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Key To National Security Is Finding 'Smart Balance' Between Diplomacy, Defense

"Diplomacy and defense should work hand in hand," says Steven Pifer.

"Diplomacy and defense should work hand in hand," says Steven Pifer.

When he was running for the U.S. presidency, Barack Obama accused the administration of then-President George W. Bush of relying on military force to resolve international issues. Obama promised that his administration would be marked more by vigorous diplomacy. But does that tend to lead to a neglect of the military, risking the country's national security?

Not necessarily, Steven Pifer tells RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully. Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who now specializes in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research center.

RFE/RL: Ambassador Pifer, many observers say the Bush administration upset the balance in foreign policy between diplomacy and military force. How do you see it?

Steven Pifer: I think diplomacy and defense should work hand in hand. They are two ways of advancing national security. And what you want to do is find the smart balance between the two. I tend to agree with the criticism that the Bush administration, particularly in the first term, relied less on diplomacy than it might have and tended to rely more on unilateral action and, in the end, military force. And I hope that what we'll see under President Obama is a smarter balance.

RFE/RL: But does that mean emphasizing diplomacy at the expense of the military? Will the Pentagon feel somehow neglected?

Pifer: The military actually wants this. [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates has been out there for the last couple of years saying there needs to be more resources devoted to the State Department, which I think reflects the military view that if diplomacy can work and avert crises, they would be perfectly happy to see diplomacy succeed so that the burden doesn't fall on the military.

RFE/RL: What about the de-emphasis of the U.S. military under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s? Some analysts say Clinton left the United States unprepared to respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001? How do you view Clinton's reduced Pentagon spending?

Pifer: Certainly in the aftermath of the Cold War and compared to the 1980s, when you had under the Reagan presidency a huge defense buildup, the defense budget came down. There was less emphasis on defense spending. And I think it would have been strange to expect that there wouldn't have been some sort of reduction in emphasis on the defense side.

Now, having said that, the [U.S.] military and intelligence community that went to war in Afghanistan and achieved fairly remarkable success in defeating the Taliban was, in essence, the military that was left over from the Clinton administration. Likewise, I think the military that achieved, in tactical terms, a very impressive victory over Iraqi forces was largely the military that the Bush administration inherited from the Clinton administration.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen
RFE/RL: You mentioned Secretary Gates calling for increased funding for the State Department. Last year, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that Afghanistan needs civilian reconstruction help as much as it needs military help to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. What's Mullen's reasoning?

Pifer: What Admiral Mullen is suggesting here is that success in Iraq and Afghanistan is not just going in, defeating the Taliban or defeating [Saddam] Hussein's forces. It's then creating a post-conflict environment in which a regime is established and you create certain political and economic structures so that you can leave. I mean, the military doesn't want to be in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long period of time.

I think what you're hearing from Admiral Mullen is that there needs to be greater concentration of resources in the U.S. government to -- how do you have people and programs set up in a country like Iraq or Afghanistan to help the Iraqis and the Afghans establish those internal structures that allow them to have a functioning economy, that allow them to have a government that has legitimacy with the people. I mean, to basically build a country that can then be stable on its own and doesn't require the U.S. military there.

RFE/RL: That's nation-building. When first running for president in 2000, Bush said he opposed nation-building, though he seems to have changed his mind. Do you have any details of the kind of nation-building Mullen has in mind?

The State Department is creating this group called, I think, the Civilian Reconstruction Corps. And the idea is to have sort of a reserve corps of people, people who are trained in things like: How do you run police forces? How do you get city water systems up and running? How do you establish a city government? People that you could call on in a reserve capacity.

Nation-building is hard to do. It's not something that we ought to be looking forward to doing, but it may be something, in some situations, we have to do...
You could activate them and say, "We need your help to go here," and that would have skill sets that we don't have in the military, that we don't have in the State Department, who could help build the society. And I think Admiral Mullen's point of view is the faster that you can help that local society develop the internal capacity and institutions to work successfully on its own, the more quickly he gets to bring his troops home.

RFE/RL: Does nation-building work?

Pifer: Nation-building is hard to do. It's not something that we ought to be looking forward to doing, but it may be something, in some situations, we have to do, because otherwise the alternative -- in terms of cost to the U.S. military and, more importantly, cost in terms of American soldiers -- may be much higher.

There also may be some cases where we can go in [a country in crisis] preventively in a way to do some nation-building to help get a country stabilized. You then don't have a requirement for the military to go in. There may be some times where [we should be] investing $100 million in a failing state to keep it from failing, that prevents a situation where we have to spend $30 billion or $40 billion and hundreds of American soldiers' lives in an uglier situation.

RFE/RL: But whose responsibility is it to build nations? I would assume that countries who invade other countries in a war may be held responsible. But doesn't the UN have a role, too?

Pifer: Ideally, from my perspective, if the United Nations could develop these capabilities, that would be good. But to take the Iraq example, if the UN doesn't have the capacity or is not prepared to devote the capacity, somebody's going to have to do it. If you could develop a UN capacity for this, I think that would be a tool that the U.S. government and others would love to draw on.