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U.S. Military Role In Democracy, Human Rights, And Humanitarian Assistance

By The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*

“Defense, Diplomacy, and Development” (DD&D) are often lumped together in today’s U.S. foreign policy, which implies an equal treatment of each. However, that simply is not that case when defense dwarfs its two partners: diplomacy and development. How should these inter-related foreign policy tools be used in better coordination so that diplomacy and development are not treated like step siblings compared to the better funded and better known defense? The problem does not arise from within the U.S. government as there is great respect and admiration for the three elements, but the priorities should be partnered more equally. For decades, there have been constant budget constraints on the U.S. State Department (State) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Further, diplomacy and development – and for that matter, the fourth “D”, democracy — do not “wow” the American people in the same way that military operations do. Americans remember General Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Black Jack” Pershing, “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, General David Petraeus, and General Colin Powell, but do they remember or even know the heroes of diplomacy, democracy, and development? With the world converging on the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII, with the largest number of refugees in history, it is time for a re-calculation regarding the nearly forgotten side of U.S. foreign policy (i.e. diplomacy, development, and democracy).

Over the past several decades, some aspects of the military/diplomatic relationship have remained the same, while others have changed. On the unchanged side, the imbalance between funding for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. State Department and USAID has stayed the same, with DOD’s budget at approximately $700 billion per year, which is nearly 10 times more than the State and USAID budgets combined. DOD also has far more human resources and physical capabilities than the other two civilian agencies have. Another issue that has not changed is that DOD continues to want State/USAID to have more funding for institution building, civil society strengthening, and democratic governance because DOD would generally prefer not to be responsible for that aspect of operations. Also unchanged is the fact that DOD will always continue to model proper military behavior to other militaries, setting an example with regard to respect for the rule of law and human rights, appropriate implementation of the laws of armed conflict, and civilian control of the military, among other principles.

In the 1990s, the military was spread out in a number of countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, and East Timor, assisting with humanitarian efforts, peacekeeping, and institution building. After the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, many troops were pulled out of countries where there were small military commitments, and they have generally not returned, as the appetite of the United States for nation building and counterinsurgency work throughout the globe has diminished. Instead, the military is planning and preparing for great power conflicts with Russia and China. These are big changes. Despite pulling away from far reaching commitments, however, the U.S. continues to rely on the military to solve a broad range of non-military problems, including human and drug trafficking, piracy, natural disasters, and border issues, for example, because the military is effective and has vast human and financial resources. Unfortunately, the more we rely on the military to solve these problems, the more funding they need, and the more funding they get, the less effectively civilian agencies are able to tackle these problems. Further, as humanitarian assistance becomes politicized – seen in Venezuela when President Nicolás Maduro refused to let U.S. aid in the country – this work becomes more dangerous and sometimes ends up requiring military protection.

Despite a general desire by both military and civilian government agencies to increase the role of civilian agencies with regard to humanitarian assistance and institution building, the military continues to be pulled into it. It is unrealistic to think that this will change anytime soon. While it is important to strengthen the ability of civilian agencies to do the work that falls under their mandate, it would be unwise to ignore the fact that military personnel will continue to find themselves in situations that call for expertise in humanitarian assistance and institution building. Recommendations for the U.S. administration for how to assist both civilian and military agencies in this area include:

  • Supporting a more balanced approach to humanitarian assistance and institution building so that State/USAID are able to play a more prominent role, understanding that this shift may require a change in funding as well as responsibilities.
  • Taking advantage of the fact that the younger military generation has internalized the importance of promoting the rule of law, democracy and human rights to ensure that our military is able to contribute effectively to nation building efforts if necessary.
  • Continuing to include (or adding where needed) a democratic and human rights component in International Military Education and Training (IMET) courses; multilateral and bilateral military conferences, seminars and visits; arms sales and military assistance; and actions during governance crises.
  • Identifying those initiatives where military and civilian entities have best partnered – such as in disaster relief efforts – and determining why those partnerships worked and how to replicate that success in other areas.
  • Exploring how to build on and improve the coordination that already exists between U.S. combatant commands and embassies and chiefs of mission.
  • Establishing international mechanisms within organizations such as NATO or the OSCE for the armed forces of democratic countries to coordinate activities that can support democratic institution building through military relations in countries in transition.
  • Developing a public relations strategy to inform the American people of the successes and efforts by the State Department and USAID throughout the world.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

Publish Date
March 10, 2021