Walking the Talk in International Engagement and Security Cooperation
An old saying tells us that “actions speak louder than words.” Over the years, this aphorism has been transformed into catchy slogans such as “your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.” In national strategy, international engagement, and security cooperation, it is vitally important for a nation to say the right things: in its foundational documents, in its strategic guidance, in its formative policy, and in its priority proclamations. Yet, it is just as critical for its actions to align with its announcements. Otherwise, both words and actions risk being collectively dismissed and disregarded, while working at cross purposes to one another in ways that can be self-defeating to national objectives and interests.
The U.S. Department of Defense strives for consistency in its statements about strategy, priorities, objectives, and interests. Yet, in four important areas there remain lingering discrepancies between those words and the actions that should be supporting them: information disclosure to allies and partners; prioritizing the Indo-Pacific theater; partner-of-choice security cooperation policies; and a new approach to working with allies and partners given the name “integrated by design.” These incongruities, most of which have long-standing origins, erode national power, hinder the national intent, and squander resources. On the other hand, a carefully crafted consistency between strategic words and actions in international engagement and security cooperation would further the aims of integrated deterrence for the United States and its allies and partners alike.
An Information Disclosure Mismatch
American strategy acknowledges the preeminence and unique benefits of a broad and trusting network of allies and partners, but collaborative actions fall short in a critical way. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance calls America’s broad and trusting network of allies and partners a unique advantage for America. The 2022 National Defense Strategy echoes those sentiments, calling allies and partners an unmatched network providing an “enduring strength that is critical to achieving our objectives.” In this strategy, allies and partners are at the core of integrated deterrence, fostering effectiveness across domains, theaters, and spectrums of conflict.
The unclassified fact sheet accompanying the 2022 strategy states that “the Department will incorporate ally and partner perspectives, competencies, and advantages at every stage of defense strategy.” Additionally, leaders in the department have directed the force to constrain the criteria for limited information distribution while defaulting to releasability. Unfortunately, that clear direction did not include incorporating ally and partner perspectives into the National Defense Strategy itself, which is classified in a way that prevents allies and partners from even reading it.
The page-and-a-half-long fact sheet promises that an unclassified National Defense Strategy will be forthcoming, but more than five months out from that promise, the allies and partners that are supposed to form the anchor of such a strategy are still waiting to see it. This major misstep is an example of a mismatch between American words and actions that telegraphs a fundamental lack of willingness to move beyond information disclosure limitations that have plagued collaboration and integration with allies and partners in the past. While an unclassified defense strategy is likely awaiting the White House’s release of a National Security Strategy, the lingering promise of a releasable defense strategy is frustrating allies and partners and undermining the credibility of a strategy that claims to put them at the forefront. This mismatch in the most foundational element of information disclosure demonstrates a weakness that should be addressed immediately for a U.S. strategy that seeks to be truly integrated with allies and partners in its creation and in its application.
A Lukewarm Pacific Pivot
American leaders have emphasized the need for a pivot to the Pacific for over a decade, but military alignment with these words has been slow to follow. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton authored an article entitled “America’s Pacific Century.” In it she stated that “in the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systemic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values.” Eleven years later, the White House’s 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy calls the next 10 years the decisive decade. While Russia remains an acute threat, and others like Iran remain as persistent threats, the 2022 National Defense Strategy emphasizes that the People’s Republic of China is America’s most consequential strategic competitor.
The United States is an international power with a robust military presence that spans the globe. Additionally, strategic competition is not confined to one corner of the planet, and crises have been prevalent since Clinton’s writings in 2011. Yet, there are real tradeoffs that Washington must make to focus its long-term energy, attention, finances, manpower, and capability if it is to successfully prioritize the preeminent challenges of this decisive decade. This remains the case even and especially when pressing world events like the current war in Ukraine or the Islamic State’s assault on Iraq in 2014 demand immediate attention. The Department of Defense undertook a Global Posture Review in 2021 to consider shifts in force structure and placement, and the results are expected to be evident based on upcoming budget requests, force priorities, and regional laydowns. Yet, in the 11 years since Clinton’s claims called for a Pacific pivot, the results of such a shift in priorities have been only marginally felt across a force whose funding and posture are not substantially different from 2011.
The American force posture in the Middle East remains robust, with 40,000 to 60,000 military members still deployed to the region, and is worth considering carefully as a part of strategic competition. There are indeed important and legitimate reasons for a properly sized force in the Middle East. Though in each resourcing or force structure consideration, there is an opportunity cost for presence away from the immediate vicinities of the strategic competitors that requires smart and systemic American decisions. This is especially true because the force presence in the Middle East comes at a notable cost of bandwidth and margin due to its deployment tempo, sometimes drawing forces away from the Indo-Pacific and European theaters themselves. In the end, force allocation and funding must be considered as the constrained resources that they are, to enable a pivot to the Pacific that is intentionally developed and implemented instead of being a product of mere words on a strategic document. U.S. Central Command’s recent partnerships over posture concept may be the right pathway to resolve this priority mismatch.
Problems with Partner-of-Choice
The United States strives to be the security cooperation partner-of-choice through policy and practice, but sometimes this policy is conveyed in a way that creates a mismatch between its intent and its implementation. In providing a broad and trusted portfolio of security cooperation offerings through a total package approach, the United States creates long-term bonds with its allies and partners: enhancing interoperability, fostering communication and collaboration, providing effective systems for mutual benefit, and boosting its industrial base. Doing so also crowds out strategic competitors, preventing them from gaining similar advantages for themselves. While security cooperation with the United States is often an advantage for an ally and partner, if the programs are not properly structured, they can hinder a host nation and harm America’s relationship with them. Nevertheless, seeking to be a partner-of-choice with the right nations in the right circumstances offers strategic advantages alongside of mutual benefits.
There is, however, an important nuance to be considered in pursuit of policy and goals set forward by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and the Department of State. Sometimes the word preeminent is used to amplify the security cooperation partner-of-choice policy. Furthermore, this desire for preeminence can be translated, either through the words of strategic leaders or in the minds of security cooperation practitioners, as a pursuit of exclusivity. While U.S. defense contractors would undoubtedly love such zeal on the part of those managing security cooperation portfolios, this exclusivity can run counter to U.S. interests and objectives.
The National Defense Strategy calls for a joint force that is survivable and resilient. A robust and resilient force benefits from an expansive industrial base that includes the corporate capabilities and capacities of allies and partners. It also benefits from an expansive and diverse supply chain that cannot be severed with a single strike to a sole domestic source, while thriving through a broader set of capabilities stemming from multiple types of platforms that can operate together in an integrated and interoperable fashion. NATO’s aerial activity for the last six months along its eastern flank is a powerful example of such diversity. As a result, security cooperation education and training must emphasize these important nuances to help amplify the actual intent of security cooperation policy so as not to be confused with an exclusivity that could be harmful to U.S. interests.
Obstacles to Integrated-by-Design
In a recent engagement in the United Kingdom, United States Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown announced a new approach to security cooperation that he called “integrated by design.” This concept would lash together the United States with its allies and partners at the earliest possible stages of a strategy, project or program. Gen. Brown’s approach dovetails well into a defense strategy that directs the Department of Defense to “incorporate ally and partner perspectives, competencies, and advantage at every stage of defense planning.” And it does so with intentionality and forethought. The key to such a concept is implementation that actually overcomes a track-record that has tended to alienate allies and partners through a lack of American collaboration.
The Department of the Air Force is currently executing over 350 cooperative research, development, test, and evaluation agreements valued at $77 billion with its allies and partners. The other military services pursue similar agreements. Those early-stage investments in collaborative activity provide a strong foundation for the type of cooperation directed by Gen. Brown and the National Defense Strategy. Thus far, though, actual collaboration on program-of-record weapon systems has been lacking.
In April 2022, the U.S. Air Force announced an E-7 deal that could be a precedent-setting event by following a partner’s development of a weapon system instead of leading in its development. This system was developed through Boeing by the Australian military and is currently selected for service in the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Turkey. The details of the deal, however, demonstrate a pathway for the United States to be a slow follower — a very slow follower — funding the program through the Fiscal Year 2023 budget to deliver a single rapid prototype aircraft in 2027 for a system that was accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force inventory in 2010.
If “integrated by design” is to gain traction and turn words into actions, it needs to spur activity that is far closer to fast-following then slow-following. Quickly incorporating the Norwegian Joint Strike Missile, a capable anti-ship and land-attack missile, into the American F-35 inventory could be a great demonstration of such a concept and commitment. The effective incorporation of the Australian MQ-28 Ghost Bat drone into the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems or as a part of the planned drone wingman competition could further these efforts as well. Such intentional fast-follower activities, and the willingness to work on early program development with allies and partners, would turn a worthwhile slogan into an effective and active strategy.
Walking the Talk
In the four areas mentioned above — information disclosure, Pacific pivot priorities, partner-of-choice policies, and “integrated by design” implementation — the separation between strategic words and tangible actions is stark and potentially harmful to U.S. objectives and interests. Yet, the solutions to these situations are relatively simple: quickly releasing a version of the National Defense Strategy to allies and partners and avoiding such an obvious omission in the future, carefully considering any force posture and funding allocation that could detract from frontline strategic competition, soundly educating the security cooperation workforce on the real intent and benefits of partner-of-choice policies, and rapidly seizing on real-world programs-of-record to fast-follow or truly collaborate with allies and partners. Bringing strategic talk and the walk into alignment would create a powerful signal to strategic competitors that the United States is pursuing actual integrated deterrence that acts across domains, theaters, and spectrums of conflict alongside of allies and partners. In this way, America’s walk and talk would speak loudly to anyone who would consider disrupting a free, open, and stable world order.
Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert is currently transitioning from his position as the assistant deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs. His previous positions have included the senior defense official and defense attaché to Iraq, the commander of Edwards Air Force Base, and the commander of Joint Base Andrews. The views expressed herein are his own and do not reflect those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jimmie D. Pike