Brave Enough Not to Lead: The Proper Role of the Military in Foreign Policy

By Mullen, Michael G. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Brave Enough Not to Lead: The Proper Role of the Military in Foreign Policy


Mullen, Michael G., Joint Force Quarterly


The use of military means to achieve political ends evokes a thread of a rich discussion, one that reaches back through the ages. It was certainly so even in the winter of 1775, as Edmund Burke spoke on the floor of Parliament, at a time when England decided to send an army and a navy to put down the American rebellion.

Although Burke wasn't exactly espousing our independence in his speech, he did question his government's reliance upon military force in preventing it:

Those who wield the thunder of the state may have more confidence in the efficacy of arms. But ... my opinion is much more in favor of prudent management than of force; considering force not as an odious, but a feeble instrument in preserving a people as spirited as this.

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So I can only imagine Burke's surprise--if he were alive today--to hear our Secretary of Defense calling for more assets for the Foreign Service, U.S. Agency for International Development, Departments of Agriculture, Justice, and Commerce, and other nonuniformed implements of power and influence. Surprise as well, perhaps, to hear someone wearing the uniform, telling you the same thing--much as I did back in 2005, as the head of our Navy.

My profession has taken me in and around countries all over the world, where I learned the critical value of a great Ambassador and a great Country Team, a team that is inclusive of so many of our Federal agencies--and in that teamwork, the possibilities were, and are, endless.

There is no question that we need a whole-of-government approach to solving modern problems, and we need to reallocate roles and resources in a way that places our military as an equal among many in government--as an enabler, a true partner. On those points, I think most people already agree. But I think it's worth thinking about what we can do about it.

First, when asking why our instruments of national power may be unbalanced, we, the ones wearing uniforms, need to look in the mirror.

Yes, our military is flexible. Well funded. Designed to take risk. We respond well to orders from civilian authorities. It's what we do. It's in our DNA. And so, when we are willing to pitch in, as we usually are, we tend to receive more resources. And then get asked to do more. And so on.

I believe we should be more willing to break this cycle, and say when our Armed Forces may not always be the best choice to take the lead. We must be just as bold in providing options when they don't involve our participation or our leadership, or even when those options aren't popular--especially when they are not popular.

Although there are many situations where we should not take the lead--in most cases, we could be one great supporting partner. It's not that others aren't willing to lead. I know for a fact that they are. But in many cases, they are just not able.

That brings me to my second point. As an equal partner in government, I want to be able to transfer resources to my other partners when they need them.

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Brave Enough Not to Lead: The Proper Role of the Military in Foreign Policy
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