The Limits of Security Cooperation

As the Arab world continues to unravel, violence re-escalates in Iraq, and withdrawal from Afghanistan portends, this appears to be a good time to consider U.S. security cooperation (SC) policy. Security cooperation is a cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy, especially as the Department of Defense looks ahead at attenuated budgets and force structure. Planners imagine that security cooperation is a force multiplier; a way to do more with less. At face value, it extends U.S. influence and enables and influences partners to foster and improve security in their region, forestalling crisis, and replacing U.S. presence with like-minded regional guardians of the international status quo. While the idea makes much sense in the abstract, once it collides with the messy reality of military institutions and domestic politics in the world’s most troubled region, it becomes sometimes comically, sometimes disastrously, out of touch with reality.

Security cooperation is defined in the Security Assistance Management Manual as,

all activities undertaken by the Department of Defense (DoD) to encourage and enable international partners to work with the United States to achieve strategic objectives. It includes all DoD interactions with foreign defense and security establishments, including all DoD-administered Security Assistance (SA) programs, that build defense and security relationships; promote specific U.S. security interests, including all international armaments cooperation activities and SA activities; develop allied and friendly military capabilities for self-defense and multinational operations; and provide U.S. forces with peacetime and contingency access to host nations. It is DoD policy that SC is an important tool of national security and foreign policy and is an integral element of the DoD mission.

The problem with SC is that it is implemented as if all of the aforementioned positive results are a given in every situation. In reality, positive results are exceedingly rare with the most challenging and troubled partners—the very situations for which officials desperately hope SC to work miracles. While officialdom is unlikely to admit the bankruptcy of many-to-most SC efforts, the time is now to reconsider the blind faith in SC as the wave of the future.

There are two general rationales for conducting SC. On one hand, U.S. forces seek to increase the capabilities of foreign partners and their ability to interoperate with U.S. and coalition troops. On the other, SC is seen as a tool to gain and maintain access to key leaders and critical facilities in foreign nations, providing the toehold before the toehold needed to enable contingency response. This idea of gaining access through SC can also be expanded to gaining influence over foreign partners due to close and continuing SC relationships. Unfortunately, the reality generally falls far short of the ideal in both cases.

When it comes to capacity building, efforts are all too often wasted. In a limited number of cases—predominantly with more elite units trained by special operations forces and in a few partner countries serious about developing their military—capacity building works well. In the remainder of cases, capacity building efforts are an exercise in futility as evinced by the numerous cases in which decades of SC have yielded no perceptible change in the capabilities of partner militaries. Individual and unit skills remain abysmal and despite high-dollar purchases of prestige weaponry, these militaries are generally unable to conduct routine maintenance, logistical, and training functions despite SC campaigns designed to enable these critical supporting capabilities. As a result, warehouses become dusty trophy cases of expensive U.S. military equipment that is either unusable due to poor maintenance status, or ineffective due to the lack of trained operators and command and control capabilities.

There are many factors at play to bring about these results, not the least of which is that most militaries have nothing in common with the task and purpose that drives U.S. military thinking. The militaries that need the most “help” have no real outside threats—or at least none that they really plan to take on. That’s why they cooperate with the U.S. and expect American diplomacy and force to keep the peace. Lacking the focusing impetus of confrontation with an outside threat, these militaries are internal security forces, jobs programs, or a combination of the two. What is more, many regimes are fearful of building up too powerful a military, especially outside the inner sanctum of elite units that form a regime defense force. Competent units and U.S.-trained soldiers are often reshuffled to avoid the growth of power centers not actively cultivated by the regime. Thus, U.S. trainers return year after year to start at square one every time.

U.S. SC forces need to understand this reality to avoid futile and frustrating efforts. Operational and strategic planners realize that in most cases, the real goal is not building capacity, but cultivating access and influence. Yet, even here SC usually falls short. Certainly, SC does provide a means for building relationships with foreign military officials, but it doesn’t purchase influence to the extent that many would like to think. No, SC events and funds are seen by partners not as a quid pro quo, but rather an entitlement. Thus, SC is not a means for purchasing influence. Instead, it is a liability. At best it maintains the status quo. At worst, plans to change or reduce SC with truculent partners bring threats of backsliding on agreed behaviors. SC also sometimes gives partners more influence over the U.S. than vice versa. Then, the U.S. has to keep paying or playing in order to maintain the most minimal cooperation.

Many believe that socialization of foreign officers in U.S. training and education will create more amenable partnerships. This logic needs to be challenged. There are no concerns that sending a U.S. military officer abroad for a year of school or a few years of an exchange tour will turn him or her into an ardent constitutional monarchist, much less a supporter of authoritarianism. On the flip side, why do officials believe that a year at war college—much of that spent sightseeing and shopping—will create any significant modification in beliefs and behaviors created by a lifetime of acculturation and socialization in one’s native society and the institutions that have afforded significant prestige and power in a troubled country? Education in the U.S. and the West more generally, has not proven itself to be particularly effective at ameliorating illiberal worldviews as a long list of western-educated dictators, monarchs, and dour security and military officials seems to attest.

U.S. military SC efforts may also complicate diplomacy. Generals whisk in on executive jets with large entourages and largesse in the form of SC funds and services. The result is that foreign officials see their military counterparts as congenial and influential partners in contrast to the U.S. ambassador—who comes with little in the way of other aid and is often seen as browbeating and meddling in sovereign affairs—whose role is to try to hold back the tide of illiberalism much to the chagrin of his or her counterparts.

If SC is incapable in many cases of building meaningful partner capacity or creating real influence, then wonks will argue that SC and especially military aid payments are needed to secure much more black-and-white U.S. interests: overflight and transit agreements and peace treaty compliance. Yet, this is another instance where the bankruptcy of SC ideology is demonstrated. SC funding and services are generally not initiated as a quid pro quo for overflight and transit. Once the flow of cash has started, however, threats of closing off cooperation in the form of overflight, transit, or other agreements become tools of extortion in the hands of the foreign partner. No matter how inefficient or expensive, the U.S. cannot turn the spigot down or off. SC thus is not a tool to condition partner behaviors, but rather an entitlement—a fee for maintaining the status quo—a baseline bribe that creates a market of fees-for-service for the most mundane issues.

SC does work to build capacity in certain, relatively elite units that perceive a real need for improvement and hard training. Likewise, it works to build interoperability between already-capable partner forces and U.S. and coalition militaries. SC in the right doses can be a good way of showing solidarity with allies against other regional threats. But SC is not a panacea and must be applied with significantly more discernment than the usual some-is-good-more-is-better logic of U.S. military spending.

Planners should go to great lengths to ensure that SC is seen as a tool for a specific purpose, not a reward to condition behaviors. SC-as-a-conditioning-tool becomes bribery with diminishing returns. If policymakers want a quid pro quo, they need to admit as much and use much more precisely targeted incentives: paying a fee for access or head-of-the-line transit privileges for example. This becomes a much more predictable business transaction than trying to use SC funds, winks, and nudges to get one’s way.

Finally, in the land of perverse incentives, SC is often seen as a means to drive defense business to U.S. contractors. This is true. By creating arms races and supplying prestige weapons, however useless, to unstable areas of the world, they are creating U.S. jobs. But wouldn’t taxpayer money and efforts be better spent if officials more precisely targeted domestic concerns with taxpayer funds rather than hoping that efforts trickle down predictably from collaboration with corpulent and unsavory foreign generals?

In the land of perverse incentives, SC funding is one of the most egregious—and in the post-9/11 era, many officials see SC as a critical tool of strategic positioning. However, the premises of SC must be reconsidered before the U.S. military squanders more resources on white elephant projects.


Peter J. Munson is senior vice president for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation and a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer. He is the author of two books, War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.


Photo Credit: Virginia Guard State Partnership Program