RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In between those economic meetings we've just heard mentioned, President Obama made his way yesterday to the Pentagon. He spoke with military leaders about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president stopped at the Pentagon days after he visited the State Department. And that sequence did not go unnoticed. Many are watching closely to gauge whether the new administration will make good on promises to return diplomacy to the forefront of American foreign policy. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

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

President BARACK OBAMA: We have 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. And that's something that I spoke with the chiefs about and that I intend to change.

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

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. And he acknowledges the military is involved in lots of activities that used to fall to civilian agencies.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): This has led to concern among many organizations about what's seen as a creeping militarization of some aspects of America's foreign policy.

KELLY: 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 both in budget and manpower. Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who's held senior posts at both the Pentagon and the State Department, puts it like this.

Professor JOSEPH NYE: (International Relations, Harvard Kennedy School): 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.

KELLY: Here's some perspective on that giant. The defense budget is $515 billion a year. That's 13 times that of the State Department. Which raises the question, 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 is doable and even in tough economic times.

Professor KORI SCHAKE (International Security Studies, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.): 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.

KELLY: And if he does, she may be in luck.

Professor SCHAKE: And if he does, she will have the capacity to have people in the State Department start to envision a different horizon.

KELLY: Schake says, for too long State Department culture has been to make do with inadequate resources.

Professor SCHAKE: And 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.

KELLY: Specifically, Schake says it will require more Foreign Service officers and more training for them - all of which 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.

Mr. LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER (Former Secretary of State): This new administration's patting itself on its back about moving from military force to diplomacy is in large part a phony.

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

Mr. EAGLEBURGER: And I would suggest to you that if in fact 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's all we did.

KELLY: For the record, President Obama has suggested a willingness to talk to Iran, but he hasn't taken the threat of military action off the table either - which brings us to the idea of "smart power," a phrase much in vogue in Washington these days. Secretary Clinton used it at her confirmation hearing. She defined smart power as using, quote, "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? Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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