Competing With One Hand Tied Behind the Back

By Stew Magnuson
The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department.

Photo: State Dept.

On Feb. 12, Defense Department Comptroller David L. Norquist presented the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request.

It was, for the most part, what military leadership and industry have been hoping for: a topline $74 billion increase over 2017 including the biggest pay raise for troops in nine years, slots for another 29,000 personnel and the beginning of a long recovery after unfavorable budget cycles.

After years of suffering under budget caps and continuing resolutions, happy days are here again.

Meanwhile, across the Potomac River at Foggy Bottom, the budget rollout was a bloodbath, which followed a year of serious hemorrhaging. The State Department proposed a $14 billion cut that included its international development and aid agencies.

While this was just a proposal — and Congress will more than likely restore much of this funding — the department won’t be able to spend it on salaries for personnel who aren’t there. Low, mid and top-level diplomats have been departing the State Department in droves. Senior appointed positions have gone unfilled.

In military terms, the diplomatic corps is becoming a “hollowed out force,” and it can’t come at a worse time.

Back over at the Pentagon, Norquist said: “It is increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values and in the process replace the free and open order that has enabled global security since World War II.”

The nation needs to leverage all elements of national power, he said. “The Department of Defense’s enduring mission is to provide combat ready military forces to deter war and reinforce America’s traditional tools of diplomacy.”

He continued: “Great power competition, not terrorism, has emerged as the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity.” Both China and Russia are spreading their influence without having to flex much of their military might. True, Russia has done so in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. China built a new military base in disputed waters near the Spratly Islands with none of its neighbors, or the United States, willing to oppose it.

Other than those examples, the peer competitors are spreading their influence through soft power.

China is doing so mostly through its deep pockets, and not just in Asia, but in any country on any continent. The U.S. aid agencies might say, “We’ll give you this money if you hold free and fair elections and you stop chopping down your rainforest.”

But when the United States retreats diplomatically or pulls out of trade agreements, China steps in and says: “We’ll give you this money if you chop down your rainforest and send us the timber. No questions asked.”

"Great power competition, not terrorism, has emerged as the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity."

Russia is using its mastery of old school propaganda methods married to high-tech hacking and savvy use of the internet to spread its influence throughout Eastern Europe and the West without having to fire a gun. Divide and conquer. The more division, the more we are at each other’s throats, the weaker the Western democracies become.

The day after the budget rollout, the nation’s senior intelligence officials came to Capitol Hill to reiterate that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election and will do so again.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. It has already begun, the IC leaders said.

The U.S. government has a constitutional duty to protect Americans from foreign attacks.

So what is being done about this? Who is in charge? If cyber is now considered a warfighting domain, is it the Defense Department? Is it Homeland Security? Is the intelligence community doing anything to thwart this upcoming assault on U.S. democracy? The question was posed at the hearing. The answer basically was: no one.

One hundred and fifty retired three- and four-star generals wrote a letter to Congress in the wake of the deep cuts to the State Department to speak up for their counterparts.

“We call on you to ensure our nation also has the civilian resources necessary to protect our national security, compete against our adversaries and create opportunities around the world,” the letter said. It was the second year in a row they felt compelled to write.

As the military likes to say, its strength is its people. That’s no less true in the diplomatic corps and foreign service where experienced personnel can’t simply be replaced by a kid out of college or a contractor paid an hourly wage.

The U.S. military is the best at what it does — but it doesn’t do everything. The “civilian surge” a decade ago during the Iraq War illustrates that the Defense Department needs partners when it comes to soft power.

Now that an era of great power competition is back, it is time to take another look at the Domino Theory, the Cold War-era belief that the communist nations were seeking to knock off other nations one by one. Back then, they carried this out through armed insurrections. We countered with military and humanitarian aid, information campaigns and sometimes interventions. Today, Russia and China are using soft power to achieve their goals.

Norquist was right when he said military might and diplomacy go hand in hand. But a weakened State Department means the United States is competing with these two rivals with one hand tied behind its back. And the dominoes are starting to fall.

Topics: Defense Department, Budget

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