Will the next Secretary of Defense support Smart Power?

December 4, 2012 By Zach Silberman

One of the more remarkable features of the first Obama Administration was the striking comity between the State Department and the Pentagon.  While many former Secretaries of State and Defense have clashed over budget and policy in the past, Secretary Clinton presented her budget to Congress alongside Secretaries Gates and Panetta as part of overall U.S. national security funding.  With the election over, discussion has focused on the personalities who may succeed them in a second term, but one wonders whether the next Defense Secretary will defend and support the International Affairs Budget like his or her predecessors, especially with Secretary Panetta expected to step down in a second Obama administration.

There was perhaps no stronger advocate for the State Department resources for development and diplomacy than Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.  “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers,” he said at the USGLC’s annual conference in 2010.  In a letter to the Senate Budget Committee, he noted, “[T]he work performed by diplomatic and development professionals helps build the foundation for more stable, democratic and prosperous societies. These are places where the potential for conflict can be minimized, if not completely avoided, by State and USAID programs – thereby lowering the likely need for deployment of U.S. military assets.”

While Secretary Panetta may not have been as out front on the issue as Gates, he has often spoken about the importance of the International Affairs Budget, even as he fought against budget cuts to his department. In a recent speech at the Center for a New American Security he observed, “As our country emerges from a decade of large-scale conflict, and confronts new fiscal constraints here at home, I frankly worry that our political system will prevent us from making the investments in diplomacy, and development that we need to ensure we protect America’s interests in these volatile regions of the world.”

There is reason to think that this view has become integrated into the Pentagon’s thinking.  Support for civilian agencies appears to have been absorbed by the military leadership, particularly Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who wrote in a joint letter with Secretary Panetta in support of the International Affairs Budget, “Military might alone cannot create stability.  Additional civilian expertise is needed now.  As we transition from rule of law- and development-focused missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, now is not the time to put the future at greater risk by reducing our diplomatic and development resources,”

Many names have been floated as potential replacements for Panetta, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and current Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter.  Regardless of the nominee, the world remains a dangerous place and the next Defense Secretary will need to build on the legacy of Secretaries Gates and Panetta on the importance of the International Affairs Budget.  As the United States draws down its military and transitions to civilian missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be asking more not less from our diplomats and development professionals who will largely be responsible for America’s national security in the next four years.