U.S. military giant, diplomatic dwarf?

May 14, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

The U.S. armed forces, the world’s most powerful, outnumber the country’s diplomatic service and its major aid agency by a ratio of more than 180:1, vastly higher than in other Western democracies. Military giant, diplomatic dwarf?

The ratio applies to people in uniform (or pin-striped suits). In terms of money, the U.S. military towers just as tall. Roughly half of all military spending in the world is American. Even potential adversaries in a conventional war spend puny sums in comparison. The 2010 defense budget now before Congress totals $534 billion, not including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China’s defense budget is $70 billion, Russia’s around $50 billion.giant_dwarf_w350

Is the huge imbalance between the size of the U.S. armed forces and the civilian agencies that make up “soft power” — chiefly the foreign service and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — destined to remain a permanent fixture in the political landscape?

The gap is not likely to shrink dramatically, despite a growing internal debate over how to balance the instruments of power. Ironically, the man who has provided some of the most memorable statistics illustrating the hard power-soft power gap is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only holdover from the cabinet of George W. Bush and President Barack Obama’s most inspired choice.

One of Gates’ favorite examples: The 6,600 foreign service professionals of the State Department equal the number of personnel of one (out of 11) aircraft carrier strike group.

The Pentagon spends slightly more on health care for the military than the State Department spends on looking after foreign affairs. And the United States employs more military musicians than professional diplomats.

The gap is meant to shrink, so that the United States can “renew its role as a leader in global development and diplomacy,” in the words of the White House Office of Management and Budget. It lists $53.9 billion for the Department of State and other international programs in the 2010 budget, a tenth of the defense budget.

The Obama administration wants to double foreign assistance by 2015 and “significantly” increase the size of the foreign service and USAID, the foreign assistance agency which shrank from a high of about 15,000 during the Vietnam War to just over 1,100 now.


Building up “soft power” is a sign that Obama is turning away from the notion that diplomacy is largely a tool to convey threats – a notion popular among the neoconservatives who drove the Bush administration’s policy – rather than to negotiate compromise and avert war instead of cleaning up the post-war ruins.

Adding people to civilian agencies that promote U.S. foreign policy interests may well be easier than adjusting the arsenal of the armed forces to the wars they are fighting now or are likely to fight in the near future.

Cutting the size of the military itself is not a subject of debate in Washington, not only because it is obvious that they are badly stretched by the two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also because few Americans, and even fewer American policymakers, doubt the wisdom of permanent military supremacy for the United States.

How that should be guaranteed is a perennial subject of debate, reignited this month by the defense budget Gates submitted. It calls for a 4 percent increase over the previous year, not insignificant in a country facing a $1.2 trillion deficit next year, and showed that the “military-industrial complex” the late Dwight Eisenhower warned about is alive and well.

In his presidential farewell address in 1961, General Eisenhower said the military establishment and a permanent arms industry combined to create a military-industrial complex whose “influence  –economic, political, even spiritual– is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the federal government.”

That influence is still felt, as shown by the reaction to Gates’ decision to readjust the arsenal, moving more money to the tools of irregular warfare and scrapping high-ticket items originally designed to fight a Cold War enemy who no longer exists. Case in point: the F-22 jet fighter, an aircraft pilots describe as the Ferrari of the air. It costs $140 million apiece.

The Air Force originally wanted 381 of the planes, Gates wants to halt production at 187 already built or in the pipeline. The aircraft is being built by companies in 44 states. That translates into 88 senators and ensures broad political support in Congress as well as vivid complaints over job losses once production ends.

Before betting on the outcome of the congressional fight over big-ticket weapons systems, keep in mind an old Washington adage: “The president proposes, Congress disposes.”


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