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Turning on the DIME: Diplomacy's Role in National Security

Authored by Mr. Anton K. Smith. | September 2007

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The differences in approach and culture between the U.S. Departments of State and Defense are stark despite the fact that these organizations are members of the same team and share related national objectives. Understanding the nature of these differences is key to improving interagency cooperation between the two key agents of our national foreign policy.

State?s historical role as the nation?s lead instrument of foreign policy has eroded since World War II, while Defense has seen its power and influence grow. Spending on diplomacy has remained constant and comparatively small compared to both the ebbs and flows in Defense spending. Despite significant differences in purpose regarding planning?in which State primarily engages in planning routine activity aimed at daily efforts to prevent conflict and advance national interests, and in which Defense plans contingency operations involving use of military force?State has developed a results-based planning procedure derived from that of the Department of Defense as a result of pressure from Congress.

In recent history, our nation?s diplomatic efforts, and the individual Foreign Service Officers who operate in this arena, aim at exhausting opportunities to secure peace and stability before turning to the option of last resort. Defense is no less pleased than State when diplomatic efforts fail and military force is applied. Moreover, the existence of a critical gap in our national capacity to effect transitions from situations of conflict back to peace exacerbates tension between the two executive branch departments. Neither is prepared to conduct nation-building efforts they are sometimes called upon to carry out. Defense, with an annual budget almost 50 times that of State, has more flexibility to support such transitions but is uncomfortable with this secondary task. Meanwhile, Congress wields the ultimate vote over resources that might bridge the gap, and it shows no current appetite to provide more funding to do so.

Until such time as nation-building becomes a national priority for both the executive and legislative branches, State will continue to struggle to meet the demands of worldwide, universal diplomatic representation with the small staff and resource base it is afforded. Under such constraints, its most important function will be to help avoid situations of conflict that might lead to the prevailing shortfall in post-reconstruction capabilities.


Our military is constructed to deter and, as necessary, wage war; our diplomacy is designed to employ peaceful means to advance our national interests. A key problem for the United States, and for the international community, is the relationship between these two activities. At issue is restoration of peace in post-conflict situations. In the final analysis, DoS and DoD remain focused on complementary but different approaches to achieve national goals. Against the broader debate over just how ?intrusive? our foreign policy should be, officials at both departments are confronted with the challenge of implementing policy once it is promulgated, and doing so with structures and resources that reflect more of the bygone Cold War era than the present reality. Though changing, DoD?s capability remains weighted toward conventional state-originated threats. DoS, also attempting to transform, is nevertheless ill-equipped to meet the increasing demand for stabilization and reconstruction services. DoS continues to exhaust its capacity in promoting our political and economic interests and encouraging reform in the dozens of countries in which we are not engaged militarily. It can marshal only ad hoc, poorlyresourced efforts to reestablish peace in the aftermath of war. Despite administration attempts to span the post-conflict divide to address recognized deficiencies in national capabilities, Congress has thus far refused to provide resources to do so. DoD, with relatively greater personnel resources and funding reserves, may therefore continue to be called upon to bear a disproportionate share of the stabilization burden.

The cultural differences between the two organizations also remain a challenge. Both have a professional corps that serve the national interests (i.e., soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in the military, and diplomats at State). When not at war, the military uses its ?down time? to develop sophisticated mechanistic approaches to ensure that the right force with the right equipment is in the right place to make war at the right time. Congress has largely supported those efforts. Meanwhile, the diplomatic corps, with no dwell time between deployments and in a constant state of engagement, has developed a system that responds to change as it occurs, seeking?by necessity?to elicit favourable outcomes instead of coercing them. The respective approaches of the two departments are perhaps similar to the difference between architecture and fluid dynamics or between science and art. The warrior approaches a problem by asking, ?How can we get this done?? The diplomat does so by asking ?How can we shape the situation to arrive together at a mutually desirable goal, while maintaining a relationship capable of addressing other important goals in a continuing process?? The diplomat knows he/she or a successor will be present when the dust settles, continuing to work with foreign counterparts to advance our national interests. Everything destroyed?both the concrete of infrastructure and the abstract of institutions?must be rebuilt. The warrior wants to finish his/her work, pack up, and return to base to prepare for the next challenge.

The differences here also provide insight into the diverse leadership challenges facing the Secretaries of State and Defense. The U.S. military, acting under plans in which everything has been delineated in black and white fashion, generally follows orders. Diplomats, functioning in a zone where almost everything is gray, see themselves as interpreters of national policy. Secretary Dean Rusk noted that Secretaries of State ?must delegate the overwhelming bulk of decisions to hundreds of Foreign Service Officers, authorized to act on his behalf. The world has become so complex . . . that junior officers in the State Department now make decisions which before World War II would have been made by the Secretary.?22 While frustrating to the military officer expecting a clear chain of command and defined right and left limits, the conduct of U.S. diplomacy has been an effective instrument of national policy precisely because of its inherent flexibility.

There are, of course, other ways to avoid the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction. We could simply ignore them. Or we could redouble efforts to avoid conflict in the first instance. The international system developed in the aftermath of the two world wars was intended to do just that. At the very least, our experience in Iraq is showing how important it is to gain the support of that system when we engage our military might. Doing so in the case of Iraq would have helped to increase the prospect that an international team? with players ranging from IOs/NGOs, to aid organizations, to national components from countries that have sharpened niche skills in a variety of post-conflict situations?would have been present to help carry out the work of reconstruction.

In view of its resource limitations, the present most valuable DoS role may be in helping ward off military conflicts. Whether that role is played by individuals such as Ambassador Tommy Thompson, who helped President John F. Kennedy avoid nuclear war with the Soviet Union, or diplomat George Kennan, who thoughtfully laid out a strategy of containment against Soviet expansionism that avoided direct conflict, the skill and expertise of diplomats will remain crucial for our national security. Even within the context of the war on terror, the costs of unilateral action must be weighed against the buttressing effects of improved relationships with other countries?our natural allies in the fight against stateless extremism.

If we cannot avoid conflicts, we may need to develop additional capabilities to rebuild failed states. Otherwise, the present argument goes, we simply create breeding grounds for the extremism we fight against. History shows that nation building is an expensive, lengthy proposition, one that requires broad national commitment and interagency cooperation. DoD and DoS will lead in such efforts as a matter of precedent and necessity? Defense must secure and stabilize environments, and State must coordinate and shape outcomes. Ultimately, resources will determine the relative balance of these efforts, and decisions regarding those resources remain in the hands of our elected representatives in Congress. As Executive branch agencies, we must accept this constitutional process, even while we promote changes to address recognized shortcomings. For now, as defined by the resources made available, State?s primary job is to try to avoid situations of conflict that are the raison d?etre of Defense.


22. Dean Rusk, As I Saw It, New York: Norton, 1990, p. 525.