top of page

America's Foreign Engagement Gap

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

The United States is once again in the midst of an inward turn. Unlike the disconnection following the First World War, America's growing national deficit in the capacity and will to engage other people not like them is not the innocent confidence of a rising power but the false bravado leading one to its fall. The bad-guy bashing and fear-mongering of many presidential candidates make good one-liners, but ignorance-based politics and a consumerist approach to increasingly complex and enduring issues of peace and security is bad for business, in many ways, for a great power still struggling to shape world events rather than be shaped by them. The consequences of this dumbing down may turn out direr than nearly a century ago. America's trademark "splendid isolationism" has gone from a quant nuisance to a strategic liability -seriously draining its national power and international standing. While the ultimate remedies are systemic and societal, they begin with leadership versus manipulation.

America's international disconnection is reaching critical mass - with businesses, government, and the military drawing from a tiny percentage of a citizenry that studies, lives and works or even spends less time overseas relative to other countries. Fewer than 40 percent of Americans have passports. And despite recent national efforts at educational reform, well over half of middle-schoolers are still flunking standard questions in civics, history, and geography. Foreign language course offerings in U.S. high schools remain dismally low compared to Europeans, according to a Pew Research Center report last year.

Perhaps most alarming is the inward turn of those who should know better. Following a post Cold War exodus of troops, diplomats, and developers from posts abroad, by 2011, 20 major U.S. newspapers and news chains had shuttered their overseas bureaus, while 64 percent of media executives reported significant drops in foreign news content. Rarely does a "foreign correspondent" on a major U.S. network speak without a British accent. Al Jazeera America, which offered a refreshingly alternative view of the U.S., is going bust. Being a business, today's media sees profit on global matters only in flash-bang sensationalism affecting a tiny number Americans, such as terrorism and infectious diseases - irresponsibly fevering angst, a siege mentality, and self-styled superiority.

Meanwhile, more and more studies draw connections between American narrow-mindedness and the erosion of national comparative advantages - among them inventiveness. The U.S. now ranks fifth in the Bloomberg Innovation Index. All this has huge implications for national competitiveness as well as national security.

The foreign engagement gap is widened by a refusal to collaborate at home, as Steven Metz argued in World Politics Review. As a result of the paralyzing hyper-partisanship, "foreign policy and national security have become useful partisan cudgels precisely because the public has limited understanding of them and thus gravitates to caricatures." The obsession with instant gratification, in turn, "has pressed U.S. strategy toward an ever-greater reliance on the military element of national power," as Diane Ohlbaum phrased it in The Hill. Pile on the "mental illness problem, along with a poverty problem, a violence problem, a racism problem, and a policing problem," all indicative of low levels of collaboration, as Rosa Brooks examined in Foreign Policy, and the U.S begins to look more like the kind of failing state it looks to send its troops to.

What can you expect when the citizenry of the most powerful nation in the world knows so little about it? Mainly: "fire-and-forget" trigger-pulling and tactical talk over more nuanced strategies - generating stubbornly repetitive "unintended consequences" even the military struggles to learn from.

At a Civil Affairs Symposium last November, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, deputy commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command -- and among the military's top thinkers -- critiqued the Pentagon's relentless obsession with firepower, technology, and tactics over strategy. War, he stressed, is more about humans than hardware. Being an extension of politics and thus about the consolidation of gains leading to a sustainable and lasting political outcome, war is ultimately a contest of wills and fundamentally as psychological as it is physical. Being uncertain, it also demands "adaptability, endurance, and a willingness to learn."

All that means the military has to be a force of cooperation as much as confrontation, including "Phase Zero" activities to engage security partners abroad that could head-off full-scale conflict that comprise most of the military's emerging mission template. Despite the most prominent early lesson of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being the inability of U.S. operators (in or out of uniform) to understand foreign cultures, not much has changed to address this systemic shortfall.

Capacities like Civil Affairs still represent less than one-half of one percent of the entire Joint Force - the rest is focused on "kinetic" operations. Forged from nearly two centuries of engagement in military government and working with local, interagency, and multinational partners, Civil Affairs helps transition war-torn areas in the performance of peace and stability operations. Being mostly part-time because of their access to civilian mentalities as well as skills, they are habitually under-sourced. The Reserves, ideal for engagement missions and where 85 percent of Civil Affairs is nested, are funded for only two weeks of work with partners overseas. That's hardly enough time to figure out where the bathroom is.

A military culture caricatured in a "strategy of annihilation" is a reflection of the larger society it comes from and the political culture that directs it. The danger of Bush and Obama's preference to use stand-off precision weapons platforms like drones to deal with the Taliban or Islamic State is that they present no human face of American engagement with affected populations, ceding the psychological spaces at the center of gravity of peace and security and presenting such outliers an open field to shape local narratives of the United States, its policies, and its people. Facebook and Twitter are not enough.

U.S. intelligence has suffered from the same problem, despite its vast data collection and surveillance capacities. Joining a laundry list of all-time intelligence failures, missed catches under the Obama administration run from the slowness to rightly read the rise of the Islamic State, Putin's actions in Ukraine, Assad's resilience in Syria, Benghazi, or now China's economic downturn. Many human intelligence gaps, including the quantity and quality of operators identified 12 years ago in the 9/11 Commission Report will take years more to close.

The connection is clear: The more you engage other people, the more you know about them, their culture, their interests and what drives them - thus, the better your situational awareness and understanding of an environment increasingly impacting your own interests, and the better you are able to learn and can exploit opportunities as well as anticipate problems. The fact that "they know more about us than we know about them" - politically and economically as well as militarily - is America's main grand strategic vulnerability going forward.

These systemic oversights not only represent a failure to understand the nature of current conflict or even war in general, as McMaster attested, but most importantly how to get to peace. As many including retired Admiral James Stavridis haveposed, military power can win battles, but only soft power, resident mainly among civilian agencies, organizations, and actors, can seal the deal of winning the peace and - increasingly importantly - help prevent the next calamity.

Engagement is more than winning-hearts-and-minds and public relations gimmickry, something hard to understand for those who themselves come from a highly transactional society. Foreign encounters of all kinds are all about building and maintaining relationships, because that's how things get done in most places. It's how to build trust -- the social capital needed to move things forward -- over here as well as over there. Collaborative leadership is everywhere more the motivational model in many walks of life, including sports. As departing New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin noted, relationships had become "the primary objective in my career."

Though correcting the larger issues at work here will take decades to correct, there are a few steps that the U.S. government could take right now to strengthen its global capability in collaborative leadership through greater strategic investment indiplomacy and development. The walk, however, has yet to catch up with the talk. Even the latest "increase" of the International Affairs Budget reveals acongressional shell game -- the spike in (less accountable) Overseas Contingency Operations covering cuts of close to five percent for (more accountable) core international programs. Once again, Uncle Sam is still running the wrong way.

As stopgaps are attempts to re-apportion funds from Defense such as theGenocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2016 to beef up the preventative role of diplomacy, or for the U.S. Agency for International Development for similarly soft power prevention of violent extremism, its support, and recruitment. But these under-the-door quick fixes are not systemic solutions. America needs to get serious if it wants to stay on top.

Antiquated practices need purging. As was done with the military after the Civil War, the country's corps of diplomats and developers needs professionalization -- the nearly one-third of political appointees should be pared down or eliminated. "Double taxation" laws (unusual among developed countries) that encumber Americans living and working overseas could stand for long overdue overhaul - in fact, there should be incentives for more Americans to engage with and in foreign cultures, enlarging the pool of those with first-hand knowledge of other peoples and countries for public and private sector resourcing as well as helping to raise the national foreign intelligence IQ. And the three "D's" - diplomacy, development, and defense - should especially make a more conscientious effort to leverage diasporas, at home as well as abroad.

In this day and age, the relationships among peoples are becoming at least as important as the relationships between states. That's why activities like the State Department's educational exchange program, among Washington's most effective at public diplomacy, should be expanded exponentially. Its program budget of less than $600 million includes funds for about 100,000 American students abroad. Conversely, nearly one million foreign students study in U.S. schools each year - representing another huge engagement gap, generating over $30 billion and nearly 400,000 jobs, according to the Association of International Educators. A comprehensive effort to enable young Americans of all backgrounds to study abroad would "improve American society and American foreign policy," as professor Sanford J. Ungar lays out in Foreign Affairs. Beyond the immeasurable intangibles, such initiatives pay for themselves many times over -- like most development, they are an investment, not a cost. At home, in turn, education policies should emphasize more history, geography, and foreign languages.

Yet, such initiatives struggle as the U.S. embarks on a wasteful, trillion-dollar revivalof the nuclear arms race. Transfer of less than one percent of what the United States would spend on weapons of mass destruction to systems of mass instruction would probably do more for the safety, security, and quality of life for Americans and others than the other 99 percent.

Better engagement also begets strategic thinking -- the connection between the here and now and the big picture and the long run. There are signs, for example, that the "tyranny" of short-termism in the corporate world may be on the wane, asThe Economist reported in December. New corporate bonds have an average maturity of 17 years, double their length in the 1990s.

"One thing I eventually came to realize in the Army," I observed in my new book, "is that it's not material shortfalls that get you into trouble most but, rather, a lack of situational awareness and understanding coupled with a failure to understand the future implications of decisions and actions made today." That goes for nations, too.

About the Author:

Colonel (ret.) Christopher Holshek has over 30 years of civil-military experience at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels in joint, interagency, and multinational settings across the full range of operations, including as Senior U.S. Military Observer and Chief of Civil-Military Coordination in the UN Mission in Liberia and command of the first CA battalion to deploy to Iraq in support of Army, Marine and British forces. He helped develop Joint, Army, NATO, and UN civil-military policy and doctrine. An executive member of the UN Association and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s “Veterans for Smart Power,” he also writes extensively on peace & security, strategy, and civil-military issues, including for Foreign Policy and The Huffington Post. He recently published a book, Travels with Harley – A Journey through America in search of Personal and National Identity.

Follow Christopher Holshek on Twitter:

bottom of page