Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Matthew F. Smith is an active duty officer in the United States Army. He can be found on Twitter @Matt_F_Smith. The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the Department of the Army. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Dependency of U.S. Below Threshold Competition on Department of State Modernization
Date Originally Written: June 12, 2020.
Date Originally Published: August 5, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The article is written from the point of view of the United States. The author is interested in the strengths and limitations of resourcing the U.S. Executive Branch Departments and Agencies primarily responsible for executing foreign policy strategies below the threshold of armed conflict.
Summary: U.S. policymakers are deciding how to compete with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and counteract their objectives. Given fiscal realities, the opportunity exists to rebalance current militaristic policy tendencies and force institutional reforms. The U.S. Department of State, due to its largely below-threshold mandate, is a good target for modernization so it can better lead foreign policy efforts through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance.
Text: Over the last decade, American foreign policy has focused increasingly on competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Regardless of the various administrations’ policies, the central strategic aim has been how the United States can best compete with China while remaining below the threshold of armed conflict. The PRC’s central strategic aim is to undermine current U.S. alliances and other historically U.S. lead global institutions. Given the $2.5 trillion in federal spending in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic and an economic recession, a fiscally conscience U.S. government is likely to exist moving forward. As a result, future foreign policy decisions will focus on the smart application of strategic tools that are gauged not merely by measures of performance but also by the financial effectiveness in achieving the desired outcome. For the U.S. to maintain the fundamental ability to compete below the threshold of armed conflict, the State Department, whose mission is to “lead America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance”; requires equipping through bipartisan commitment of resources to compete in the current environment. Understanding that near-term competition will likely remain below the threshold of large scale combat operations, and U.S. strategy aims to promote a range of acceptable options short of armed conflict, the resourcing of such efforts is a fundamental issue.
Just as the U.S. military is resourced to innovate and adapt in response to emerging military threats, undertaking the institutional reform necessary for the State Department to have the capability to lead an integrated approach to promote U.S. strategic interests is of vital importance. An environment that is competitive but not combative requires the State Department to be capable of frustrating Chinese interests in areas that cooperation is not possible while seizing fleeting moments of opportunity for mutually beneficial agreements. Without a properly resourced and organized State Department, opportunities to frustrate China will be lost altogether or be handled in such a manner that its potential benefit will be greatly diminished. The Indo-Pacific region is vital to U.S. objectives because of its continuing economic opportunities, and yet, to fully reap the benefits of those opportunities, the United States, China, and the other countries that are impacted by regional competition must work together to communally benefit whenever possible. Competing with China requires the U.S. to advance its position by smartly leveraging all instruments of national power that enable the current strategic approach.
Policymakers can ask themselves how the U.S. can be expected to compete below the threshold of armed conflict without adequately resourcing the primary agency responsible for executing the policies in that environment. The Department of Defense requested $705.4 billion for FY21; and while defense spending on military capability is an important component of a deterrence strategy, it only inadvertently promotes the U.S. capability to compete below the threshold of armed conflict. The State Department requested $40.8 billion for FY21, which is an $11.7 billion, or 22-percent decrease from the 2020 enacted level. In the face of reports calling for the State Department to modernize, the U.S., as is evident in the proposed budget, is prioritizing military capability for deterrence at the expense of investing in deterrence through greater diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance efforts. Ignoring the reality of State Department capability will lead to U.S. policy missteps and encourage China to expand their focus beyond military development and increase investing in other strategic sectors. These sectors, which include the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, are effective in increasing the political clout the PRC can wield in forming new alliances and dependencies while degrading the U.S. position in the region.
The current United States strategic approach to the PRC reaffirms many of the incorporative strategic approaches described in the 2017 National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy, 2019 Department of State Strategy, and the 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. Specifically, the current U.S. strategic documents accept China as a major power in its own right and describe many unconstrained approaches that will foster cooperation and competition wherever possible while not allowing rivalry to degrade the entire relationship. While these documents allude to a networked approach for competing with China in some areas while cooperating in others, the fiscal allocation of resources and the demonstration that when under stress, the liberal virtues championed in these strategies are easily sacrificed, make clear that execution of the supporting policies is an issue. To compete with China, policymakers can consider sufficiently budgeting the resources required for the State Department to increase its capability to promote U.S. strategic interests across the many non-military domains.
The State Department, as the primary agency that coordinates diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance efforts, is critical in a competitive environment that falls below the threshold of armed conflict. The United States cannot effectively or efficiently compete with China while using inflexible and un-adaptive organizational structures that are ill-equipped to deliver relevant solutions. Just as the U.S. military has been equipped to conduct modernization efforts, the Department of State requires the same focus of resourcing for their modernization efforts to successfully outcompete China. Without adequate funding, the State Department will not reform into a more agile institution that can deliver the strategic objectives in a manner reflective of the current period of great power competition. The undervaluing of non-military strategic tools and agencies such as the State Department, over time, will make the military option the most preferred deterrence and engagement method for shaping foreign affairs. The United States’ costly global military presence as a result of the war on terror and extended campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have only reinforced this militaristic reality and are an impetus for assessing foreign policy approaches to foster more competitive practices below the threshold of armed conflict.
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