Obama’s Failure to Demilitarize U.S. Foreign Policy


The Obama administration has received much attention for its policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. The rebalance has been described as President Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative. Launched in 2009, it has received much attention from academics, practitioners, think tanks, and the media. In reality, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has been more evolutionary than revolutionary; a U.S. shift in focus and grand strategy began well before President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

If the Obama presidency in fact initiated a revolutionary rebalancing, it was his effort to rebalance American foreign policy generally from over-reliance on the military and toward greater reliance on diplomacy and development. Despite a concerted effort, when viewed through several lenses it seems clear that demilitarization has failed and U.S. foreign policy remains very, perhaps overly, militarized. As a result, the Pentagon can expect to be handed messy military operations short of inter-state war that it may not be prepared, equipped, or organized to handle efficiently or effectively.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama pledged to correct what he perceived as a fundamental imbalance between the three-legged stool that comprises U.S. foreign policy ­— defense, diplomacy, and development — through such measures as expanding the State Department’s Foreign Service. Once in office, the Obama administration expressed its intent to rebalance away from defense and toward diplomacy and development though a variety of strategies as well as policy statements. Most recently, the 2015 National Security Strategy explicitly notes that military force is not the sole means of achieving U.S. national security objectives, arguing, “our first line of action is principled and clear-eyed diplomacy, combined with the central role of development in the forward defense and promotion of America’s interests.”

In addition to published strategies and policy pronouncements, the Obama administration repeatedly emphasized diplomacy and development in policy implementation over, or instead of, large-scale military measures. Across a number of issues, the administration has sought to rely less on overwhelming American military power to accomplish foreign policy objectives. A short list of examples could include maintaining drawdown timelines in Iraq and (with some modification) in Afghanistan, “leading from behind” in Libya, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and relying on sanctions to pressure Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.

Relying on diplomatic, political, and development-based solutions typically takes time to bear fruit. In contrast, wielding military force often yields results more quickly, even if the apparent success is illusory in the long run. Critics of the Obama approach conflate the emphasis on diplomacy with indecision, and hence weakness.

However, the tragedy of President Obama’s rebalance toward diplomacy and development is not that it represents an America in retreat, but rather that the rebalance has not succeeded in demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy, as seen in three separate contexts. First, available fiscal data show the continuing dominance of defense spending relative to international affairs spending. Even under sequestration scenarios, that budget will continue to dwarf the amount of money spent on diplomacy and development.

Second, despite congressional concerns about the risks of granting the Department of Defense increased authority in security cooperation, Congress continues to do just that. The Department of Defense continues to expand its activities into areas over which the State Department previously had purview.

Finally, based on several examples over the last two decades or more, many experts, practitioners, and observers have concluded that the civilian instruments of American foreign policy simply lack the capacity and capability to handle the complex, large-scale challenges facing U.S. national security. In particular, the challenge of failed or failing states has laid bare Washington’s inability to implement so-called “whole of government” solutions. As a result, the Department of Defense continues to be the problem-solving agency of choice for legislators as well as those in the executive branch.

The implications of a continued militarization of American foreign policy are significant, most consequentially for the U.S. military. Despite political intent and rhetoric, the Department of Defense is very likely to be relied upon again and again to achieve national security objectives, both within and outside its particular areas of competence. As such, it should take some preparatory steps. First, the military services should make a more holistic, institutional commitment to embrace security cooperation as a core mission. There is some evidence that this is underway, but there is much room for improvement, especially in terms of doctrine, acquisition, and personnel policies.

Second, the military needs to improve its ability to assess whether and where security cooperation tools are likely to be successful. All too often, the U.S. military becomes a captive of its “can-do” attitude, despite what seem like obvious and insurmountable challenges in hindsight. Finally, if the best military advice is ignored by senior policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Department of Defense needs to recognize and prepare for “muddling through” missions it may only have a small chance of achieving. Hence, the U.S. military must prepare for a future not terribly unlike the very recent past, characterized by messy stability operations, hybrid warfare, and disorder short of major interstate war.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Security Studies at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. This op-ed is based on his recently published monograph and you can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRDeni.