High time to make the chief of USAID a member of the National Security Council

High time to make the chief of USAID a member of the National Security Council

By Maj. Jaron Wharton, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

In September 2010, President Obama’s Policy Directive on Global Development offered that development is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative for the United States. Undeniably, it is a core pillar of our foreign policy, along with diplomacy and defense, in an integrated, comprehensive approach to national security. It follows that USAID’s contribution to national security is vital — but this has not been codified.

Because we are living in times that require a fully integrated national security approach, the USAID administrator should become the president’s principal advisor for development and assistance (akin to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff role and associated linkage to the secretary of defense, but concomitant to the secretary of state) and a permanent member on the National Security Council. This elevated position will provide the president with unfettered development advice, while codifying the position that development is on par with defense and diplomacy. Maintaining USAID’s intimate relationship with State recognizes the inherent ties of development assistance to foreign policy.

While historical trends, events, and statements have created numerous challenges to elevating the administrator’s role, the agency’s comparative advantage as an expeditionary organization which alleviates human suffering, develops markets of tomorrow, and expresses American values, provides an invaluable perspective. State’s 2010 QDDR calls for USAID to play a greater role in the interagency policy process, including making its mission directors primary development advisors to the chiefs of mission. An elevated role for the administrator would be a logical follow-on to these other shifts.

Just over 25 years ago, Goldwater-Nichols changed the Defense Department in both a fundamental and positive way. One of the main shifts was to empower the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in two ways: (1) By expanding his staff into a large "Joint Staff" that reports directly to him; and (2) identifying the chairman as the president’s senior military advisor. Over the last several decades, the newly powerful position of chairman has helped elevate the role of professional military advice to the president, while not compromising the secretary of defense’s civilian authority. The history of this aspect of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation can apply to USAID in several ways: (1) It can help formally elevate the role of development; (2) it can help preserve the secretary of state’s authority in foreign assistance; and (3) it improves the nature of development assistance advice to the president. An elevated status would assuredly achieve a more efficient use of development assistance resources and enhance their effectiveness.

USAID is undertaking a potent reform agenda, analogous to an internal "Goldwater-Nichols-light" to forge a more modern development enterprise. This change is as conscious and as basic a transformation in its 50-year history, and it is desirable for the USG to build on this framework through a persistent invitation for increased interagency engagement at the highest levels.

During this administration, USAID’s participation in senior-level NSS meetings has dramatically increased. While data are not readily available to compare across administrations, there has been a definite uptick in participation from previous years. This demonstrates a need on behalf of senior NSS leadership to hear from USAID, but also suggests USAID’s contributions warrant continued participation. Having resident development expertise on the NSS only helps to better lead through civilian power, especially in issues that contribute to an imbalance in defense representation.

USAID should take internal steps to reinforce its relevance and further professionalize its engagement in the national security apparatus. However, as in Goldwater-Nichols, where the ramifications for the professionalization of the Joint Staff were extreme, USAID is already fully-capable of the increased level of responsibility. There is no longer a dichotomy within USAID between those focused on altruistic development and assistance and those who understand the necessity, practicality, and Hill-emphasized need for more targeted work to support national security objectives.

Indeed, the development portfolio is now facing critical challenges and is at significantly increased risk given growing fiscal constraints. Despite being elevated by the Global Development Policy to be on par with defense and diplomacy, elements of any effort by the agency to demonstrate true relevancy in national security must include improved and sustained engagement in the NSS. This inherently makes the case USAID’s activities are considered in the national interest. Elevation of the administrator as a permanent member on the NSC provides an additional forcing function on the broader USG to recognize this point. At a minimum, the USAID administrator should be elevated and maintain his presence at the principals’ committee level beyond an "informal member as appropriate."

Major Jaron S. Wharton is an active-duty infantry officer in the U.S. Army who served in Afghanistan (2002 and 2010) and in Iraq (2003-06). He previously served as a White House Fellow at USAID. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the U.S. Government.