Gen. Martin Dempsey and China's chief of the general staff Gen. Fang Fenghui in April

Gen. Martin Dempsey and China's chief of the general staff Gen. Fang Fenghui in April Department of Defense

Building a Better Soldier-Diplomat

As defense budgets draw down and our objective is increasingly to avoid conflict, we can do better with our military diplomacy. By Sam Brannen

It’s time to take military diplomacy out of the shadows and better integrate it into the toolkit of the United States’ foreign influence. Treated almost as a covert operation, military diplomacy is seldom discussed publicly. The quiet conversations that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and his predecessors have had with other military leaders around the world at highly sensitive times -- think of Adm. Mike Mullen and his Pakistani counterparts after the Bin Laden raid or Egyptian military leaders in the lead up to the July 3 coup -- largely go unreported, underappreciated, and understudied. Why?

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking voice in U.S. military diplomacy, but he is one of hundreds of military officers practicing some form of diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. every day. Almost every embassy in the world has assigned U.S. military officers acting as defense attachés. Military officers also serve as liaisons or advisors in various bureaus at the State Department, and the State Department in turn has nearly 100 Foreign Service Officers deployed as Foreign Policy Advisors, or POLADs, at major U.S. military commands worldwide, including U.S. Combatant Commands. 

The assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the ACJCS, is the most influential foreign policy position you’ve never heard of.  The ACJCS, a three-star officer post currently held by Vice. Adm. Harry Harris,  Jr., is unique among Pentagon officials in regularly traveling with the Secretary of State, serving as the chairman’s eyes and ears and potentially providing a direct channel between the Dempsey and the State Department.

Ever heard of him? Harris, who last month was tapped to command Pacific Fleet next, has studied at Harvard, Georgetown and Oxford, and was a fellow at MIT.  His Navy bio says he is the “U.S. roadmap monitor for the Middle East peace process.”

The ACJCS’s primary portfolio is political-military affairs and he works alongside Dempsey’s three-star subordinate in charge of Strategic Plans and Policy, known as the J5. The J5 director, with his staff of senior military officers, covers political-military affairs in all regions of the world, regularly engaging with foreign militaries and their representatives at embassies in Washington.

When the U.S. military speaks, it does so with the respect of much of the world, particularly of foreign military counterparts.

But too often U.S. military officers are granted heavy diplomatic assignments without the right training and staffing to execute to the best possible standard. Other times, their relations with the State Department become so familiar that DOD’s civilian oversight of these officers does not properly occur. 

The problem is most pronounced at the Combatant Commands, which oversee U.S. military operations across huge geographic regions like Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. The four-star combatant commanders, or COCOMs, regularly travel their regions on their own aircraft (some have called them modern-day Roman vice-consuls). Think of Gen. David Petraeus shuttling across the Mideast when he led Central Command. Combatant commanders have their own, separate political-military affairs staffs in addition to Foreign Service-staffed POLADs, and they often engage directly with country ambassadors without Washington in the loop at all. Meanwhile, those responsible for the day-to-day country relations in the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense or the Joint Staff rarely get the same opportunity to feed into preparation for official meetings. But overseas commanders meet with civilian political figures, not just military counterparts, and the reports back to Washington on what they have said and what was said to them are spotty at best. What did they commit to? How did they characterize U.S. policy? What did they learn from their foreign counterparts?

The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review identified “capability gaps” in several military diplomacy programs and vowed to focus on “properly organizing, training, equipping and resourcing the key communication capabilities. This effort will include developing new tools and processes for assessing, analyzing and delivering information to key audiences as well as improving linguistic skills and cultural competence. These primary supporting communication capabilities will be developed with the goal of achieving a seamless communication across the U.S. government. DOD never completed the directive.

The sheer pace and scope of U.S. global responsibility are unprecedented. And as defense budgets draw down and our objective is increasingly to avoid conflict through utilization of all available tools of national security, we can do better with our military diplomacy.

Reform could begin with new standards of preparation and conduct. Professional military education happens late in the careers of officers and does not explicitly include a diplomatic component. While some Foreign Service Officers are seconded to military schools, they do not teach a Diplomacy 101 course. Most military officers are first exposed to political-military theory only after 15 years or so of operational experience, and usually very much in the abstract. The military does not groom soldier-diplomats; soldier-diplomats emerge despite a lack of training.

Second, staffing and reporting military diplomatic engagements is at best a pickup game. The Defense Department should lay out expectations for how military diplomacy is to be conducted, especially by combatant commanders in closer alignment with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff (who in turn already work with the State Department), and DOD could set better standards of information sharing to staff senior officers and ensure their diplomatic efforts best support U.S. foreign engagement and influence.

It could start with Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd, currently the Joint Staff’s director of operations, or the J3. His next job: flying around the world with Secretary of State John Kerry. Tidd is slated to be the next ACJCS.