Political Officers in Conflict Zones: Public Diplomacy and Counterinsurgency – Part II

Development is a strategic and moral imperative…  our intention is to elevate development so that it stands alongside defense and diplomacy and an equal. Defense, development and diplomacy need to reinforce each other, but each also brings a unique perspective and set of capabilities to the table. Together, they make us stronger, smarter and more effective.

President Barack Obama, describing the new US national security strategy.

In earlier posts and elsewhere I have made the case that in the age of globalization, development  has in large part become the new security. That is why I advocate the substitution of diplomacy – and especially an extreme form of  public diplomacy, with the emphasis on cross-cultural dialogue and meaningful exchange – for defence at the centre of international policy.

President Obama’s formulation suggests that he might be sympathetic to some aspects of this sort of argument. Yet his policy decisions indicate that he still sees a major, if not pre-eminent role for defence departments, both in asymmetric conflicts and more generally. In the case of the continuing Afghanistan-Pakistan imbroglio, for example, the President has opted for a substantial increase in drone strikes and a surge in troop strength rather than a push for peace talks.  While acknowledging a significant role for development and diplomacy, at this juncture he appears to favour a military lead.

Watch what governments do, not what they say, and follow the money.

Even if a balanced approach is the professed objective, in terms of the actual division of labour among international policy instruments, the armed forces have received the lion’s share of taskings, especially in counterinsurgency. When it comes to cross-cultural and strategic communication, post-conflict reconstruction, and emergency humanitarian relief, however, armies get thrust into the breach not because they are especially good at these jobs, but mainly because they are large and well-funded.

Technical and budgetary capacity do not translate necessarily into skill or ability.

It’s not that the military can’t be used for peaceful purposes, but rather that political and economic work are  not what hard power instruments are designed for. At the most elemental level, militaries exist to deter attacks on territory, and  to compel your adversaries to submit to your will, typically by capturing or killing enemies. That is why armies, navies and air forces are so lethally – and expensively – equipped.

International cooperation, by way of  contrast, is better undertaken with soft power instruments, such as the diplomatic corps or development assistance agencies. When it comes to collaboration, persuasion and the exercise of influence, the use of  purpose-built, civilian organizations seems a more appropriate and effective choice than tools designed for coercion.

If, that is, the civilian alternatives have the necessary resources.

Typically, they don’t.

As a result, in the case of the international community’s response to complex emergencies such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or, more recently, to the Haitian earthquake, the military has been front and centre.  The same is true  in irregular conflict zones, such as Iraq and Afgnanistan, where diplomats and development workers should be on the front lines, but have tended to get squeezed out by the sheer bulk of the armed forces.

For these and other reasons, the current emphasis upon so-called smart power, not least through its spin-offs such as human terrain systems, which seeks to harness academic disciplines such as anthropology and ethnology to the ends of war, seems to me highly hazardous, both doctrinally and morally.

Political officers, on the other hand, can serve as whole-of-government catalysts and  as agents of international policy integration. They are trained in negotiation and compromise and many are accustomed to operating at the nexus of security and development.

Using their expertise at political communications and working pacifically, diplomats can use their accumulated experience and keen sense of place to solve difficult problems and balance competing values and interests. They represent an under-utilized, but cost-effective option to the application of organized violence in addressing the root causes of insurgency.