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October 15, 2009

Arms for the World: How The US Military Shapes Foreign Policy
Posted by Michael Cohen

Yesterday, I attended a conference in Washington DC hosted by the US Global Leadership Coalition that was the first public review of the State Department's Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). All the usual suspects where there - Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew, the Director of Policy Planning, Anne Marie Slaughter, and Acting AID Administrator, Alonzo Fulghum and I recommend checking out their discussion on the USGLC website. All the participants said the right things about restoring the civil/military balance and ensuring that State and AID plays a more central role on foreign policy planning, but the whole time I found myself wondering about the elephant in the room - the Pentagon and its growing footprint in driving US diplomacy and development policy.

In fact over at the USGLC website they reference this quote from Jacob Lew, "“We’re going to give civilians the tools to do what they do best, and let the military get back to doing what it does best.”  While I love this idea in concept, I'm less convinced about it in practice. In fact, I'm downright skeptical. Good intentions are one thing, but the harsh reality of our ever growing military bureaucracy and its burgeoning role in nearly every element of American foreign policy speaks to a different reality.

While I think the QDDR process is a smart one; and I like the fact that a lot of folks at State, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill are talking about increasing resources for State and AID until we start talking about moving authorities away from DoD and giving them back to the civilian agencies the slow but inexorable militarization of American foreign policy will continue unabated. In some ways, I think this is the most important foreign policy challenge Barack Obama will face during his presidency.

With that in mind . . . I have a new piece out this month in Dissent Magazine on precisely this issue. The PDF is available below, but I invite folks to consider a subscription to Dissent and check out their web site for some great online content including a smart piece by Todd Gitlin on counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

Download Arms for the World

A brief excerpt below:

The defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy and national security policy in the post–cold- war era is the extent to which America’s foreign policy agenda is being crafted and implemented by the military. Almost fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the “total influence—economic, political, even spiritual” of an “immense military establishment and large arms industry being “felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.” Today, these concerns seem quaint. Whether it’s waging the war on terror or the war on drugs; nation-building in post-conflict environments; development, democracy promotion, or diplomacy; fighting cyber-criminals or training foreign armies, the global face of the United States today is generally that of a soldier.

. . . The traditional elements of statecraft can hardly compete with the juggernaut that is the modern U.S. armed forces. And the growing predisposition to view all security challenges through the prism of the military portends even more reliance on America’s fighting men and women. For progressives, the ever-expanding military-industrial complex presents grave dangers to the hopes of a renewed period of activist government. The United States can maintain a huge army with the most up-to-date weapons system or it can better provide for the needs of its citizens. It can’t do both. Although it is essential that the country begin to rebuild its civilian agencies and rein in the defense budget, it can’t do so without larger structural changes. What is needed is a fundamental reconceptualization of U.S. security interests—a recognition that discussions about military tactics and the structure of forces should be closely aligned with strategic considerations as well as a dispassionate view of the country’s national interests. The growing U.S. military footprint around the world risks undermining not only America’s foreign policy agenda but its democratic ethos.

 . . . During his historic presidential campaign, Barack Obama said the key to changing U.S.
foreign policy for the better was moving away from the “mindset” that led to the invasion of
Iraq and its subsequent occupation. If he is serious about changing the current shape of U.S. foreign policy, de-emphasizing the role of the military is not only the logical place to start: it’s the only place.


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One of the facts of American statecraft in the late 18th and most of the 19th century was that arm sales and arms buildup were notably absent. This lack of state sponsored arm sales was made up what could be best described as the golden age of arms sales, a time when private arms industry were selling to everyone and anyone who would pay, from the Prussians to the Native Americans. This unadulterated industry in many times inhibited effective statecraft since the monopoly of violence was not contained.
One could argue the dismantling of the US military as a tool for statecraft could make a more effective implementation of statecraft, but at the same time such a dismantling does not inhibit other states from utilizing their military as statecraft tools, especially in regards to arms transfers. The argument really is do we want to utilize our limited federal budget on domestic social programs over national security ones.

One could argue the dismantling of the US military as a tool for statecraft could make a more effective implementation of statecraft

Oh, Dissent looks interesting. Cheers for the direction.

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American foreign and defense policy is adrift.Congress shapes foreign policy through regular oversight of executive branch implementation of foreign policy.

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