The Perils of Militarized Diplomacy

Commentary | January 30, 2012

Writing in The National Interest, EWI's Franz-Stefan Gady examines the role of U.S. military alliances in diplomacy. This article also appeared on

In a speech on U.S. foreign policy in October 2011, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney outlined an aggressive agenda for American leadership in the world. “In an American century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.” Like Mitt Romney, many pundits lament the diminishing influence of the United States in the world. In international politics, influence is linked directly to power, the sum of components such as the threat of force, economic magnitude, cultural vibrancy and effective diplomacy. In the case of the United States, however, influence in international politics is especially dependent on military operations.

Neither trade nor traditional diplomacy explains U.S. influence over foreign governments. China is the second-biggest trading partner of the United States, yet its influence over China is relatively small. The United States entertains its biggest diplomatic mission in Iraq, more than sixteen thousand strong, yet it fails to influence Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian politics. That leaves only the military to act as both stick and carrot. U.S influence is strongest in countries that actively need military support—and Washington will increasingly have trouble gaining leverage in countries with little or no need of U.S. military assistance. A prosperous Western-style democracy facing no direct threats and not interested in joining interventions “in search of monsters to destroy” has little use for the superpower’s militarized diplomacy.

Consider the small West European republic of Austria. Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube! “Let others wage war, you, fortunate Austria, be content to marry!” goes the fifteenth-century maxim by Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, who mocked the Austrian Hapsburgs on their path to European ascendancy. Substitute the word “marry” with “invest” in King Corvinus’s statement, and you have Austria’s unofficial foreign-policy doctrine. Almost 72 percent of Austrian trade is with other EU countries. Fifty percent of Austria's foreign direct investment is concentrated in Europe. Austria does not care about much more. The United States is only Austria's sixth-largest trading partner worldwide, and it is outside Austria’s economic interests and strategic calculations. Austria never hosted U.S. bases or joined NATO. With the incentive for military cooperation gone and no fear of U.S. intervention in Austria, how do U.S. policy makers fare in influencing little Austria?

As cables from the U.S. embassy reveal, the United States has little to no influence on Austrian policies. For example, Austria rebuked a proposal to expand participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from two to a larger number. The January 2009 cable reads: “On Afghanistan, ISAF's UN mandate has still not overcome Austrian resistance to anything more than a symbolic presence or prevented some politicians from characterizing the fight as an ‘American war.’” Austria refused to accept any former Guantanamo detainees.

Austrians do not hesitate to do business with America’s declared enemies. The Austrian Bank Creditanstalt was involved in financial transactions supporting the Iranian nuclear program and has business ties with North Korea, according to Der Spiegel. The Austrian Raiffeisenbank also entertains transactions with Iran despite numerous protests by the U.S. embassy in Vienna. "In recent years, our leverage over Austrian policy has been extremely limited by the reality that there were very few things Vienna wanted from Washington, "emphasizes the cable. None of this should come as a surprise. With declining military influence and the ongoing economic crisis, the United States increasingly has less to offer the developed world.

The United States fares a little (but not much) better with Austria’s neighbor, Switzerland. According to the former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, the country is “a very successful but frequently frustrating alpine democracy”. In 2007, Switzerland ended its four-year cooperation with the ISAF in Afghanistan, recalling its military personnel. Due to Switzerland’s armed neutrality, it never relied heavily on U.S. military assistance during the Cold War and built a formidable citizen army by itself. The result is limited bilateral diplomatic contact. (The exception would be U.S.-Iran policy where Switzerland acts as the U.S. representative in Tehran.) The United States wants more active engagement in counterterrorism activities, particularly on the bank-secrecy laws of the Swiss Federation. But despite the fact that the United States is the largest outside investor in Switzerland and the largest destination for Swiss foreign investment, Swiss officials apparently see little incentive to cooperate.

Two other prospering European democracies, Sweden and Finland, are somewhat different cases, maintaining ties to the U.S. military. Since March 2006, Sweden has led a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) of the ISAF in Afghanistan, with five hundred troops deployed in Mazar-e-Sharif. There are 195 Finnish soldiers who are also part of the Swedish-led PRT. Finnish-U.S. relations have been characterized by both nations as “warm.” Indeed, it was revealed recently that Finland and the United States shared military intelligence during the Cold War. Close military ties persist, and the Finnish Foreign Ministry emphasizes that “U.S.’s commitments to Europe through NATO . . . are of central importance for Europe's stability.”

U.S.-Swedish military relations during the Cold War also were much deeper than previously thought. A researcher at the Swedish National Defence College concluded that the “U.S. saw Sweden as the guardian of the Western world in northern Europe.” The United States subsidized the Swedish military-aircraft industry, including the Saab 37 Viggen, with a strong Swedish air force seen as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. Sweden also participated in the NATO-led mission in Libya, and the Swedish defense industry still enjoys close ties with its American counterparts.

As a result of stronger military ties, Finnish and Swedish policies have been more accommodating to U.S. demands than the Swiss and especially the Austrian hands-off approach. There is virtually no reason for a small Western democracy to deploy troops to Afghanistan unless it desires better relations with the United States.

Has militarized diplomacy become the norm in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy? Such an approach distorts assessments of U.S. influence and obscures the national interest. Short of historic military ties, there is now little the United States can do to influence small Western democracies at the heart of Europe. As military budgets decline, Washington may find itself more isolated than it might have imagined. Threats toward Iran and North Korea are the waning echoes of America’s post-9/11 buildup. Mitt Romney’s “American Century” may be a century too late.

Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate at the EastWest Institute.