How Many Divisions Has State Got? (Updated)

There should be a positive answer to that question. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain why, in my own naïve way.

It cannot have escaped most people’s attention that the last decade of American foreign policy, despite its ideological neoconservative and neoliberal underpinning, has lurched from one crisis to another. The U.S. seems to always be putting out fires that were easy to predict, with no long-term strategic vision in place. I’m not the only one saying that. Henry Kissinger has said it. Zbigniew Brzezinski in his latest work argues that while the Bush administration tried to deny and ignore America’s slipping status as the global hegemony, thereby deciding to launch unnecessary and costly wars , the Obama administration has ”œfailed to speak directly to the American people about America’s changing role in the world, its implications, and its demands”. Even Barack Obama agreed, in his 2006 book ”œAudacity of Hope”œ, that the U.S. needed to do more than short-term thinking about its foreign policy.

the United States still lacks a coherent national security policy. Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur? Are our goals in Iran regime change, the dismantling of all Iranian nuclear capability, the prevention of nuclear proliferation, or all three? Are we committed to use force wherever there’s a despot regime that’s terrorizing its people”“and if so, how long do we stay to ensure democracy takes root?…

Perhaps someone inside the White House has clear answers to these questions. But our allies”“and for that matter our enemies”“certainly don’t know what those answers are. More important, neither do the American people. Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy-and ultimately the power”“it needs to make the world safer than it is today.”

Now that he’s in the White House, I think Obama would have to agree that the American people are still in no way clearer about consistent answers to those questions. Without a clear agreement on fundamentals, it’s always going to be that way. The electoral cycle and pressure of world events encourage punting on long-term tough decisions in favor of fire-fighting and keeping up with the opinion polls.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Realists and neo-whatevers should be able to agree certain basic principles based upon empirical observation and the ”œat the sharp end” work of some of the nation’s brightest servants. Whether realists concerned solely with the national interest, neoconservatives pursuing democratization as a way towards greater international security or neoliberal pursuing ethical interventionism, there should be one thing all can agree would give a greater flexibility, drive and direction to U.S. foreign policy. Let’s look to the U.S. Government COIN Guide of 2009 (PDF) for some inspiration. There, we are told that there are four principle functions to the COIN model.

The political function is the key function, providing a framework of political reconciliation, and reform of governance around which all other COIN activities are organized. In general, a COIN strategy is only as good as the political plan at its heart.

The economic function seeks to provide essential services and stimulate long term economic growth, thereby generating confidence in the government while at the same time reducing the pool of frustrated, unemployed young men and women from which insurgents can readily recruit.

The security function is an enabler for the other functions and involves development not just of the affected nation’s military force, but its whole security sector, including the related legal framework, civilian oversight mechanisms and judicial system. Establishing security is not a precursor to economic and governance activity: rather security, economic and governance activity must be developed in parallel.

The information function comprises intelligence (required to gain understanding), and influence (to promote the affected government’s cause). It is essential that the influence campaign is in tune with the strategic narrative, resonates with the relevant audiences, is based on genuine resolve by the affected government and that physical actions match. What makes COIN different from other stabilization and humanitarian tasks is that both elements of the information function will be conducted in stark competition with the insurgents’ own information functions.

These four functions contribute to the overall objective of enabling the affected government to establish control, consolidating and then transitioning it from intervening forces to national forces and from military to civil institutions.

It cannot have escaped the reader’s notice that success in all the other functions is a whole lot easier if the security function is largely absent, because a shooting insurgency has not yet developed. The authors of the COIN Guide certainly realized this, writing that

military forces are, in a sense, an enabling system for civil administration; their role is to afford sufficient protection and stability to allow the government to work safely with its population, for economic revival, political reconciliation and external non-government assistance to be effective.

If the host government has no insurgency to fight as yet, then the other functions of COIN become instead a ”œpre-COIN” effort in development and aid, building good governance and economic capacities in that nation to try to ensure that it never falls as far as becoming the kind of place where intervention might be talked about. Moreover, the lack of a military/security function defends against what has been called ”œHummvee in a china shop” syndrome – where the very presence of armed foreigners and the natural inclination to putting force protection requirements before COIN principles combine to drive the next round of insurgency. Not having to impose them at gunpoint and not yet having an insurgency enemy to offer setbacks have intrinsic benefits for the other functions of any ”œpeople-centric” effort.

Joshua Foust, for one, has in part already articulated this. His model for ”œExpeditionary Economics” (PDF) explicitly recognizes that building up the capabilities of a host nation ”œhas more potential and power to advance peace and stability than any form of military force, making it a natural goal for American power abroad.” ExpEcon builds population-centric concerns in at its foundation. Although it was conceived as a method of post-conflict or post-disaster aid, there’s no reason at all why the model cannot be used in ”œpre-COIN” conditions.

The best aspect to ExpEcon is that it does not require Soviet-style economic planning. The current methods of encouraging economic growth ”” especially when performed by the military, but also by civilian agencies ”” follow a Soviet approach to economic growth: top-down, authoritarian, inflexible (and often ineffective). ExpEcon works on the assumption that local communities know what they need far more than an expatriate aid consultant does. There’s no need to dictate any process of privatizing state-run industries or the development of new ones. The goal of development should be to remove barriers to economic growth, rather than to dictate how that growth should take place.

In post-disaster or post-conflict countries that require development aid, like Haiti or Afghanistan, the West does not need to stimulate business development or growth. People will do commerce even in the worst of conditions. Businesses pop up almost immediately after conditions allow it; ExpEcon aims to support and encourage this natural process of business activity. It is focused on guiding development efforts from the point of view of those who emerge to do business.

If anything will work in post-conflict situations, it will work just as well in pre-conflict conditions – and if a range of such programs are successful then they should help to create the kind of environment where conflict is unnecessary and unwanted.

Such a model for foreign assistance would also answer current criticisms of Responsibility To Protect (R2P) operations: namely, why send bombers over Libya if not Bahrain, and why intervene militarily at massive cost to save fifty thousand from a despotic regime if you’re not willing to invest the same amount in saving five hundred thousand from famine? It is fully applicable to allies and makes explicit the utilitarian precepts of ”œfirst, do no harm” and ”œfor the greatest good of the greatest number”. Humanitarian objectives are extremely, I would say prohibitively, difficult to deliver at gun point and America”˜s resources are limited. Instead of armed interventionism, R2P missions should be focusing on aid and development before the situation deteriorates to the shooting point. Such an expeditionary aid paradigm should satisfy R2P advocates – and even make R2P more successful. Expeditionary aid could go into non-hostile crises e.g. the current famine zone in West Africa and save hundreds of thousands, even millions. Rather than lobbying for costly military interventions in which the aftermath is almost always uglier for the locals and hostile to the interveners (Iraq, Libya) the resources available could be used for efforts which would add a net gain to US prestige and goodwill abroad as well as saving more lives.

This is explicitly an argument for an expeditionary capacity, perhaps modeled around a resurgent Peace Corps with personnel far in excess of its current paltry numbers, to do aid before military intervention becomes needed. A force that wears dungarees instead of uniforms and wields shovels instead of assault rifles and airstrikes. Fund it to the tune of say $200 billion, taken right out of the Pentagon’s over-inflated budget (meanwhile transferring key assets currently under Pentagon control, like civil engineering units and Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and put it to work on “pre-COIN”, aid and development to promote good governance and helpful infrastructure before things in a country go so far South that airstrikes are needed.

Such a force, such a capacity, would not only be a perfect utilitarian answer, it would even be useful on the home front. It is in line with State’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) while taking the concepts in that review one step further. It would go a long way to redressing the balance in the corridors of power – where the DoD has a budget and thus bureaucratic influence that dwarves State’s – as well as countering the tendency for American policymakers to reach for the military hammer at every turn.

What’s not to like?

There should be a positive answer to ”œHow many divisions does State have?”

Update I’m indebted to Cheryl Rofer for pointing me to a post exploring George Kennan’s distinction between universalism and particularism and Kennan’s favor of the latter in foreign policy. This quote from Gaddis’ biography of the foreign policy giant particularly struck me:

”˜We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.’ International life was an organic process, not a static system. Americans had inherited it, not designed it. Their preferred standards of behavior, therefore, could hardly govern it. But it should be possible ”˜to take these forces for what they are and to induce them to work with us and for us by influencing the environmental stimuli to which they are subjected.’ That would have to be done ”˜gently and patiently, with understanding and sympathy, not trying to force growth by mechanical means, not tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to. The forces of nature will generally be on the side of him who understands them best and respects them most scrupulously.’

That makes all kinds of sense to me – and I think it would to Stephen Walt too. His piece today, “Drive By Interventionism” dovetails with mine, I feel.

Meanwhile, Bernard Finel has a thoughtful response to my post, arguing that the practical problems are structural and making a good argument that “first, do no harm” should trump attempts to do “the greatest good for the greatest number”.

my view is that our approach to the world should be one of restraint. We shouldn’t be trying to fix all the world’s problems, regardless of whether the problems are pre-conflict or post-conflict. The default for American involvement should be, well, no involvement beyond the normal diplomatic interactions consistent with a power seeking to protect its global interests. I am not arguing for isolationism, but simply for ”œnormalcy,” a condition where we recognize the existence of various global problems without that implying an obligation to solve all of them.

So rather than routinize our interventions under some sort of pre-COIN rubric, I’d rather we keep our interventions ad hoc and exceptional. I get the appeal, though, of Hynd’s position. If we are going to be screwing around in all the world’s hot spots anyway, why not do it smarter though earlier and non-kinetic involvement? Okay, but once you’ve accepted that as your foreign policy orientation, then you are explicitly rejecting the concept of restraint for a concept of smarter intervention. As a practical matter, I don’t think that ends up where Hynd expects since having essentially stated that it is in our interest to stabilized the whole world, the impetus for more interventions when things inevitably go wrong will be more difficult to resist.

I have a great deal of sympathy for that argument, I must admit. The problem with it, though, is that by the time overseas problems get big enough where they necessarily impinge on not just the U.S. but the global community, the ability to “do no harm” in meeting them has often fled. At least, with expeditionary aid, we have a chance to head them off before then and at a lower opportunity cost in terms of lives even when not in treasure. That’s not to say that I see it as a new hammer for every global problem – each particular instance would have to be evaluated on its own merits.

Update 2 Bernard sent an email to say:

my bigger concern is the continued institutionalization of interventionism. I mean, once you build a consensus to be involved pre-emptively, how do you avoid the impetus to double (and triple) down if things get worse?

I’m not demanding an “exit strategy” — that’s too facile. What I am suggesting is that your approach may make the development of exit strategies more difficult in the future.

He’s got a good point there, we have seen too much “mission creep” over the last decade.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • probably quoting some Official British Army Manual or famous general:
    “An army exists to further political goals that cannot otherwise be achieved”.

    It certainly does not exist for its own sake or to waste national wealth.
    Great Britain spent several hundred years looting the colonial empire, then turned it all into gunpowder and blew it up in WWI.

    It is worth remembering that the Founding Fathers were all traitors.

  • no doubt. However, there are two fundamental premises that need to inform any discussion of foreign policy before the higher level work is done.

    1. U.S. foreign policy , for the most part, serves the wealthy through the exercise of power in their behalf. This essay is a masterful description of how that works — Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy (by a libertarian economist, who should know).

    2. The human impact and moral implications of foreign policy are rarely discussed in real terms before, during or after adventures. Millions died in South East Asia and Iraq as a result of fraudulent rationales for war. The public was not informed of the risks nor the outcomes of these or any other advetures. Thus, there is no factual basis for a moral judgment.

    The likelihood that there will be any consideration of these premises is low but the ability to have a sensible foreign policy, one free of dreadful acts in the service of a very few, is zero wthout recognizing reality.
    The Money Party RSS

  • When can we get them to enact such an enlightened policy over here (domestically)? If it wasn’t for top-down, fiscally inefficient authoritarian controls, we wouldn’t have any controls at all 😉

  • Intelligent comments from the British Army?

    Not before the 20th century. The British Army’s officer system (commission bought for minor sons) was not famed for it’s intelligence.

    Cardigan & the Light Brigade come to mind.

  • He’s got a good point there, we have seen too much “mission creep” over the last decade.


    It’s a combination of the “sunk costs” argument (we’ve invested so much we have to invest a little more for success), poor definitions of success, MIC lobbying (preventing congress from asking the difficult questions and exercising oversight) and careerism.

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