Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper gives remarks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, Feb. 12, 2020.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper gives remarks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, Feb. 12, 2020. NATO

Esper’s Curious Partners-and-Allies Initiative

Why now? And are the combatant commanders on board?

There are several curious aspects to the Pentagon’s new Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships, or GDAP, which was publicly unveiled by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Oct. 20.

Let’s start with the context. Both as a candidate and later as president, Donald Trump has taken a transactional view of U.S. alliances and partnerships, alienating France, Germany, and other NATO allies in the process. Whether GDAP is an attempt to make amends remains to be seen.

Also curious is the timing of the launch of this seemingly major initiative, just before the presidential election. Why now, not after, the election? If GDAP’s main audience is international allies and partners, wouldn’t they want to know first if the author of this new proposal is staying in power?

These questions and uncertainties notwithstanding, there’s some good in GDAP. First, it’s about time top civilian leaders in the Pentagon recognized and codified the strategic importance of security cooperation. We’ve been talking about the great need to build the capabilities and capacities of our allies and partners for decades now, yet not one secretary of defense has been tracking this issue in any serious or systematic way. Esper deserves credit for acknowledging the critical importance of this pillar in the U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) and potentially committing to reviewing its implementation and progress (again, depending on how long he keeps his job).

Second, it is a welcome development that Defense Department civilian leaders seem more eager to fulfill their oversight duties and exercise their authority over strategic policy matters such as security cooperation. Since 9/11, the generals, for no fault of their own, have seen their input and influence over security cooperation and other broader defense policy issues dramatically rise. The U.S. Congress enabled that growth; the State Department’s declining clout in security policy facilitated it. Strong civilian oversight over what should be policy questions is a very good thing.

Except that in this case, how such oversight is being pursued is a bit problematic and perhaps over the top.

Philosophically speaking, not much is new about GDAP. The policy is the result of security cooperation reforms and processes in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy that have been maturing for at least the past three years. So to call it, as Esper did, a “brand new” initiative is probably inaccurate.

That said, there is something different about GDAP, and that is the way the Pentagon is now prioritizing the allocation of security cooperation funds under Title 10 of the U.S. Code of Law. In other words, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities and his staff have now chosen to have a stronger say over who gets what in that global U.S. network of alliances and partnerships. Until a few days ago, the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) were the ones who were effectively in the driver’s seat in this prioritization process. They used to communicate their preferred security cooperation plans and initiatives with various countries in their respective areas of operation to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and those were rarely challenged. The GCCs were considered the center of gravity of security cooperation planning.

In many ways they still are, but their influence seems to have waned a bit, at least with this administration. This is evidenced by the fact that GDAP’s strategic guidance has essentially been forced on the commanders. Not one four-star geographic combatant commander has concurred on the new security cooperation prioritization model and yet Esper is still moving forward with it.

There’s no reason to suspect that there’s anything cynical or conspiratorial in this changed approach to security cooperation. Indeed, this is not believed to be a power play by the civilians. All senior leaders in the Pentagon still defer a great deal to the commanders on defense and security matters related to their respective regions. Some current civilians served in those GCCs and still have personal relationships with the commanders.

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Department of Defense as a whole is still trying to figure out how to best prosecute its top priority, which is the great power competition. It’s likely that there is an honest disagreement between the commanders and the civilians over how to most effectively compete with China and Russia. For example, do you do it on a regional or a global basis? The GCCs are naturally more sympathetic to the former given the way they’re constructed, but that doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of at least thinking globally and cooperating amongst themselves.

Another difference of opinion is how security cooperation as a tool is used to secure access, basing, and overflight in partner countries. These strategic enablers are absolutely critical for the GCCs. Without them, the GCCs simply can’t fight or plan for military contingencies. The civilians, however, are more focused on the strategic use of security cooperation resources—those activities which build security capacity among our allies and partners. This requires a more global view of prioritization versus the understandably more regional view of the GCCs.

What is of concern to the GCCs is not that they’re not getting their way, but rather that there’s no clarity on what specifically informs this new GDAP strategic guidance – beyond a general commitment to align with the NDS and emphasize the Indo-Pacific region – and how the civilians got to this new prioritization model. What’s also remarkable is that these new rules do not seem to even have been coordinated with the regional policy offices of the Pentagon. You want to issue new guidance? At least coordinate it within the building first before you communicate it to the commanders.

But disagreeing is one thing and imposing is another altogether. And this seems to the case of the latter by the civilian senior leaders. This should be done in partnership with the GCCs, not in conflict. Otherwise, it won’t work. The great power competition is already hard enough to pursue partly because the concept lacks a proper definition and standardized metrics for measuring and assessing success (how do you actually “win?”). Let’s not make it even harder by pursuing it in a divided fashion.