The US: All Power, No Influence

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The Boston Globe

The US: All Power, No Influence

A man bit a dog last week. Not just any man, and not just any dog. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decried the vast disproportion between America's annual investment in the Pentagon - something like $700 billion - and what is spent on the State Department - about $35 billion. That's less, Gates said in a speech in Kansas, than the Defense Department spends on healthcare. The total number of foreign service officers is about 6,600 - which is less, Gates said, than the number of military personnel serving on one aircraft carrier strike group. The Secretary of defense identified himself as the man biting the dog when he called for "a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security - diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development." Gates, in fact, was biting the bullet.

US foreign policy is in an unprecedented state of disarray. Humiliations abound. America's man in Pakistan lurches toward tyranny. Washington's aggressive moves against Russia, from NATO expansion to missile defense, have helped resuscitate Moscow's paranoia - and Vladimir Putin's KGB instincts. At Annapolis, the effects of years of US neglect of Middle East diplomacy were on full display. China openly thwarts ineffectual American efforts to respond to genocide in Darfur. Iran's crackpot leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made a mockery of the Bush administration, even as the latest intelligence reversal makes Bush's rhetoric on Iran seem preposterous. Latin America is contemptuous of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, but cheers his anti-American diatribes. Europe cannot believe what it hears from the United States on global warming. America has all the power in the world, and no influence.The secretary of defense put his finger on the problem, which is the radical militarization of foreign affairs. Gates has served under seven presidents, but the problem goes back further, even, than that. When the Department of Defense was established by the National Security Act of 1947, fundamental mistakes were already being made. Ironically, the first move to gut the influence of the State Department, elevating military force over diplomacy, came from the State Department itself, where George Kennan proposed the historic strategy of "containment" as a way of dealing with the Soviet Union. His boss, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, saw containment almost entirely in military terms, and when Kennan demurred, Acheson demoted him.

Acting from Foggy Bottom, Acheson did far more to advance the Pentagon, built on flats called "Hell's Bottom," than did its own chief, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson. It was Acheson who wanted war in Korea, and Acheson who led the way across the threshold to the hydrogen bomb. When Kennan objected to that "instrument of genocide and suicide," Acheson told him, "If that's your view, you ought to resign from the Foreign Service, and go out and preach your Quaker gospel, but don't do it from within the department."

Kennan was replaced with Paul Nitze, who, operating mainly from within the State Department across the next generation, became the tribune of militarization. The State Department, with figures ranging from John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, became every bit as committed to hard power over soft power as the men in uniform across the Potomac. America became a weapons junkie, and responded with armed belligerence to every foreign policy challenge, from the rise of Moscow to its collapse; from the wound inflicted by Osama bin Laden to the insults hurled by Saddam Hussein.

"The civilian instruments of national security," the Quaker gospel, eroded to the point of almost not existing. The hubris of Pentagon fantasies of "force projection" has been punctured, but remains inflated. Robert Gates at least identifies the problem, but not even he aims to defend against what really endangers the United States today. Arguably, the single largest threat to national security is the growing gulf between desperately impoverished peoples and those who have what they need to live. What is the Pentagon budget to that? Environmental degradation is also a massive national security threat. How do aircraft carriers help with that?

Take one dramatic example from the unfolding future. The United States has long been absent from Africa, making only token gestures at helping that continent deal with post-colonial collapse, disease, and ethnic violence. But when the Defense Department recently established the US Africa Command, it became clear that America will at last make its influence felt there. Shamefully, it will be the influence of the bullet, which Africans now will have to bite.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.

 

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