U.S. National Security Relies on Powerful Civilian Tools

U.S. National Security Relies on Powerful Civilian Tools

by Lynne Weil

Desperate refugees flooding Europe as they flee for their lives. Ghastly scenes of terrorist mayhem in Paris and San Bernardino. Crumbling economies, fragile democracies, and widespread violence dominating the news from abroad.

Faced with what seems like a constant barrage of horrors beyond their control, Americans are demanding to hear more from our leaders—and those vying to be our leaders—on how we as a nation should handle threats and complex challenges in this tumultuous world.

We need decisive and muscular international responses to the Islamic State, Russian hegemony, and more. But amid the raucous calls for carpet-bombing cities and punching autocrats in the nose, a wise handful of presidential contenders from both sides of the aisle have also asserted that a multi-faceted, “whole-of-government” effort is most effective in addressing the underlying conditions that give rise to crises in the first place. This type of interagency effort, employing a long-view combination of push and pull, carrot and stick, civilian and military might, is what we need to ensure our national security.

There’s plenty of proof of the effectiveness of the whole-of-government approach, too. A coordinated response among federal agencies was key to U.S. leadership in the recent international fight to contain Ebola. Across South Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond, American humanitarian aid teams work closely with uniformed troops and local civil society partners to maintain security in unstable areas, deliver development assistance and respond to natural disasters. Interagency success stories abound, even if they don’t get much notice on the conflict-driven campaign trail.

No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, most agree that the United States must remain a strong global leader. To do so, we should use all the national security tools available—both military and civilian—to shore up our ties with other countries, prevent and resolve combustible situations, and promote opportunity overseas as well as here at home.

Our country has unparalleled military capability, which is essential both to projecting power around the world and remaining safe. But our security is strongest when we also invest in robust diplomacy and development efforts, which can reduce the risk of conflict and create the conditions for economic success.

Congress plays a significant role in seeing that the forces of progress and reason triumph over disaster and those bent on destruction. The committees on which I worked on Capitol Hill from 2001 to 2010 produced laws creating large-scale projects to eliminate HIV/AIDS worldwide, combat slavery, and reduce the amount of unsecured nuclear material that could have been used in weapons in Libya and across Eurasia.

Funds for such efforts, along with ongoing programs of all kinds, are also determined by Congress. Although each year the Executive Branch devises a federal budget, under our Constitution the Legislative Branch holds the power of the purse. For the coming year, Congress has just designated $53 billion out of the $1.1 trillion federal budget for non-military international affairs. That’s more than last year’s level, but less than the President’s request. Unfortunately, $15 billion of it comes as “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) funding, which was created a few years ago as a short-term means to support the war on terrorism. OCO funds are not part of the base budget and can’t be counted upon from year to year.

In short, we devote a sliver of the budget—roughly one percent, with only a portion of that a reliable base on which to make long-term plans – to activities that do a world of good and enhance our country’s international standing. And yet there’s debate about the value of spending even that sliver, abandoning the bipartisan tradition of viewing diplomacy and development as essential to our national security aims.

For decades, protecting U.S. interests abroad has meant fostering stable, prosperous, and democratic societies. International human rights became a central focus as far back as the 1970s. Advancing democracy and free markets has been a key part of our foreign policy under every president for the past 30 years. President George W. Bush’s response to terrorism included boosting diplomacy and development and significantly increasing the State Department’s budget under Secretary Colin Powell. And President Barack Obama has worked to deepen civilian engagement through innovation and trade.

No one suggests that these efforts alone will stop the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and their ilk. However, successfully combating their ideologies requires more than firepower and intelligence-sharing. We also need to work with other countries to ensure that viable alternatives to violent extremism are within reach of people to whom these brutal groups appeal. Such alternatives arise through political reform and economic advancement.

Our country supports programs around the world to promote good governance, reduce corruption, and build grassroots capacity in education, health care, and agriculture. What’s more, diplomacy and international development programs open up markets for our goods and services, thereby creating American jobs. The programs also foster the spread of democracy and human rights, leading to more open societies and better partners for the United States.

Now that foreign policy has become a central issue in the campaign, the candidates should not only address the immediate crises, but also make clear how they would invest in security for the long term. We have powerful civilian tools of international influence. The next president should be ready to wield them effectively.

Image Courtesy Unsplash / CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

About the Author


Lynne Weil was a senior executive for the Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2012 to 2014, a senior advisor for the State Department from 2010 to 2012, communications director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 2003 to 2010, and press secretary for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001 to 2003.

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