top of page

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."

—General Dempsey, USA Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

U.S. COCOM as an Economic Partner

Many countries important to U.S. national security have governments that relate more closely to security communities than do traditional western-style democratic leaders. This circumstance gives the U.S. COCOM an edge in developing great strategic economic relations that serve U.S. national security interests. This advantage could extend to economic dialogs resulting from greater access to client country decision makers who may tend to view military to military relations as their leading connection point with the U.S.

In certain instances, the U.S. COCOMs could play a highly productive role in this process, applying substantial staff resources to further economic relations, an option not available to other agencies and departments of the US government. Example candidate countries ripe for such outreach include Jordan, Oman, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. Their under-performing markets and frequent uneven political landscapes place them at risk of instability. Like Egypt before Tahrir Square and the “Arab Spring”, fundamental economic opportunity, market health, and wealth accumulation mechanisms in the above listed countries are insufficient to generate a robust, healthy, and enduring middle class. This gap exists despite the presence of stability, governance, and in some instances abundant natural resources.

While much progress may be accomplished using traditional U.S. aid-based approaches, these Cold War-era practices often create or perpetuate “donor-nation” dynamics casting U.S. efforts as demeaning and politically unpalatable. An additional downside to the antiquated aid model is seen in underperforming U.S. foreign aid country portfolios that have now become targets for public criticism and Congressional budget cutters.

Finally, many of these traditional aid programs, while effective in stabilizing disasters, are a poor fit for countries with solid growth potential. These nations are further along in their economic development base, and therefor require a more sophisticated approach. U.S. government aid programs lack the necessary elements of the market forces. These forces are necessary to help shape more enduring civil society mechanisms including rule of law, currency stability, and educational advancements.

Is there a better, more pro-active approach that links appropriate elements of U.S. economic power, specifically American investment in foreign emerging markets, with the strategic reach of U.S. COCOMs? Could more be done to affect early, favorable national security outcomes by synchronizing U.S. economic interests with U.S. COCOM strategic priorities in Phase 0, especially where there is evidence that our national security priorities and economic interests serve a common purpose?

A New Approach for New Security Challenges

Such an unconventional arrangement may have detractors including Department of State, USAID, Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Trade Representative, each of who may view such involvement by DOD as mission creep. But the concept of a U.S. military/U.S. private sector partnership, carefully structured to support unique emerging national security issues, is intriguing. In practice, the new approach would be operationalized and synchronized to support the other U.S. national security stakeholder’s efforts. The immediate benefit would be increased opportunities for regional shaping that are not presently available.

There is an emerging body of evidence that supports greater partnering between the senior U.S. regional security representatives and American private sector interests in order to increase the likelihood of favorable U.S. national security outcomes. Where there are indicators of increasing risk in countries of genuine strategic importance to the U.S., COCOMs must have the authority, and inter-agency support, to help ensure U.S. private sector economic development opportunities are considered in our national security calculus.

Many countries are essentially militarized autocracies that marginalize healthy economic development, creating fault lines between civil society and government. This increases risk of internal civil disorder, and is often encouraged by external actors. Under these circumstances, U.S. COCOMs may possess the principal voice of influence with the concerned nation. In those instances where national command authorities approve, COCOMs and their staffs should be prepared, and doctrinally encouraged, to exercise influence along economic development lines as a full member of the U.S. interagency partnership.

Lessons from the Long War

As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, abundant natural resources are no guarantee of social stability when the average citizen has poor opportunities for wealth accumulation. Adding well-defined economic engagement tools to the U.S. COCOM’s “shaping phase portfolio” would benefit U.S. businesses by helping to promote the stabilizing forces of economic development within emerging markets in countries of strategic significance to the US.

Deliberate employment of soft power economic tools by the COCOMs would not be precedence setting, but it is enough of a departure from the norm to warrant development of unique statutory and regulatory supporting mechanisms. Though a difficult inter-agency review awaits such a proposal, it is important not to limit our military engagement approaches to the existing somewhat aged, cold-war-era portfolio of security cooperation tools. We must open the U.S. COCOM’s security engagement aperture to include economic development considerations as a deliberate method of shaping desired U.S. national security outcomes in those instances where it makes sense to do so.

"As President Eisenhower noted, the foundation of military strength is our economic strength. In a few short years paying interest on our debt will be a bigger bill than what we pay for defense. Much of that interest money is destined to leave America for overseas. If we refuse to reduce our debt or pay down our deficit, what is the impact on national security for future generations who will inherit this irresponsible debt and the taxes to service it? No nation in history has maintained its military power while failing to keep its fiscal house in order." —General James Mattis, USMC, Secretary of Defense

About the Author

Mr. Gerlaugh served 35 years in various capacities and assignments with the Department of Defense since being commissioned a Marine Officer in 1976. His duty as a Marine included tank platoon and company commands, a recruit training company command, and as a staff officer at the US Central Command in Tampa. He left the Marines and attended graduate school where he earned an MA in Middle East Strategic Studies in 1989. Since then, he has worked in the national security field as an international affairs specialist supporting US Defense Department programs in Liberia, Colombia and across the Middle East. In 2004 he became the Defense Department Director for Counterterrorism Policy. From 2007 onward, Mr Gerlaugh worked alternately in the Defense and State Departments, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Pentagon.

Now retired from Government, Mr Gerlaugh lives in northern Virginia with his wife Donna where they run a small consulting business that is principally focused on US national security strategy and policy development.

bottom of page