Power, Paper And People

Liberia 2009 by August Cole

For most of the past decade, the Defense Department assumed the lead role in American foreign policy.

Generals outshone ambassadors abroad. Military aviators stepped out of wondrous flying machines and into jobs helping locals solve economic and social problems in war-torn regions. Iraq and Afghanistan remain decidedly military-led efforts, drawdown of U.S. troops or not, as the Pentagon grudgingly embraces tenets of development and diplomacy once only held by people wearing flip-flops, not combat boots.

The military is unlikely to relinquish these missions and the State Department’s attempts to wrest back a stronger role haven’t worked so far.

The State Department’s latest effort to cast itself as a strong institution eager to shape its own destiny while remaining in sync with the Pentagon is a bureaucratic one: a strategy document.

It will take much more to emerge from the Pentagon’s slipstream in the 21st Century.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review released this month is anchored to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s laudable endorsement of “smart power,” which can be distilled down to a nation’s use of a combination of attractive and coercive means to get what it wants overseas.

Conceptually, the administration’s embrace of the idea makes great intuitive, and practical, sense. Harvard professor Joseph Nye deserves enormous credit for presenting an enduring framework with “smart power” even if it is more diagnostic than prescriptive.

Still, the awkwardly titled QDDR offers skeptics plenty of ammunition to doubt that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will see the urgent changes needed to shore up a neglected and invaluable cornerstone of American influence.

The report’s title echoes the Quadrennial Defense Review, an often-maligned Pentagon planning document that is produced every four years since the end of the Cold War. The derivative title and process reinforce the State Department’s inferior position. In big bureaucracies, little details matter.

The report’s release was late and arrived as federal budget headaches, historic legislation on nuclear weapons treaties and gay rights, as well as holiday shopping deals, are what’s news.

It too narrowly defines “civilian power” as residing in civilian government workers. America’s powers of attraction, and ability to project power, come from a much stronger cocktail.

Across Washington, it is hard to find a consistent understanding of what coordinated “smart power” really should look like, or who should pay for it. It isn’t any easier after reading the document.

This is a crucial time for the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Money is tight, and will only get tighter. Foreign aid presents an easy target for incoming lawmakers who can argue that regions of our own country urgently need development aid first before sending billions overseas.

To fend off resolute skeptics, paperwork is flimsy protection. Strong relationships between strong leaders are what count.

Helpfully, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary Clinton have a track record publicly championing increased coordination and sharing between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. But Secretary Gates will be retiring soon. More humanitarian harmonizing will depend on his successor’s relationship with the State Department’s top official.

This future dynamic matters the most, far more than the QDDR, if the State Department is to reclaim turf currently held by the Pentagon. As it stands, that ground is the Pentagon’s to give, not the State Department’s to take.