Effective Persistent Engagement Must Be Whole-of-Government

March 13, 2014

While persistent engagement seems the way of the future, it certainly won’t be easy. Successful persistent engagement will have to address a wide range of issues from human security, environmental, and economic concerns, to regional conflicts and the proliferation of weapons, illegal goods, and crime. In doing so, the United States will need to leverage all of its capabilities and blend them together in a whole-of-government approach. Persistent engagement will require the weaving together of elements of U.S. hard and soft power, including initiatives in international development, diplomacy, defense, intelligence, and homeland security. Though America’s record of successfully leveraging whole-of-government capabilities is mixed, successful persistent engagement is impossible without it.  An effective whole-of-government approach will enable the U.S. to overcome challenges and take advantage of opportunities with agility, flexibility, and innovation—crucial elements of effective persistent engagement.

Finding the right mix of whole-of-government capabilities for effective persistent engagement in a constrained environment requires a robust discussion that breaks out of the DoD-centric bubble.  This includes an in-depth exploration of how U.S. can and should integrate all elements of U.S. power, and ensure clear synchronization and communication between Washington and the field.  When done effectively and efficiently, whole-of-government capabilities can provide robust means of securing trusted alliances, eradicating the root causes of various conflicts, and improving the legitimacy and strength of host nation governments, militaries, and nongovernmental institutions.

Development and Diplomacy Tools

Development and diplomacy are critical pieces of the whole-of-government toolkit that are essential in addressing complex challenges around the world. Comprising just one percent of the U.S. federal budget, U.S. foreign assistance is implemented primarily by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development to advance U.S. national security interests and achieve stability and security.

At the heart of U.S. development and diplomacy efforts is the full utility of civilian power, a critical ingredient for effective persistent engagement. The 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) defines civilian power as

The combined force of women and men across the U.S. government who are practicing diplomacy, implementing development projects, strengthening alliances and partnerships, preventing and responding to crises and conflict, and advancing America’s core interests: security, prosperity, universal values –especially democracy and human rights – and a just international order.

Through civilian power, U.S. diplomats and development experts work with host nation partners, multilateral, non-governmental institutions, and the private sector to address basic human security concerns such as food, water, health, education, and employment; root causes of regional instability and humanitarian concerns, and other transnational issues. Furthermore, through the Department of State’s Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, and other partner offices, the United States has the capability to rapidly deploy civilian responders alongside DoD counterparts to prevent and disrupt conflict in some of the most volatile places in the world that are critical to U.S. security.  These capabilities are complemented by our public diplomacy efforts that are designed to “inform, inspire, and persuade,” shaping the strategic narrative to counter violent extremism, address local grievances, and engage with the local population by building trust and relationships.

Defense Capabilities for Proactive Persistent Engagement

As the United States draws down its global footprint, its defense capabilities for persistent engagement are a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic tools to defeat, disrupt, and dissuade threats that harm U.S. interests at home and abroad. In a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama pointed out the need for the United States to move from the “global war on terror,” to a “series of persistent, targeted efforts,” in concert with allies, to disrupt adversarial networks. At the core of these non-kinetic capabilities are distributed operations and activities such as Building Partnership Capacity, Security Sector Reform, Security Force Assistance, and other joint training, advisory, and exercise capabilities. Through these tools, the U.S. military works to maintain key strategic partnerships with host nation militaries, security forces, and the local population, ensuring that it is the preferred partner in critical places of the world. For example, the U.S. military has been assisting security forces in Yemen to reclaim territory from Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, the U.S. military has been assisting the French-led intervention in Mali to keep Al Qaida in the Maghreb at bay.

To complement these efforts, the U.S. Special Operations Command has been working to expand its global Special Operations Forces (SOF) network in order to provide “forward-based persistent presence” in collaboration with the U.S. government interagency under the authority of the geographic Combatant Commands. In recent testimony before Congress, Admiral William McRaven pointed out that the global SOF network enables “a small, persistent presence in critical locations and facilitates engagement where necessary and appropriate…to expand situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities.”

When non-kinetic tools have been exhausted, the United States has the ability to use military power against adversaries in order to protect its interests. Whether it is the use of targeted, lethal precision strikes or drones to go after selected terrorists, or the use of conventional weapons such as missiles, Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), among others, the United States can choose to use conventional weapons unilaterally or in partnership with allies in order to achieve security and stability.

Intelligence Gathering and Information Sharing Capabilities

The United States utilizes a number of intelligence gathering techniques and capabilities in order to provide U.S. policymakers with timely, accurate, and corroborated information to make pressing national security decisions. The intelligence community utilizes a number of techniques to include signals, geospatial, human intelligence, and other tools. Through a number of programs, the intelligence community shares pertinent intelligence with the U.S. government interagency, allies, and partners. More often than not, the sharing of intelligence and information is a critical piece to addressing international conflicts and disrupting threats in a timely manner. The intelligence community and the broader U.S. government interagency rely on informal and formal partnerships with host nation counterparts and other stakeholders to provide the critical intelligence and information sharing. As part of persistent engagement, the U.S. works to maintain these partnerships in an effort to ensure continuity when transitions occur through violent and non-violent means in various parts of the world.

Homeland Security Capabilities

Even though many of today’s threats (but not all) originate beyond U.S. borders, they directly impact the security of the U.S. homeland. These threats exist in cities, rural areas, ungoverned territories, and in the cyberspace. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security works with local and international partners to stop and interdict the illegal flow of goods, weapons, technology, and people before they reach the United States. It also utilizes the U.S. government interagency as well as formal and informal partnerships with host nation governments to thwart terrorism, prevent cyber crime, strengthen border security, and provide emergency response to natural disasters. These goals are achieved through sharing of intelligence and information with partners, building partner capacity and providing technical assistance, deploying U.S. representatives overseas to serve onsite in allied governments, and interagency collaboration to provide humanitarian assistance and emergency response.

Public-Private Partnerships for Persistent Engagement

Given the complexity of today’s threats, the United States government recognizes that it may not have sufficient capabilities to maintain persistent engagement and address the full spectrum of threats by itself. To complement its capabilities, the government partners with non-government organizations, religious institutions, private sector, and local populations to achieve stability, security, and provide basic services around the world. The Department of State and USAID work to expand private-public partnerships to deliver basic services to fragile parts of the world such as access to food, clean water, and vaccinations; provide education; and assist with job training. Similarly, civilian and military personnel engage with tribal leaders, local authorities, and youth to understand and address grievances and other root causes of conflict in fragile and weak states.

Implementing Whole-of-Government solutions: Challenges and Thoughts for the Future

Despite the plethora of capabilities and the strong desire to use a whole-of-government approach to help secure and stabilize critical regions throughout the world, America’s record in doing so is mixed. The United States’ experience over the last decade in Afghanistan and other fragile states illustrates some of the challenges associated with implementing interagency solutions. Our experience in Afghanistan shows a number of challenges in implementing whole-of-government solutions. While culture and linguistic barriers are common, changes in leadership, policy priorities, and lack of synchronized political objectives and interagency coordination via ad-hoc interagency cells present serious obstacles in implementing development and security programs.  Other recent examples demonstrate a lack of informal and formal networks, partnerships, and information and intelligence sharing despite a persistent effort to achieve stability using a whole-of-government tool kit.

As we look into the future, the challenge of implementing U.S. policy priorities will be further amplified by resource and access constraints, as well as a desire to leave a smaller footprint. To this end, the USG interagency will have to internalize lessons from U.S. experiences in fragile states and transitional societies all over the world and seek opportunities for proactive and innovative implementation of whole-of-government capabilities. This means continuing a robust discussion on ways to ensure political and policy objectives are synchronized between Washington and the field, and a clear line of communication exists to facilitate the coordination. . Further, as political transitions occur, USG implementing partners must build on  their relationships and networks with their counterparts to preserve critical relationships and information sharing. Finally, as we look to maintain persistent engagement in the future, we need to continuously assess and evaluate which whole-of-government programs to implement, how, and in which regions and countries.

Looking into the future, developing and implementing whole-of-government capabilities for effective persistent engagement will not be an easy task. It will involve re-evaluation and prioritization of the right mix of capabilities to meet the threats of the twenty-first century. This shall remain the challenge for the United States as it looks to play a central role in the world in the years to come.


Vera Zakem is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation.


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense