Ronald E. Neumann, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, delivered a refreshing allocution on Wednesday that was bereft typical state department veneering, as he denounced the progressive militarization of U.S. foreign policy over the past twenty years and underlined the perils it has wrought.
In a presentation to the World Affairs Council at the University of Washington, the 37-year diplomat pointed out the skewed ratio of funds within the most recent budget between the military and Foggy Bottom. Defense was allocated $750 billion while State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) commanded, in total, only $50 billion -- and this during a time of explosive upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, regions in which the U.S. has too few offices dedicated to diplomacy and development.
Even more disconcerting is the rising percentage of work within the development domain now being carried out by the U.S. military. Neumann highlighted how in 2002 94% of development-related activities were executed by State and USAID personnel, which only seems logical. However, by 2008 the military was doing 52% of the development work and this ratio has steadily grown more lopsided.
Development in a war zone is no easy task and the reality is the military can build schools and clinics faster than USAID. However, the military solution is often unsustainable because it's not equipped to sufficiently source and staff their creations with teachers, doctors or clinicians that meet basic requirements; thus, unfortunately, much of this effort comes to naught.
In places like Afghanistan, due to the militarization of development aid, Afghan natives are endangered because the Taliban target schools and hospitals erected by the U.S. Army or associated private contractors. In contrast, when the civilian wing administers aid, or when the NGOs operate alone, they are rarely harassed by enemy militants.
As I wrote in an Examiner.com piece at the end of last year, Oxfam and 28 other charitable groups signed a report called "Nowhere to Turn" that was very critical of the militarization of aid because it puts civilians at greater risk.
Michiel Hofman, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan, discussed the dangers inherent in this approach, saying, "This assistance forces the beneficiaries to choose sides, and many people in the disputed areas do not want to choose sides."
The truth is the U.S. has consciously devalued the role of diplomacy and development, belied by no clearer indicator than staffing and funding. Neumann said that every administration -- Republican and Democrat -- have been guilty of gross negligence, especially beginning with George H.W Bush. Since then, the scope of work of the State department and USAID has grown while the staffing levels have remained largely flat.
Lack of funding has led to poorly-trained diplomats and development personnel who lack the most essential skills to do their jobs, which has forced a debilitating level of dependence on private contractors. USAID, as a result, has 5 engineers on its staff -- an organization whose charter supposedly consists of activities like building dams and irrigation systems and reconstructing entire cities.
In addition, foreign service officers are commissioned on rotations that are much too short. According to the ambassador, USAID undergoes an "institutional frontal lobotomy" every year because of this poorly-conceived schedule and believes people need to be on the ground longer.
Neumann asserted that the outsourcing craze has caused the U.S. to lose even more experience and the long-term "civilian capacity" that is demanded by host countries. Private contracting has rendered the State and USAID departments incapable of meeting the diplomatic, reconstruction and stabilization requirements of the 21st century when left to their own devices.
The lack of continuity driven by short rotations and private contractors coming in and out who are totally ignorant of indigenous political, cultural and social issues makes it obvious why the U.S. has struggled to win local support during missions.
During the Q&A session the ambassador resisted the notion that consolidating the State department and USAID budgets would yield significant synergies and thought it was not a viable solution for a host of reasons. The political element of diplomacy must be kept separate from development, although there needs to be some overlap.
The political issues the State department must address typically calls for short-term quick-fixes, whereas development is focused on long-term fixes which encompass nation-building, education and social transformation. Plus, everything USAID does is public knowledge while its sister organization must operate in a world of classified information "for reasons of State."
Plus, if the two groups were consolidated it would simply be overtaken by State and the end result would be bad policy. However, if they are too decoupled then the development aid component would likely go unfunded.
Neumann stressed, more than any other point, that diplomacy and development are critical parts of National Security because they are crucial in helping to avoid failed states; because failed states yield chaos and conditions ripe for terrorism to take root. Hence, proactively leveraging America's "soft power" capacity can be quite a cost-effective approach considering it can help prevent future military excursions.
Yet, Neumann's solution may be relegated to hypothesis for posterity until policymakers show the courage to step forward and fix the unbalanced budgetary equation between Defense and State and transition development work back to the organization whose raison d'être is defined by it.