If All You Have is a Hammer...

One of the constant critiques by soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is that they are having to carry out diplomatic and civil affairs duties that are, strictly speaking, outside of their core competency. Robert Kaplan noted that "they say where is the State Department. We want desperately to hand over responsibility to USAID, the State Department." Yet the State Department has been slow to get involved in efforts on the ground, spending its energies on high politics instead; after all, that is the core competency of State.

We have two organizations, the military and the diplomatic corps, each of which has its own idea of what its purpose is, and neither of which is explicitly tasked with low-level development work. That the job ends up being done by the military is merely a concession to necessity; soldiers are not trained to be city planners, or sewer engineers, or diplomats. (Though as Kaplan wrote, they often do a much better job of it than more qualified specialists.)

This dichotomy between diplomacy and military force dates back to a time in which politics were largely between royal European courts, in which statecraft was a grand game and was played by clearly defined rules. War was war, peace was peace, and institutions were developed in light of that. In particular, the notions of international development, low-level diplomacy, or nation-building were completely foreign to the structure of these institutions, which dealt with unitary states for the most part.

Even under such circumstances, to divide warfighting from diplomacy is problematic. Clausewitz wrote that "War is the continuation of politics by other means," and that warfighting needed to be strictly subordinated to political goals. Similarly, diplomacy is ineffectual when not backed up by the threat of force. As Ace noted a few times, diplomats can only negotiate; they have nothing to fall back on when they are faced with the word "No."

Worse, by having two institutions, each fundamentally built around a different way of relating to the outside world, each of them will have a distorted picture of the outside world: the diplomat will see all problems as amenable to jaw-jaw, and the soldier will see all problems as needing war-war. National policy will be influenced as much by which of the cabinet officials is more powerful that month, as it will by the facts on the ground.

And in the event of a conflict, the military will be backed up by a diplomatic corps that is, by nature, oriented away from the use of force. Friction develops, effort is wasted, opportunities are lost. And bureaucratic turf battles will stand in the way of applying the right skills to the situation.

Now, let us look at the modern battlefield. The distinction between warfighting and diplomacy has vanished entirely. Our soldiers must deal with civilian populations constantly, negotiating with clashing power centers and building alliances to support American interests. Our diplomats are often acting in support of military objectives such as the arrest of foreign terrorists. More importantly, battlespaces are chaotic; the unitary government is often nonexistent, and diplomacy must often be conducted on-the-fly by the men in theater, whoever they work for.

That being the case, why should we have two separate organizations at all?

The fundamental task is to interact with the outside world. Our representatives should have access to the entire continuum of behaviors and assets, from bandages to bullets, without having to navigate political mazes and dangerous turf battles. They should also be trained in both the sword and the olive branch, so that there is no inherent bias towards one or the other in their understanding of the world.

The Defense Department and the State Department should both be abolished. In their place should be a new organization, better suited to defend our interests abroad and to do the crucial work of nation-building which seems to be our great challenge. It should bring the full resources of the United States -- military, financial, educational, and diplomatic -- to bear on obstacles. The sergeant at the front line should be able to negotiate treaties and disburse foreign aid, and the diplomat in a foreign capital should be able to pick up a phone and order an airstrike.

In short, I propose a new organization: the Department of Statecraft.


Anonymous said...

Or...send in the Canadians

opit said...

Anon That's been done already : Afghanistan.
The idea that the military look for opportunities to ply their trade flies in the face of comment from many sources. I admit it's ridiculous to have a bureau of foreign aggression and call it defense. In simpler times it was the war department.
Fact is, State is useless when it's kept out of the loop. The dysfunction of modern times also stems from a basic difference in the nature of utilizing people. Field commanders were to command. Generals were to strategize. Politicians and diplomats to set objectives. Core competencies each deserving of respect and deference.
For a long time now the doctrine is micromangement. Uh. Find intelligent people and train them to a high level of competence, then spoon feed them detailed specifics on the fly ? Not the way to inspire brilliant improvisation.
Oldest proverb about war : A plan is good until the first shot is fired. i.e. Get the damned surplus cooks out of the kitchen. And do co-ordinate operations of the various branches through common communications links and specialized inter-service officers.
Having done that : get the troops out immediately the offensive is complete. They are indelibly marked as vicious enemies. No peace ? There is no tool in the toolbox for that, yet. The only workable solutions involve overwhelming numbers : all right for Pakistan, India or China .... not the U.S.