Sounding the Alarm: A Civilian ‘Surge’ Needed to Restore U.S. Foreign Policy

By Matt Pennington
The Obama administration is facing a critical juncture in American foreign policy. As U.S. civilian programs have been chronically underfunded and understaffed over the last several decades, there is growing consensus that our approach to global engagement is in dire need of repair. This concern has only grown stronger in the wake of ongoing U.S. military-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and widespread concerns about the reliance on and inappropriate use of U.S. military in non-combat activities abroad. We can no longer afford to view American foreign policy simply through the lens of increased U.S. military might.  The problems around the globe – including humanitarian crises related to displacement -- are too complex and require a multi-faceted approach.

The Obama Administration and Congress have a clear window of opportunity to reverse course and rebuild U.S. civilian capacity. But what will it take to implement such a strategy? Will a new, balanced approach to foreign policy come at the expense of important defense priorities?

This morning, I had the opportunity to listen to a distinguished panel of civilian and military experts tackle some of these issues. Beth Cole from the U.S. Institute of Peace; Ambassador John Herbst, the State Department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, Dan Pike from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Ron Capps from RI’s peacekeeping team, and RI’s acting president Joel Charny gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to discuss the findings and recommendations of Ron’s new comprehensive report, Drawing on the Full Strength of America: Seeking Greater Civilian Capacity in U.S. Foreign Affairs.

The report details the consequences of the alarming civil-military imbalance in U.S. foreign affairs, and the steps necessary to restore U.S. civilian capacity and return to a more balanced approach of global engagement.

As the report highlights, this civil-military imbalance has numerous consequences for American engagement in Africa. The current vacancy rate at some U.S. embassies in Africa is an astounding 30 percent. Using Chad as a case study to emphasize the problems inherent in the U.S. approach, Ron Capps stresses the fact that the U.S. embassy in N’Djamena is understaffed (with only one staffer assigned to “substantive” work) and insufficiently trained, thus allowing the Department of Defense (DoD) to carry the burden of diplomacy and development with its vast resources and civil affairs personnel. This reliance on DoD to do civilian work brings into question whether resources are allocated in a manner that reflects the continent’s most pressing priorities.

Among the many useful recommendations to policymakers in this report, a few essentials should be considered by Congress and the Administration in the short to medium-term: increasing the size of the U.S. Foreign Service by nearly 5,000 staff and fully funding the Civilian Response Corps (staff ready for deployment on short notice to troubled spots around the world) so it can hire the authorized 4,250 positions required for it to be an effective program. Others are more challenging and require long-term thinking and strategizing, including the rebalancing of civilian and military authorities and the creation of a National Security University, which would offer civilian training at the intermediate and senior levels for interagency professional education. Ultimately, Ron Capps recommends, trust and cooperation are essential elements for rebuilding civil-military relations.

This report comes at a critical time, as the Congress is working to reshape U.S. foreign policy through a legislative overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961, the authorizing legislation that governs and guides our foreign assistance programs today. Rewriting the FAA in a way that restores civilian leadership to its rightful place in U.S. foreign affairs will be vital to protecting our national and humanitarian interests abroad.