Synchronizing National Security Priorities and US Business Interests Overseas: A Model for Reducing

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

"We’re changing how we define development… we need to harness all the tools at our disposal – from our diplomacy to our trade and investment policies."

—Former President Barack Obama

Nothing demonstrates diplomacy's relevance more than its ability to contribute to America's economic renewal. And nothing will support strong American diplomacy abroad better than a strong and vibrant American economy. Since 95 percent of the world's consumers live outside the United States, Americans have a big stake in the role diplomats play in opening markets abroad, strengthening the economic rules of the road… Secretary of State John Kerry continually reminds our diplomats that "foreign policy is economic policy."

—Ambassador William Burns Retiring Deputy Secretary of State



US personnel working in both Iraq and Afghanistan note a common theme that emerged during their decade-long reconstruction efforts. Both country officials and private citizens consistently expressed deep disappointment at the U.S. inability to help them access economic opportunity. As well, many senior U.S. officials, post invasion, expressed amazement at the depth of poverty and lack of economic development, especially in Iraq, where access to global markets and capital had been cut severely by sanctions. The scope of these economic problems was significantly larger than was initially understood by U.S. planners, and the U.S. reaction took years to produce arguably modest results. It is now clear that American national security objectives in those two theaters of war were put at risk of failure through the hollow application of military or “hard power” with little resourcing directed towards understanding and improving core economic functions. Outcomes in both countries remain uncertain but it is clear in hindsight that the U.S. lost critical opportunities following initial combat operations (Phase 3 -- Dominate) to reinforce success.

Realistic economic development plans, properly resourced to win the post-combat stabilization phase, would almost certainly have reduced the risk to the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, General David Petraeus, Mr Paul Brinkley, and Dr. Ashraf Ghani (now President of Afghanistan) are all credible voices that support this opinion.

Absent robust plans and resources to ensure the enduring growth of post-conflict economic opportunity, military force is not enough to ensure accomplishment of American national security objectives. To the contrary, combat operations invariably reduce the target countries’ economic development potential. American national security officials should ensure that future U.S. military campaign plans are integrated into a larger framework of significant, resourced, economic development plans.

To accomplish this seemingly abstract objective will require development of a new set of authorities that direct the interagency to more actively support strategic economic growth before a military solution is required. The Department of Defense Regional Combatant Commanders can be instrumental in developing and integrating these proposed authorities during Phase 0 shaping operations. Their actions would be driven by the national security imperative of reducing risk of state collapse and the subsequent need for American military intervention.


Military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are relative anomalies in the conduct of American foreign policy and must be considered in the unique context of the 9/11 attacks. However, from these two theaters of war emerge the lesson often cited by the early Clinton administration: “It’s the economy, stupid”. Planning for strategic success within America’s national security portfolio must include specific resources to address economic development. This idea is neither new nor is it a silver bullet for solving vexing national security challenges present in Libya, Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq or Yemen. In those countries, the circumstances are already beyond the immediate reach of economic development and a military option is the major consideration.

But there are a number of countries where the deliberate encouragement of U.S. private sector, business driven economic development may reduce social pressures and thus risk of conflict. This deliberate and early application of globally dominant U.S. economic power (versus relying upon military or “hard power” later) is an option that is available to U.S. civilian policy makers. And they could find no more willing partners in this effort than the U.S. officials with the most to lose should the circumstances deteriorate into conflict: the U.S. Combatant Commanders, whose unique reach and regional view plays to the benefit of understanding and affecting positive economic outcomes.

"Across each of the three pillars of the updated defense strategy, the Department is committed to finding creative, effective, and efficient ways to achieve our goals and assist in making strategic choices. Innovation – within our own Department and in our interagency and international partnerships – is a central line of effort."