Arms for the World: How the U.S. Military Shapes American Foreign Policy

Arms for the World: How the U.S. Military Shapes American Foreign Policy

This past April, the U.S. Department of Defense released an inauspicious two-page “Fact Sheet” outlining the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a comprehensive examination of the U.S. military’s strategic posture. Such a document rarely raises eyebrows outside the cloistered world of military analysts and wonks. But this unremarkable two-pager speaks volumes about the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. military in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It begins by laying out an exhaustive list of “threats and challenges the nation faces.” Key security challenges include “violent extremist movements, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, rising powers with sophisticated weapons, failed or failing states, and increasing encroachment across the global commons (air, sea, space, cyberspace).” Confronting these challenges suggests a broad national mandate for the U.S. military.

But there is more. U.S. national security strategy, we are told, must also take into account other “powerful trends that are reshaping the international landscape.” These range from the global economic downturn and climate change to the “spread of destabilizing technologies” and the growing “scarcity of resources.” What is needed is the “further institutionalizing” of irregular warfare capabilities, which will include “building partnership capacity” as well as strengthening Pentagon support for civilian-led operations.

While a “whole of government” approach is suggested in dealing with these challenges, the document curiously omits any mention of the State Department or even the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Perhaps the lack of reference to America’s chief diplomatic and development agencies is an accidental oversight. But then the shortchanging of these civilian agencies should not come as a surprise, because the defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy and national security policy in the post–cold-war era is the extent to which America’s foreign policy agenda is being crafted and implemented by the military. Almost fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the “total influence—economic, political, even spiritual” of an “immense military establishment and large arms industry being “felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.” Today, these concerns seem quaint. Whether it’s waging the war on terror or the war on drugs; nation-building in post-conflict environments; development, democracy promotion, or diplomacy; fighting cyber-criminals or training foreign armies, the global face of the United States today is generally that of a soldier.

Today, the Pentagon has approximately 1.4 million uniformed active duty personnel and nearly 700,000 civilian employees (not to mention the 848,000 reserves and National Guard). By comparison, the Department of State has a mere 6,500 Foreign Service officers and...


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