies and for resources to support the military objectives assigned to them. In some cases, this leads them to pursue what can be, in-effect, independent foreign policy objectives that support their military mission.

Domestically, commanders must also advocate for resources, policies, and permissions to achieve missions and objectives that require higher approvals. To express those national policy preferences, senior commanders give private counsel and options either directly to the President, or through the Secretary of Defense. But the military also enjoys a unique position and prestige in American public life. Public polling consistently shows the military is by far the most trusted part of government and senior commanders can build significant public profiles. That prestige affords commanders a lever of influence on policy decisions. When military figures speak on issues of foreign policy, their voice frequently dominates the public discourse over other stakeholders and interests. And while senior military leaders are typically careful to avoid explicit policy advocacy in public, it is often possible to infer the sort of private counsel they provide to civilian leadership.

Likewise, when a commander has a particularly high public profile their Congressional testimony can have outsized influence on policy decisions. While the uniformed military remains subordinated to civilian leadership, their testimony can serve as a form of advocacy. It can also provide ammunition for legislators seeking to put pressure on the executive branch by leveraging the appearance of administration disagreement with military officials. In aggregate, this can influence a policy decision in favor of military preferences.

Consider President Obama’s first-term review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. During the review, General Stanley McChrystal, who gained fame as head of the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, wrote a classified assessment of the conflict. His report, leaked to the press by an unknown party, called for a large troop-increase to conduct a long-term counterinsurgency. Later, the General spoke at a policy institute in London and publicly advocated for that strategy in Afghanistan, even though troop levels and overall strategy were still being deliberated by the White House. Congressional Republicans criticized the President for delaying or denying resources for his commander. This indirect pressure, magnified through news media, pundits, and politicians, contributed to the President reportedly feeling “boxed in” by the military to approve a deeper commitment and larger troop levels than he preferred going into the review process.

A Case Study in the Pacific

The Afghanistan surge was a wartime decision, with public and political attention. In contrast, the evolution of U.S. policy towards China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea over the past year demonstrates the influence military prestige can have in peacetime decision-making. At issue was the reported desire of the military—and the reported reluctance of the Administration—to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) near Chinese bases on man-made islands in contested stretches of the South China Sea to demonstrate that the U.S. does not recognize China’s excessive claims in the region.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, has gained significant publicity for his views on China as a strategic competitor in the Pacific, earning him dedicated profiles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. These and other media coverage have tended to reinforce a public impression of Admiral Harris as a China hawk who advocates more robust U.S. responses to China’s man-made South China Sea islands and assertive enforcement of its contested claims.

In a speech to an Australian policy institute, Admiral Harris referred to China’s island-building as “a great wall of sand” that risked isolating it from the international system, and told a Senate committee that, “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia. Simple as that.” For its part, the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance to Asia’ incorporated a substantial military component. Nevertheless, Administration officials were reportedly concerned that more assertive FONOPS could lead to a military confrontation or risk damage to other policy priorities, such as US-China cooperation on North Korea sanctions, trade issues and climate change agreements.

As the military apparently waited for months to execute FONOPS in the South China Sea, a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in September 2015 generated significant public attention on the issue. Admiral Harris reiterated his belief that the U.S. needed to “…exercise [freedom of navigation and flight] in the South China Sea against [China’s artificial features and bases],” and Senator John McCain (Rep.-AZ) used the opportunity to argue forcefully for conducting assertive FONOPS, making a point of the lack of such operations since 2012, before most of the island reclamation had begun.

A month later, the U.S. conducted a FONOP against Chinese reclaimed islands. To mitigate its concerns over risk to broader China priorities, the New York Times reported that the White House forbade announcements or public comments about the operation, despite the intense press speculation that preceded it and the push for more continued. Senator McCain criticized the single October challenge as inadequate, Admiral Harris has continued to testify in favor of additional FONOPS, and Congressional pressure to act increased. The U.S. has since conducted three additional FONOPS in the South China Sea, and in contrast to the reticence surrounding the first, the most recent was immediately acknowledged in a White House press statement.

Just as commanders engage foreign partners and allies through speeches, meetings with key leaders, press statements, and participation in policy forums to ensure political support for U.S. objectives and access for its forces, they need that same buy-in for their preferred policy outcomes from domestic elites and power centers. Policy speeches and press interviews help build public and elite support for those policies, yielding political influence both directly on the executive branch and on Congress, which exerts its own influence. Of course, the President is still the Commander in Chief, and has the prerogative to accept, reject or modify the advice of senior commanders, as President Obama’s steadfastness against expanding combat operations against ISIS demonstrates, in contradiction to reported military advice. Nonetheless, while the influence military commanders enjoy via their public prestige is not determinative, it is a unique lever of influence on policy decisions not available to other stakeholders.

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.​