44's commitment to reducing America’s reliance on the military instrument of power is well-known. It has been a constant theme of his presidency – from his first presidential campaign through his major speech on foreign policy at West Point earlier this year. It is therefore paradoxical that the administration’s foreign policy outlook and operational style have made use of the military instrument almost unavoidable. By failing to understand that the space between war and peace is not an empty one – but a landscape churning with political, economic, and security competitions that require constant attention – American foreign policy risks being reduced to a reactive and tactical emphasis on the military instrument by default.
This tactical mindset provides an explanation for the apparent failure to appreciate how to leverage military force for strategic ends. This view leads to an under-appreciation of its broader deterrent value and the role that military forces can play in shaping security environments and consolidating tactical gains to ensure progress toward policy goals. Military forces – strong land forces especially – provide reassurance and tangible presence of American commitment. One of the key insights of the recently released National Defense Panel report was to make the important point that powerful U.S. military capabilities can shape events and provide options that may, by their mere existence, deter others from taking actions that require a U.S. military response. They help to establish the conditions to allow U.S. diplomats and policymakers to engage in that space between peace and war.
The emphasis on short-term military tactics as opposed to the strategies that must undergird the use of force occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. Isolationists on the right are prey to the view that American power abroad equates purely with military power, and as such is too expensive and costly (in American lives) to project. Their version of power is far too narrow. America is about more than its military power abroad. Although many on the right correctly highlight the importance of American economic power, few seem to embrace ideas about how to constructively shape and influence. While many Republicans in Congress are now advocating for strikes against ISIS, the key question will be whether they will support the consolidation and active diplomacy that will also be required to address the drivers of conflict.
The tragedy of America’s inability (or unwillingness) to develop the mindset and the mechanisms to compete in this “space between” means that we reduce our options and in the end, resort to the military instrument. Peace does not exist in a state of inertia. It must be actively and consistently maintained by engaging in the political competitions that are its constant feature.
Pic - "Why on earth is 44 tipping his hand to ISIS?"