Top 6 Takeaways from Exercise of Power by Secretary Bob Gates

July 10, 2020 By Liz Schrayer

Watch our exclusive Town Hall with Secretary Bob Gates here →

Having served across eight different Administrations, there is arguably no one more qualified to discuss U.S. foreign policy and America’s role in the world over the last 40 years than former Defense Secretary Bob Gates.

In his new book, Exercise of Power, Secretary Gates reflects on the successes and shortcomings of the U.S. on the global stage, and offers his perspective on a new path forward to confront today’s greatest global challenges.

While the book certainly offers the former defense chief’s insights from being “in the room”, I was most impressed by his thoughtfulness and clarity when it comes to the imperative for strengthening America’s civilian toolkit.

At 464 pages the Secretary definitely covers a lot of ground – so here are my top takeaways on the book from my own USGLC lens:

#1 Development and diplomacy alongside defense are central to creating an American “Symphony of Power.”

It’s an impressive message for a former defense secretary of both Republican and Democratic administrations to make the first chapter of his book a clarion call on the failure to invest in our nation’s civilian national security tools.

  • A dominant theme in his book – which is a tour de force of the world and history – is that the military alone is not enough to keep America safe and that doing so requires “all the instruments of American power”.
  • While it’s a framework that has had different names over the years – from “Smart Power” to the “3Ds” – I was particularly taken by Gates’ description of how America is at its strongest when all the tools are leveraged to form America’s full “Symphony of Power”.

#2 We’ve “starved” many of our nonmilitary tools – especially diplomacy and development assistance.

It’s probably no surprise that I was most captivated by Gates’ view that our nation’s civilian tools remained “underfunded” and understaffed throughout much of the history he covers in the book.

  • He writes: “Since the end of the Cold War, we have allowed too many [nonmilitary tools] to wither, limiting the effectiveness of those tools the country and its presidents need, and thus requiring overreliance on our military.”
  • Early on, he points to the funding gap in how the U.S. ranks twenty-first in the world in development assistance spending as a percentage of GDP.
  • On the personnel front, he recalls how in 1993 – when he left government – that USAID had more than 15,000 employees. Yet by 2006 – when he returned to the Pentagon – USAID had just 3,000 employees. From his perspective, he writes how America “had unilaterally disarmed in an important arena we had long dominated.”

    (I also remember how back in 2008 – when the USGLC honored Gates – then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came by to pay tribute to him as an “active lobbyist for the State Department.”)

Gates also doubles down on his belief that increasing personnel and resources are not enough and reiterates his long-standing message that America’s civilian foreign policy tools must be restructured and recalibrated for the 21st century.

  • In his final chapter, he says that while he doesn’t pretend to be an expert on how to reform the State Department, he does write that “to meet the challenges of the future, it needs a dramatic bureaucratic reorganization and cultural shake-up—and significantly more resources.”

#3 America has to do far more to learn from our past successes and failures.

One of the bright spots for the secretary, who served during both the Bush and Obama Administrations, was the success of PEPFAR – both as a highly effective program saving millions of lives and as an arena where the U.S. “received broad recognition and praise.”

  • He writes that PEPFAR was proof that “a bold, well-conceived nonmilitary exercise of national power was possible.” (And in fact, he mentions PEPFAR by name more than 30 times in the book!)

Gates also dedicates a chapter to telling the story of Plan Colombia – writing that today’s policymakers have much to learn from the success and “bipartisan support” of Plan Colombia as an “effective application and integration of multiple instruments of noncoercive American power” when the U.S. brought together the entire diplomatic, development and military toolkit.

As one might expect, Gates is certainly not shy to point out the failures he has seen in U.S. foreign policy, from Iraq to Afghanistan to writing a whole chapter on Georgia, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.

#4 America faces more global challenges today than at any point since WWII – China is chief among them.

He saved China for the end of the book – but calls the U.S. relationship with China “the most complex, the most daunting, and, potentially, the most dangerous” U.S. foreign policy challenge in the years ahead, and here too highlights their non-military instruments of power.

  • Gates believes that the key to confronting China is “to sustain military superiority while strengthening the nonmilitary instruments of power, which, if we are both smart and lucky, is where the competition will play out.”

While the book was written before COVID-19, I’m certain his warnings on Beijing’s long-term strategy still hold true now, given China’s outsized use of humanitarian aid in response to the global pandemic.

#5 Alliances and partnerships are critical for advancing U.S. interests in 21st century.

A long-term proponent of alliances, Gates writes that this “often undervalued instrument of power… cannot be taken for granted.” And yet he also notes that he too was one who “complained about the failure of allies” to carry their fair share.

  • He concludes his section on allies with a warning that it would be a “tragedy… a colossal strategic mistake” to weaken this “instrument of power unique to America”, particularly in how we engage China and Russia.

One of the other elements of U.S. power that I thought was smart for him to dedicate an entire section to was “The Private Sector” – America’s businesses, NGOs, foundations, and universities. He details a number of these partnerships throughout the book, and also underscores the missed opportunity for the U.S. to do far more on this front.

#6 It’s time to up our game of “telling America’s story to the world.”

While Gates certainly champions the outcomes of America’s development and humanitarian assistance, he puts down a marker that the rest of the world often remains “blissfully unaware of our unique contributions” and calls it a “missed strategic communications opportunity.”

  • He focuses on one particular gap – the now-shuttered United States Information Agency (USIA) – recalling that through the agency, “America’s message reached every corner of the planet. It was sophisticated, it was effective, and it was a powerful instrument.”
  • Now twenty years later, he calls for a new “USIA-like organization on steroids.”

The former Secretary ends his book with the critical question that even if we get all the military and nonmilitary tools right, will presidents, Congress, and the American people “recognize that our long-term self-interest demands that we continue to accept the burden of global leadership.”

It’s the question that is at the core of our work at the USGLC – and why I am so proud to continue to tell this story and amplify the support of diverse Americans of all political stripes about why leading globally matters locally, now more than ever.