Despite 80% of Americans placing their confidence in the military and that it “will act in the best interests of the public,” most of the American people have no idea how expansive the military is as an institution in the modern era or the realities of military life. Less than one percent of Americans currently on active duty in the military; and according to the Pew Research Center, as the size of military personnel declines, “the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant.” In spite of this growing divide between civilians and military personnel, trust in the military has persisted among the general public. Because the military is seen by the public as one of the most viable and trusted institutions capable of handling both domestic and international issues, its role in areas such as diplomacy and development has grown substantially in both domestic and foreign affairs. According to Rosa Brooks, law professor and foreign policy expert:

“the U.S. military operates in ‘nearly every country on earth’ and in many cases its activities have nothing to do with shooting at bad guys….(The Military) have been involved in everything from….agricultural reform in Afghanistan to health care in Malaysia. The range of their work is as remarkable as it is unsettling.”

General David Barno explains that, in the post- 9/11 era, the Pentagon has become “like a Super Walmart with everything under one roof.” Barno elaborates stating, “the military can marshal vast resources and exploit economies of scale in ways impossible for mom-and-pop operations. And like Walmart, the tempting one-stop-shopping convenience it offers has a devastating effect on smaller, more traditional enterprises—in this case, the State Department and other civilian foreign policy agencies.”

Because of the military rapidly becoming the all-purpose solution to a variety of issues, it has increasingly been asked to take on tasks that traditionally we’ve thought of as civilian or their personnel were not trained to do. For example, during the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis, US troops were deployed in countries including Liberia and Sierra Leone to perform tasks such as training local health workers and building Ebola treatment units. While not all of these deployments were unsuccessful, some missions may have hindered the Ebola response due to “poor coordination between governments, aid agencies and armed forces and a lack of understanding of their roles.”According to researcher, Kamaradt-Scott, “The response that we saw in Ebola may not serve as a great blueprint for future operations, and we need to do more work to identify when and where militaries are called upon to assist.”

Due to the military not having the proper training and expertise in these fields such as emergency medical response, it performs badly in these situations, which has negative effects on the lives of human beings all over the world and exacerbates humanitarian crises. According to Vox, “It also decreases U.S. credibility, because what the world sees as the face of the U.S. is the military. It’s a uniformed figure, which has bad ramifications for civil-military relations worldwide and for democracy. Meanwhile, the military as an institution is demoralized and less effective because we’re trying to force one institution to do too many things.”

The ongoing cycle of increasing reliance on the US military, present in both the previous Bush and Obama administrations, and its negative impact has accelerated during Trump administration; as seen in the gutting of the State Department’s budget, allowing for vacancies in key diplomatic positions, or filling foreign-policy jobs with military officers. According to The Washington Post, “Under this president, deep budget cuts and hiring freezes have crippled the already demoralized State Department; the surfeit of military voices in Trump’s Cabinet has sidelined the remaining civilian foreign policy officials; and from NAFTA to the Iran nuclear agreement, many of the alliances and treaties so carefully nurtured by diplomats in prior administrations have been mocked or sent to the shredder.”

In War on Peace, Ronan Farrow writes that “military alliances have now eclipsed the kind of civilian diplomacy that once counterbalanced them, with disastrous results.” The State Department and other diplomatic agencies have been stuck in a cycle of inadequate investment in diplomatic tools which decreases their effectiveness and impacts their credibility. Farrow writes, “American leadership no longer valued diplomats, which led to the kind of cuts that made diplomats less valuable. Rinse, repeat.” The cycle of divestment and decrease in diplomatic effectiveness has further pushed the military as “all-purpose tool for fixing anything [that] happens to be broken.”

The ever-expanding role of the US military in both domestic and international politics is also caused by the conflation of a wartime institution with non-war time problems. When something frightens the American people, we label it as a war. Minor conflicts, security disputes, or other forms of peacekeeping efforts are labeled as wars which then further detracts clarity the term once held. The US has been caught in a cycle in which “if the military does it, it must be a war; if it’s a war, it must be a military job” which then squeezes out “both other institutions and other legal paradigms for thinking about issues.”The seemingly never-ending “War on Terror” exemplifies this phenomenon. Not caused but certainly accelerated by the September 11th attacks, the conflicts under the broad header of The War on Terror have been increasingly disorganized with unclear political ends. According to Rosa Brooks, the War on Terror is a trap in which administrations take just enough military action to create the appearance of progress without actually taking on the significant kinds of risks or diplomatic dealmaking necessary to create something more lasting. By labeling it a “War on Terror,” the U.S. government allows itself to avoid using other institutions, legal paradigms, or resources beyond military force to “solve” conflicts.  

Future political leaders must present a better vision for the US’s foreign policy that does not shy away from these complicated ideas about war and what international issues could be better handled by civilian or diplomatic agencies. As a presidential election looms and the current administration continues to invest in military expansion and increase the decline of diplomacy, I believe it would be wise for us to ask what is the role of the US military within a progressive US foreign policy agenda? What do we want from our military both at home and abroad? What do we need and expect from our institutions in facilitating international relations? Focusing on individual policies, politicians, or conflicts does not properly address the need for a vision forward for the role the US should play on the world stage.  In order to create truly radical change in our foreign policy as a nation, we must rethink the role of the institutions that facilitate it