Best Defense

How to make State great again

The Obama administration’s conduct of foreign policy related to global conflict may have frustrated many, but it was both coherent and internally consistent.



By Kim Field
Best Defense guest columnist

The Barack Obama administration’s conduct of foreign policy related to global conflict may have frustrated many, but it was both coherent and internally consistent. It aligned ways and means in pursuit of achievable ends, and did so under reasonable, self-imposed constraints on the use of military force. While President-elect Donald Trump will likely establish different policy objectives, he will inevitably confront the limits of military power. To succeed, he will need to wed the vast array of capabilities offered by the Department of Defense to the underutilized stabilization capability offered by the highly skilled members of the Department of State.

Having served as both a general officer and a civilian deputy assistant secretary of state, I surmise two main things get in the way of leveraging State capabilities. The first is State itself. Despite its impressive, hard-working people, the State Department in Washington no longer leads assertively with its analysis, understanding, access, and relationships in conflict situations; its officers alternate between resignation, mournful defeatism, and passive aggression toward the military. Basic planning, organizing, and team-building practices are neglected as futile, and they pretend to be satisfied with individual contributions of action-neutral information.

The second is the Department of Defense. In the Joint Force, only the Army should significantly include considerations of stabilization in its Title 10 responsibilities — and this is not likely to happen. We are left with military leaders who certainly desire sustainable outcomes, but cannot appreciate the challenges the inherently political nature of conflict presents to our diplomats. Consequently, they simply hope that State or other civilians will magically produce results apace of military activity. When disappointed, they move forward without their State partner, or they leap over the tough political issues to USAID’s longterm capacity building activities, simply to do something, anything, that offers a chance at longer term effects.

Organizational culture almost always includes a dimension of “greatest strengths are greatest weaknesses.” My boss at State says, “DoD is an engineering firm; we are a law firm” — culture constrains the military’s ability to slow down and State’s ability to step up. But this era of conflict demands we mitigate the weaknesses and leverage the strengths. Conflict today almost always involves state and non-state challenges simultaneously and eschews linearity. Using the great strengths of each department, the DoD-DoS partnership has the potential to be powerful. WWII-level threats are thankfully not likely; we can spend more time understanding the geo- and local political situation, gathering facts, developing and revising strategy, planning, and setting conditions in unstable situations — versus immediately moving to military or development action, or taking insufficient military or development action. State is central to this.

The new administration must first require State’s leaders to build cross-functional teams and develop good strategy pre-Deputies Committee meetings and then hold them accountable. Building a coherent alignment of ends, ways (mil and civ), and means is also a non-linear process. While the National Security Council staff will remain the locus of decision-making dialogue, the NSCS must demand ongoing conversations and planning to be done outside of the EEOB or situation room.

State acknowledges its role in Kennan-like strategy making. But more discrete strategy making cannot be the exclusive purview of the military; State must do more. Just as military officers understand Clausewitz’s “war is not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass,” foreign service officers know how difficult it is to influence those whose interests do not fully align with ours. It is only by fully understanding “the kind of war on which [we] are embarking” that the U.S.G. can incentivize and coerce with the myriad carrots and sticks wielded by myriad partners. With its more than 290 missions overseas formally charged with understanding on-the-ground political situations and integrating the capabilities of multiple agencies, this is already the formal mandate of the department.

Second, the administration must insist the Pentagon and Combatant Commands prioritize their support to State colleagues with more than words. That support includes consistent dialogue, planners, information, airlift, and life support. Military leaders must explicitly express what they cannot accomplish with military force, must “pull” appropriate civilian capabilities to them, and “push” military capabilities toward others. Uniformed leaders must adopt a civ-mil posture closer to Hew Strachan than Samuel Huntington. Huntington’s “objective control” of the military has become some uniformed leaders’ rationale for “failure is not our fault.”

The administration has great faith in the nation’s military leaders. It should have like faith in the knowledge and skills of America’s diplomats. DoD’s decisive planning-to-action culture and State’s steady state skill in collaborating to achieve myriad political and economic aims are both key to conflict resolution. One’s rush to action and the other’s institutional lack of confidence in complex conflict cries out for partnership. The next administration must express and enforce that imperative.

Kim Field is a retired Army Brigadier General of Strategist background and will be deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations until January 20. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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