The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review: Separating the U.S. civilian and defense missions

By Gordon Adams | February 1, 2010

The State Department and USAID are in the midst of conducting an unprecedented Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which is intended to bolster the civilian capabilities of U.S. statecraft. It is taking place in the context of calls by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen to enhance our civilian capabilities in order to avoid the “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. This, of course, is a positive step forward.

But I’m worried. I’m worried because instead of focusing on national strategy and the country’s civilian mission, the QDDR has addressed the problem somewhere in the middle, focusing on how to build State/USAID capabilities so that they fit with a “whole of government” approach to U.S. foreign policy.

Any ‘whole of government’ effort at interagency cooperation needs to be based on the reality that the missions of the civilian agencies are not the same as the missions of the military.”

“Whole of government” is an attractive bumper sticker. But it seems as though State isn’t asking fundamental questions about strategy and mission: What is the “whole of government” supposed to be doing, and what is the civilian mission in that mix? Without answering these questions, “whole of government” runs the risk of meaning, “Let’s fix the problems we had in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In other words, a QDDR centered on this mission is likely to focus on programs that solve the Pentagon’s problems in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq (e.g., training foreign militaries, police, and security forces), instead of focusing on the civilian mission of supporting good governance, poverty reduction, and stronger international partnerships. Indeed, an early draft of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was explicit about such a focus: “Years of war have proven how important it is for America’s civilian agencies to possess the resources and authorities needed to operate alongside the U.S. Armed Forces during complex contingencies at home and abroad.”

But the problem extends beyond program focus. It also is a problem of defining the State/USAID mission and providing both agencies with the capability to perform their missions. The first place to start: Give State/USAID missions of their own, rather than missions set out by the Defense Department. Only then can the QDDR create a capability that puts the civilian agencies on par with Defense at the policy-making table, allowing them to help the president set and implement the country’s foreign policy and national security agenda.

At the moment, Defense is defining that agenda, which is understandable. Defense and the military are the most focused planning, strategic, and operational institutions in the U.S. government. So they are taking the lessons of 9/11, the conflict in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War and applying them to the rest of the globe. Consequently, as the forthcoming QDR will make clear, Defense is reconstructing the military to focus on counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and stability operations and on how to build State/USAID capacity to help them do so.

This kind of “nation-building” has a very specific, combat-driven meaning to Defense and the military: stabilizing and reconstructing the countries that the United States has invaded (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) and training their security forces and anyone else in the country that might help us confront terrorist organizations. Where they’ve needed help is in winning civilian hearts and minds through short-term economic and governance projects–a task they want State and USAID to take on.

Without a clear civilian mission defined in the QDDR, this is exactly what State and USAID could end up doing, with the capabilities necessary to establish good civilian governance, long-term development, and global partnerships getting secondary priority.

Obviously, it would be foolish to ignore global realities. Terrorist organizations do want to harm the United States, and weak, fragile, and failing states could provide them with safe harbor, presenting a major problem for international security. But there is a real downside to torquing the QDDR to fit Defense’s mission.

While it’s true that Defense has a lot of people, money, and logistical capabilities–not to mention a global reach–policies and programs for governance, reconstruction, and development aren’t its core strengths, as the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. There, the military effort to strengthen governance and economic recovery was–and is–focused on the short-term. Not surprisingly, the results have been uneven and unsustainable. They might meet the near-term “hearts and minds” needs of counterinsurgency (though the jury is still out), but the programs aren’t designed with Iraqi and Afghani governance and development needs in mind.

There are also serious near-term downsides to a mission that ties the civilian capability to the Defense mission. First, because the focus is on short-term results, we could become intertwined in the internal affairs of countries where stability is an issue, but the conditions for success are minimal. I’m thinking here of Somalia. Second, even with a civilian attachment, U.S. engagement presents a military face. Therefore, “host” countries such as Yemen wonder whether Washington is truly investing in its long-term needs or simply intervening to protect U.S. interests. Finally, after decades of teaching foreign militaries that their proper role is to stay in their barracks and to eschew any involvement in politics and business, we now seem to be saying that the military is the most effective institution for governance and economic growth.

So what might the appropriate civilian mission be? How about some version of the following: “Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.”

Who said such a thing? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005. Not a bad mission statement, it gets to the heart of the role civilian institutions can play in the twenty-first century, rather than focusing on how these institutions can help the military. In fact, by placing an emphasis on governance, development, and international responsibility, such a mission has the potential to provide a true “whole of government” chapeau to U.S. foreign policy, allowing the White House to assign the military its proper role in achieving more specific national security aims.

Additionally, it can provide guidance as to how to integrate diplomatic efforts to ensure a more “responsible” international system, with foreign-assistance programs that will help build stronger and more effective governance in weak states, stimulate economic development, and reduce poverty. All it really needs is some language about the goal of preventing and resolving conflict.

Of course, the previous administration’s policies were totally inconsistent with Rice’s statement. Three examples: It decided to invade Iraq; it made terrorism the centerpiece of U.S. statecraft; and it weakened the international nonproliferation regime, among others. And rather than strengthen the civilian institutions, the Bush administration greatly expanded the Pentagon’s role in carrying out the U.S. nation-building and counterterrorism agenda. Sadly, State conceded this institutional leadership to Defense and did little to build the capabilities that could carry out the civilian strategic mission they defined.

The QDDR could pick up this task. And if support for effective governance, economic growth, conflict prevention and resolution, and international partnership were at the heart of the review, it could lead to very different capabilities, personnel, budgets, and programs for State and USAID.

Practically speaking, I envision one element of such a scenario working like so: Governance would be the centerpiece of State/USAID. As such, there would be a major investment in State and USAID so that they could provide assistance for the rule of law, the reduction of corruption, administrative and political processes, and civil society. A much smaller U.S. civilian capability would exist to work alongside deployed U.S. military forces, but the goal would be to make such deployments unnecessary. (And Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t the prototypes; both were U.S.-led invasions with regime change in mind.) For instance, such a mission focus could lead to sending civilians into many African countries with stronger governance in mind, and a small number of military personnel for security force training, under State policy guidance.

The responsibility for these programs and activities could be given to a reformed and strengthened USAID, an important way to rebuild that shrunken agency. Overall planning and policy would be handled jointly between USAID and State. When contingency planning for short-term deployments in conflict resolution and prevention is involved, analysis could be shared, and the deployments could be made without Defense participation. As a result, State/USAID personnel training would need to change so that future foreign service officers can build such knowledge into their career expectations and be rewarded for such experience.

The bottom line is that any “whole of government” effort at interagency cooperation needs to be based on the reality that the missions of the civilian agencies are not the same as the missions of the military. With that in mind, what we really need is a healthy debate about strategy and mission, with a civilian set of missions clearly defined. It’s a mission that State and USAID need to shape before they can bring the case to the interagency discussion.

The QDDR can be central to defining this mission, creating recommendations for capabilities (personnel, budgets, authorities, and programs) that are different from one that focuses on shaping civilian capabilities in the framework of Defense missions. Otherwise, a credible, effective, strengthened, and focused civilian foreign policy establishment won’t emerge from the process–to the detriment of the country’s security.

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