American foreign policy relies too heavily on military strength. Prominent national security figures recognize this. In 2008, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned of the “creeping militarization” of foreign policy, and argued that “it is important that the military is—and is clearly seen to be—in a supporting role to civilian agencies.” Likewise, future defense secretary General James Mattis told Congress in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
For the United States to engage with the world in a less militarized way, it need not necessarily cut defense spending, but it will need to invest more in civilian forms of American power. Two institutions, in particular, should be considered: the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps. With President Trump skeptical of long-term military deployments, and with Americans unenthusiastic about conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Syria, these institutions can show the world the United States will remain engaged in a form that balances military and civilian strengths.
The Foreign Service is often America’s “first contact” with nation-states and populations, and plays a vital role in efforts to resolve or minimize conflicts. As retired Foreign Service Officer (FSO) Leon Weintraub noted in a 2017 Washington Post op-ed, many FSOs have dangerous assignments; 67% of FSO postings are eligible for Post Hardship Differential, added compensation for the difficulties of working in a particular location. While the oft-cited statistic that there are more U.S. military band members than Foreign Service Officers is not accurate, the United States currently has fewer than 8,000 FSOs (listed in this State Department factsheet as “generalists”). Hiring more Foreign Service Officers would give the United States more opportunities to forestall potential conflicts.
FSOs have often been among the most perceptive voices critiquing U.S. policy. Probably the most famous is former Ambassador George Kennan. In 1946, when many Americans still had positive impressions of the Soviet Union thanks to their World War Two alliance, Kennan saw what a threat it would pose. His “Long Telegram” warned Washington that Moscow would aggressively try to expand its sphere of influence. His warning led to his appointment as the State Department’s first Director of Policy Planning, and from that position he penned his famous “X Article,” which illustrated the policy of containment for Americans outside government.
Other FSOs have been boldly critical of the moral and practical failings of American actions. Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke began his career as an FSO in Vietnam in the 1960s, where, in journalist George Packer’s telling, he was “among the first diplomats to harbor doubts about the [Vietnam] war,” and shared his doubts with senior officials. Similarly, diplomat Archer Blood, consul general in Dhaka during the Bangladeshi war of independence, informed Washington that the Pakistani army was massacring Bengali civilians, and (unsuccessfully) called for an end to U.S. military aid to Islamabad. These diplomats perform a valuable service by making clear the conflict between America’s liberal democratic values and what is often considered a country’s “vital” interests. While their advice did not immediately impact U.S. policy, the diplomats’ observations provided valuable, on-the-ground insights that informed the decision-making process in Washington.
The Peace Corps has a more mixed history. Despite its iconic status as part of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to “ask what you can do for your country,” there is little evidence that its volunteers bring substantial developmental benefits to the countries where they serve. A 2011 study by the Center for Global Development, for example, argued that the program’s impact on education rates in developing countries has declined over time. And a 2017 Brookings Institution blog post noted that, at a cost of $56,500 per volunteer, the Peace Corps is, “one of the most expensive civilian overseas programs funded by the federal government.”
But development, as usually defined, has never been the only goal of the Peace Corps. Giving Americans and non-Americans chances to interact with each other is also a major objective. The same 2011 study noted that while far more Americans volunteer abroad through private organizations, Peace Corps volunteers “stay longer in country than the few weeks of the average U.S. overseas volunteer and learn local languages which allow for a much deeper level of engagement.” And while the Corps’ utility in development may be limited, big data presents an opportunity to gauge its true impact and, perhaps, find ways to reduce its costs. The program is a valuable enough vehicle for deep cross-cultural understanding that if savings are found, the United States should consider using them to increase the number of volunteer slots.
The Foreign Service and the Peace Corps have the potential to lighten the burden of an American military recovering from eighteen years of continuous war. By helping to resolve disputes short of conflict, and by giving Americans insight into the lives of foreigners, they can make it less likely that future presidents will see the need to deploy troops. Power comes in many forms, and the United States must make good use of them all.