This is an excerpt of an article originally published in Alcalde.
As American forces withdraw from the difficult terrain of Afghanistan, two things have become glaringly clear: Our nation over-relies on the military and under-invests in diplomacy. Since the boots of U.S. soldiers first hit the ground 12 years ago, American civilian experts on politics, economics, and culture have been present in very small numbers throughout the region. In their place, American soldiers have taken on tasks for which they are poorly prepared, like negotiating agreements on resources, monitoring elections, and helping to build representative institutions. The same is true at a national level, where American military commanders in Afghanistan have frequently assumed the lead in negotiating with the country’s vain and corrupt leader, Hamid Karzai.
The failures of diplomacy in Afghanistan are, in part, a consequence of the imbalance between overwhelming American military force and inadequate civilian capabilities. A similar pattern has played out in Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria, where the inconsistent, stop-and-go diplomatic approaches toward the Assad regime have exposed the lack of strategic thinking at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Our soldiers constitute one of the best-trained fighting forces the world has ever seen, but they are clearly asked to do too much. Our diplomats, in contrast, struggle to find the resources for adequate training. Our soldiers are stretched too far; our diplomats are too few and too poorly prepared.
The U.S. defense budget is roughly 20 times as great as the combined budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. There are more lawyers in the Pentagon than diplomats in the State Department, and more musicians in military bands than members in the entire U.S. diplomatic corps.
As defense secretary Robert Gates argued in 2008, the U.S. government risks the “creeping militarization” of its foreign policy by giving such overwhelming priority to our military services and paying so little attention to the diplomats who work to advance American interests and values through non-military means. Gates reminded Americans that current and future wars are likely to be “fundamentally political in nature” and that military means always need to be harnessed to political ends.
For answers to how we can re-imagine our nation’s foreign policy, history offers many valuable insights. The founders of the United States were, above all, diplomats.