Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry. // DOD Photo

Military Force vs. Diplomacy: Can You Have One Without the Other?

At Tuesday’s State of the Union President Barack Obama promised the American people that the era of large-scale military interventions is over. Diplomacy is now the order of the day.

“I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on our outstanding military alone,” the president said. “In a world of complex threats, our security, our leadership depends on all elements of our power, including strong and principled diplomacy.”

“I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”  

Yet some top American diplomats question whether the two – military force vs. diplomacy – can be so easily divorced from one another.   

“Diplomacy is not an alternative to military force; it is the use of all elements of U.S. force in a coordinated, cumulative way to achieve our results in other countries,” said former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, a diplomat who spent much of the last decade focused on the Middle East. “I’m not sure the administration has the tradecraft right.”

Jeffrey cites the example of President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. “I saw them do major groundbreaking diplomatic initiatives that were revolutionary, but those guys were kicking ass and deploying military forces as an integral part of their diplomacy,” Jeffrey said. “That is why they were successful in their diplomacy, and I don’t see any difference between the two—negotiating agreements and threatening force, and when necessary delivering on the threat.”

Jeffrey notes today’s gap between America’s rhetoric about its willingness to use force and its appetite for actually doing so.

“Sometimes I fear that policy is advocated in the knowledge that there is not a will to carry it out, but people don’t have the courage of their convictions to say ‘we are just going to talk and not use force,’” Jeffrey said. “They don’t want to say that because it is politically inconvenient.”

The recent deals on Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons resulted directly from the threat of U.S. military might, Jeffrey said, and  “decades of building up credibility that when we do act, we act credibly and efficiently and we don’t just wander away.”

“It was the threat of military force ironically that got to the chemical weapons agreement,” Jeffrey said. “That is how the world works. You cannot separate diplomacy from military force.”

In Syria, home to a blood-soaked civil war now in its third year that has killed more than 120,000 and created nearly 2.5 million refugees, the U.S. came close to using force this summer only to back away when the chemical weapons deal became an option. Since then the Syrian government has worked with the international community to eliminate its chemical arsenal, but the civil war has pushed on unimpeded.

A number of diplomats say that whatever the U.S. does in Syria now, the time to act was months back when America possessed the leverage offered by the credible threat of force and many inside the State Department were arguing for military action.

“Now,” said one former State Department official, “we are going through the motions, but it has been made clear to everyone that we aren’t going to do anything about it.”

[READ: Inside Obama’s Syria Deliberations: ‘The Promise of More Discussion’]

That leads to the most central question: Just how comfortable is President Obama with deploying military force? In the view of these observers, the answer is ”not very” – a thought echoed in the recent memoir from former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. “His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and Defense, and the realities on the ground,” Gates wrote.

“When you start out with the premise that you are ‘not going to be Bush’ and therefore you are not going to launch any new military operations, that sets you on a path,” the former State Department official said. “All of this is just a massive overcorrection for the mistake we made going into Iraq, so whoever comes in next, they are going to have to move things back toward some reasonable position and everything is going to be a lot of harder because of the last 10 years.”

Other diplomats, however, say it is about time the U.S. focused more on diplomatic solutions to the world’s problems. They say America has long paid far too much attention to fighting over talking.

“We are now moving into an era where [Obama] is trying to use as much diplomacy as he possibly can because in effect he has got some partners – even the Russians are beginning to look at diplomatic answers,” said Thomas Pickering , former ambassador to the United Nations. “Not every conflict is an Iraq, but it argues strongly that wars of choice often have all kinds of complications you want to be careful about and thinking that a military effort is a slam-bam, perfect answer, Hollywood movie, walk into the sunset is not necessarily the answer, either.”