Civilian Power in a Complex, Uncertain WorldFebruary 17, 2011 By Richard A. Matthew
Leading Through Civilian Power: The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) initiates an encouraging process of rethinking and restructuring that is long overdue. It explicitly links itself to the 2010 National Security Strategy and echoes the latter’s commitment to “national renewal and global leadership.” It refers briefly to the obvious companion document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, although it resists engaging with some key aspects.
The basic premise of the QDDR is that U.S. leadership in the global arena – where there are shared problems to solve, wars to prevent, fragile countries to assist, and new risks to manage – depends in significant measure on our capacity to generate, focus, and exercise “civilian power.” Civilian power, the QDDR contends, is critical if we are to succeed in a world that has become an increasingly complex, high-speed, and interconnected place, due in large measure to dramatic technological innovation and diffusion (e.g., see the effects of Twitter and Facebook on the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions).
Solutions to the problems we face today require “even greater cooperation,” as the QDDR puts it, and therefore we need to continue to build an international system that is compatible with our national values and conducive to international partnerships. We face new or emboldened threats like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change that we cannot handle alone. Power is shifting around in the system, towards countries like China and India, which presents the United States with new challenges and new opportunities. Some non-state actors have become incredibly powerful in the global arena, while some states remain very fragile, and we need to work with both.
Unanswered Questions and the Purse Strings
Is the end result of the QDDR, then, a strong case for leading through civilian power? The document imparts some sense of the complexity of 21st century world affairs, and dutifully affirms the entrepreneurial spirit and sense of purpose and possibility that are distinctive elements of American political culture. It is hard to find fault with very general claims that the world is increasingly interconnected; that we need to cooperate with other state and non-state actors to solve shared problems; that development and diplomacy are critical elements of global leadership; and that the United Nations is important to us and to the world.
It is also easy to accept the argument that a renewal of State and USAID is an essential part of optimizing U.S. foreign policy. I suspect that preparing the QDDR was a useful exercise for State and USAID, and I hope that it does become a regular output, unlike one of its obvious ancestors, Environmental Diplomacy, which was State’s first – and last – annual report on the environment and foreign policy.
But while the QDDR is a promising start, it is not an entirely satisfying one. An important omission, which is well addressed elsewhere on The New Security Beat, is any sense of how to tackle the enormous challenge of overcoming institutional inertia in order to implement meaningful reform. Bureaucracies have great capacity to resist change, knowing that elected leaders come and go. This resistance may be based on fears of what change will bring, or in the belief that change is not necessary or desirable. In any case, it is not a trivial obstacle in the path of institutional reform. New incentives, new training programs, new hiring practices, new career paths: these will be essential to change, but they are scarcely mentioned here.
An equally daunting political challenge will be attracting the necessary resources. Congress holds the purse strings, and the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, already seems to be having a tough time stabilizing support for the United Nations. Is there any chance that Congress will increase the $47 billion State and USAID currently receive, given the country’s lingering economic crisis? Would reallocating the existing budget be sufficient?
The thorny question of finding the optimal defense/diplomacy/development mix for U.S. foreign policy remains to be answered, and while it is surely true that the boundaries are not as clear as in the past – for example, the military is currently involved in diplomacy and development on an unprecedented scale – this does not necessarily mean that boundaries around budgets will shift accordingly so that scarce funds can be used for the greatest impact.
An “Age of Uncertainty”
There are deeper problems with the QDDR than these perennial and hard to solve ones. The vision of world affairs it lays out, a vision that provides the rationale for civilian power and institutional reform, adopts the analytical and normative vocabularies of the post-Cold War world but skirts the tough issues such language raises. For example, Chapter 1 casually notes that we live in an “age of uncertainty,” and at several points the report underlines the “complexity” of global problems. If such claims are more than mere rhetorical flourishes, then they have important implications for foreign policy: How do we orient a superpower in an “age of uncertainty?” Do we need to prepare for “black swan” (low-probability, high-impact) events? Do we need to build greater resilience at home and abroad? Should we not be thinking about building capacities in our citizenry and in the countries we choose to invest in that can be repurposed and customized as circumstances change? There is a gap between the urgent prose that describes the complex and interconnected world we inhabit and the very general, almost formulaic recommendations for how to respond to this world that follow.
What would it mean to take seriously this rather foreboding vision of the world? It might mean that State should follow Defense in scanning for global challenges on the near horizon that are being propelled by, or deepening the extent of, interconnectivity and complexity. In my field, looming issues with implications that need to be explored include the dumping of enormous quantities of plastic into the oceans and large-scale land purchases in parts of Africa by foreign countries seeking to improve their own food and energy security. No doubt there are similar issues in other policy domains.
Looking Back and Forward
One place to look toward is developing a far deeper understanding of citizen diplomacy, social entrepreneurship, and the use of new information technologies in the global arena. Here we find great passion, agility, and innovation in addressing daunting global problems, but also many limitations. The realm of citizen diplomacy does not turn international agreements into national laws, direct development aid, or stand beside the legitimate use of force. How can and should State work with this turbulent, inventive, and growing sphere of activity to reduce poverty, support women, slow climate change, and rebuild war-torn societies?
It might mean thinking through the lessons of 20 years of UN efforts to stabilize fragile and post-conflict states and moving towards more sustainable platforms of development. What have we learned about the challenges of coordinating global activities? What have we learned about the pros and cons of investing into elections versus job creation, versus natural resource management, versus empowering women, and so on?
One could add to this chain of thought indefinitely. The bottom line is that the QDDR is a good start, but the next steps will not be easy. Bureaucratic and political battles need to be waged. A deeper understanding of the security and development implications of complexity, connectivity, and uncertainty is needed. More attention must be given to drawing lessons from the past two decades of efforts to support development and prevent and respond to conflict and crisis. Otherwise this good start will never expand beyond its own bubble of rhetoric and promise.
Richard A. Matthew is a professor in the Schools of Social Ecology and Social Science at the University of California at Irvine and founding director of the Center for Unconventional Security Affairs.
Sources: The New York Times, U.S. State Department.
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