NPR logo

How Would Shift Toward Diplomacy Really Play Out?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Would Shift Toward Diplomacy Really Play Out?


How Would Shift Toward Diplomacy Really Play Out?

How Would Shift Toward Diplomacy Really Play Out?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In between economic meetings Wednesday, President Obama made his way to the Pentagon to speak with military leaders about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The trip came in his second week as commander-in-chief — and after he visited the State Department.

That sequence didn't go unnoticed in Washington. People are watching closely to gauge whether the new administration will make good on promises to return diplomacy to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.

Obama spent close to two hours in what's known as the "Tank," the conference room of the joint chiefs. Afterward, he greeted Pentagon staffers who'd lined both sides of the hall and apologized for keeping people waiting. "We kind of lost track of time," the president said. But he hadn't lost track of his message.

"We had for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power to make sure that they're not carrying the full load," Obama said. "And that's something that I spoke with the chiefs about and that I intend to change."

There's already some evidence he means it. New Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has named envoys to the Middle East and to Afghanistan and Pakistan — people who are diplomats and negotiators, not military men. That's seen as a move to distill the influence of regional military commanders.

Article continues after sponsorship

Then there's Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who might not seem the most natural candidate to campaign for more influence for the State Department. But he has. Gates acknowledges that the military is involved in lots of activities that used to fall to civilian agencies.

"This has led to concern among many organizations about what's seen as a creeping militarization of some aspects of America's foreign policy," Gates said.

All this might seem to indicate that the days of "creeping militarization" are numbered. But the Pentagon still dwarfs the State Department and every other federal agency in terms of budget and manpower.

Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who's held senior posts at both the Pentagon and the State Department, sees it like this:

"The trouble is, we have a U.S. government which is one giant and a lot of pygmies. And it's natural, then, that a president, when he needs something to be done, turns to the giant. And the giant is now saying, 'Hey, I need some help. And maybe we ought to spend a little bit more on some of those pygmies.'"

To put that in perspective, the Department of Defense budget is $515 billion — 13 times that of the State Department. So what would it actually take to shift resources and clout from the military to diplomats?

Kori Schake, who served on President Bush's National Security Council, says it's doable even in tough economic times.

"If Secretary Clinton comes into the budget meetings asking for her budget to be doubled or tripled, there will be a gasp around the room. And then people will look to see whether the president supports her," Schake said. "And if he does, she will have the capacity to have people in the State Department start to envision a different horizon."

For too long, Schake says, State Department culture has been to make do with inadequate resources. "If we want them to be a culture like the Defense Department that says, 'There's a problem, let's go fix it,' we really need to give them the money, the education, the time horizon to be able to do that."

Specifically, Schake says it will require more Foreign Service officers, and more training for them. That costs money. But in the grand scheme, several thousand Foreign Service officers cost less than one aircraft carrier strike group.

Still, there are skeptics as to whether the Obama administration can, or should, elevate diplomacy.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger says diplomacy works, but you have to back it up with military force. Eagleberger, who served under the first President Bush, worries that the Obama administration will use diplomacy as an excuse for doing nothing.

"This new administration's patting itself on its back about moving from military force to diplomacy is in large part a phony," he said. "And I would suggest to you that if ... 10 years from now Iran has a nuclear weapon and we haven't done anything other than to diplomatically try to stop them, we will regret very much the fact that that's all we did."

For the record, Obama has suggested a willingness to talk to Iran — but he hasn't taken the threat of military action off the table, either.

That brings up the idea of "smart power," a phrase much in vogue in Washington these days. Clinton used it at her confirmation hearing. She defined smart power as using the "full range of tools" — diplomatic, economic, military and more. The question now is, will she get the money for all the tools she wants?