As a retired Air Force general officer, I have a deep appreciation of the capabilities of America’s armed forces. Yet I am also keenly aware of the limits of military power, which alone is not sufficient to defend fully America’s security and address deep-rooted causes of violence and instability around the world.
Consider that when I entered uniformed service more than 35 years ago, the primary threats to America were nation-states with advanced militaries. Today, our country faces different threats and potential adversaries — from rising powers and rogue nations to terrorist and militia groups that thrive in environments of deprivation and stunted development. These conditions of poverty and despair can lead to crises, conflicts and threats that eventually reach our shores or require U.S. military intervention.
That is why the United States must balance strategically all three aspects of national power and international influence — development and diplomacy, alongside defense — often known as a “smart power” approach. In particular, our civilian tools of foreign policy, at a little more than 1 percent of all federal spending, represent a cost-effective investment in America’s long-term security, prosperity and global leadership.
These investments are needed to prevent circumstances that could lead to the next insurgency, the next failing state or the next humanitarian disaster. As former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has said, “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” I agree.
For example, the wave of political change sweeping over the Middle East — a region in which the U.S. military has been engaged, at great cost, for more than 20 years — presents great promise, but risks as well, as instability and deprivation empower extremist and violent elements within those societies. By providing smart, effective assistance to support governance and development, the United States can help the people of the Arab world build a better way of life, instead of allowing their countries to become breeding grounds for those who wish to do us harm. Earlier this year, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who recently retired as head of all U.S. military forces in the Middle East, told senators: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
U.S. law already bans assistance to the governments of nations such as North Korea and Iran that directly threaten America and our allies. In some cases, the United States provides assistance in countries — either through nongovernmental organizations or other public-private partnerships — whose governments do and say things that Americans find objectionable or worse.
It is important to remember that U.S. aid often goes to nonprofits helping the most vulnerable people or to local civil-society groups that are a force for reform and moderation against those same governments. Furthermore, sustained diplomatic engagement and targeted assistance help preserve American leverage and influence in areas of the world vital to our national interest.
Cutting off these relationships could ultimately result in the kind of instability that threatens American security and might even require U.S. military intervention, with all of its costs and consequences.
Should intervention become necessary, retired officers know better than most that the U.S. military, as highly trained and professional as it is, remains fundamentally a blunt tool. American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines cannot by themselves effectively reform a government, revive a shattered economy or redress deep-seated political grievances. What our military can do is to provide the time, space and security for the other tools of American statecraft — especially diplomatic and development tools — to be successful.
When those other tools are underfunded and underappreciated, though, the courageous sacrifice of the men and women in uniform is often wasted. For these reasons, more than 125 former three- and four-star generals and admirals have voiced their support for a strong and effective international-affairs budget as an indispensable tool of national defense.
We are in a time of tight budgets, war-weariness and frustration with the course of events in many places overseas. Nonetheless, I would respectfully urge our elected representatives not to cut further and restrict critical development and diplomacy efforts overseas. U.S. engagement and leadership is still urgently needed — for a more secure America, and for a better, safer world.
Lt. Gen. Norman R. Seip is former commander of the 12th Air Force and is a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s National Security Advisory Committee.