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 You are in: Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Releases > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Remarks > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Remarks (2005)

The Changing Nature of the Political-Military Interface

John Hillen, Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs
Remarks at the Joint Worldwide Planning Conference, Edelweiss Conference Center
Garmisch, Germany
November 30, 2005


Generals, admirals, distinguished colleagues, many thanks for allowing me to address you today. I very much appreciate General Renuart’s invitation - this is a great opportunity for me, in my new role as Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, to meet in one fell swoop the entire corps of strategists and planners from combatant commands and the military services. Garmisch, of course, is a beautiful and historic place in which to contemplate the changing nature of the political-military interface – the topic on which I want to speak this afternoon.

The Changing Nature of Warfare

Much has been written in the last decade – and especially since September 11, 2001 – of the changing nature of warfare. There is consensus in the security and defense communities that the risk of major interstate war is at its lowest level in recorded history, that future threats to American security will be generally asymmetric in nature, and that no major peer competitor is likely to emerge in the near term to confront us militarily.

Instead, we contemplate the brewing threats of "Perfect Storms" of failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters, stateless militants, apocalyptic terrorists, cataclysmic regional crises, and the proliferation of dangerous weapons. While we keep our eyes on possible peer or near peer competitors, our security attentions are more frequently drawn to the dynamics of threats produced by lagging economies, unintegrated and disenfranchised populations, transnational crime, illicit sub-national power structures, poorly or ungoverned spaces, and destabilizing bulges of uneducated and unemployed youth.

History tells us, of course, that it is particularly hard to predict how this mix of conventional and unconventional challenges will manifest themselves at particular points in time – and as security challenges for the United States and allies. At the very least, it is almost certain that future warfare will involve both regular and irregular combat – a blurring of the lines, as it were, between the categories of combat, the one representing a form of warfare for which we are supremely capable, and the other whose complexities we are still learning. It might be more accurate to say re-learning rather as our own military history is replete with so-called irregular warfare.

Needless to say, this mixture of different kinds of combat is not amenable to management by our customary high-level political-military approach to the conduct of warfare. In particular, I am consumed, as I must be in my position, by what we must do to bend and shape an extraordinary political and diplomatic institution and apparatus to the demands of complex warfare in our time. The world today – and the threats as they present themselves on the ground – no longer honors (nor even respects) our implicit institutional wish to see political/diplomatic dynamics and military matters as distinct and discrete fields – which perhaps overlap at the 4-star rear headquarters.

Instead, we need a more integrated approach to managing complex conflicts – and one that recognizes that today’s political military interface is not at Eisenhower’s headquarters, so to speak, but on a street corner in Fallujah, at a town-hall meeting in Mosul, at a PRT in Afghanistan, with CJTF’s on the Horn of Africa, or in humanitarian relief task forces in Asia. This is where politics, diplomacy, and military operations with strategic impact are meeting – and not simply in the still important world of cables between capitals. The so-called strategic corporal – identified long ago by Marine Commandant Charles Krulak, needs his political/diplomatic partner on the ground as a fellow strategic actor. The duty that Carlos Pascual, I, and others at State have is to make sure our diplomatic and political instruments show up to the game as it is being played now – in the field – and that means recognizing and meeting the demands of the new forms and modalities of the political-military interface today.

There is broad recognition that we, as a government, need to be able to integrate the application of national – and international – power within intra-state conflicts and fragile sovereign states to restore security and essential and legitimate governance functions. We need to create a national capacity to build or restore nations, in cooperation with like-minded international partners, in a deliberate and sustainable way. Francis Fukuyama predicts that the art of state building will become a key component of national power, as important as a great nation’s ability to deploy traditional military force. While I’ve had differences with him and others about the best role for the military in these activities and how this is prioritized in national security planning, I agree with him that we need national security capabilities to address this need.

The QDR recognizes that developing this kind of capacity will require a mental and programmatic shift from a Defense-centric to a National Security focus - a shift in thinking from military combined arms to multi-agency combined actions - what the Joint Forces Command is calling "Unified Action." It requires a real ability to apply and integrate all elements and all functions of national power. These functions, especially as practiced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan today could be characterized as activities carried out by military actors that are 75% political and only 25% military – at best. I’m sure many of you read with interest this weekend’s Washington Post piece about the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. Their work there could easily be characterized as political development in a semi-permissive security environment. The balance is even more tilted in "hot" security assistance operations – such as those in Colombia and the Philippines.

When I came into the Army, the first 20 years of my career were meant to prepare me to be the consummate military actor – decisively defeating a similarly arrayed enemy on a battlefield free from the pollution of politics. We recognize now that today’s and tomorrow’s conflicts require the development of a new kind of national security professional, a corps of experts who are adept at leadership and management in an array of governmental sectors – and who are as trained in language, culture, history, developmental economics, and anthropology as they are in battlefield tactics. The nucleus of this corps is in the community of military and foreign service officers who have recent experience in political military affairs, and who understand that bringing Executive Branch agencies together is vital to our national interest.

A Convergence of Themes

While is it certainly not true that great minds think alike, there is a remarkable convergence of themes in academic and policy circles about the changing nature of threats and challenges to national and international security. We should not take this for granted - the intellectual fight was won relatively easily – not the least reason for which is that the future is in our faces in many different places and forms. But now the hard part begins, bending institutions and bureaucratic muscle memory to the new set of tasks at hand.

I am particularly encouraged by the intellectual framework of this Quadrennial Defense Review, which captures in a compelling way the four Core Problems our defense establishment must undertake to address, while recognizing that none of these problems can be solved through military means alone. In point of fact, in today’s security environment, none of the four kinds of threats we face - Traditional, Irregular, Catastrophic, Disruptive – can be addressed only by military forces, no matter how robust, well-equipped or well-trained. In many of these sorts of conflicts, non-military elements of power may well be the decisive ones. Because of that, we all must begin to think habitually in terms of managing complex multi-agency responses to security threats, and not only of sending in the Cavalry when things get ugly. And I’d hope you recognize that this is a very hard thing for a former cavalry officer to say!

Compression of the Levels of Warfare

This chart depicts political-military activity as overlapping political activity, which consists of grand strategy, policy and diplomacy, and the three levels of military activity—tactical, operational, and strategic—in stabilization and reconstruction operations.Complicating these phenomena in recent years is a dynamic that I will refer to as the compression of the political-military space. I noted early that the days of discrete political and military domains are over with the everyday blurring of these roles in today’s operations. The political-military interface we manage now is geographically ubiquitous and present at every level of action. [See slide 1.] Similarly, from a political-military viewpoint, we should recognize that the days of three distinct and linear levels of politics-free warfare - strategic, operational and tactical – have ended. We now operate in a very different kind of strategic environment, one which requires different organizations and different rules than those by which we now play.

This chart depicts the conventional view of war, which has three levels: at the top-strategic, in the middle-operational, and at the lowest level-tactical. Pol-Mil interface occurs at the strategic level. In the conventional view, information and authority flow in a linear fashion from the top down. This view is Washington centric and mechanistic.The conventional view of the levels of warfare, in which they are linked but separate, with different players at each level, presumes that if we get the policy right, all else will follow. This view is mechanistic, militarily-intensive, and Washington-centric when it comes to policy and diplomacy. [See slide 2.] It fails to take into account the inherently political nature of the military’s activities on the ground today, let alone the effects of instantaneous media visibility, the ubiquity of information and communications, and the rapidly declining impact of traditional public diplomacy on public opinion. The old view of the levels of war and political/military spheres fails to appreciate the fact that, on today’s battlefields, one junior officer’s actions on a street corner in an urban combat zone may have more political impact than the most forceful diplomatic pronouncement our capital can deliver.

This chart illustrates the 'complex conflict view,' which has three levels of conflict (strategic, operational and tactical), they overlap and are compressed. There are still different players at each level—but there is constant interaction among the three levels.Today we must subscribe to a more complicated model in which the three levels of warfare are overlapping and compressed, with the major players still different and with different focal points. This model is interactive and non-linear; it is politically intense at every level and adaptive. This is a field-centric model, biological and evolutionary, in which major actors may emerge at levels and locations other than where we might traditionally expect, and who therefore may require different initial orientation, training, and guidance, to the extent that we can identify and prepare them. In this model politics, policy, diplomacy, and military activities interact at every level and all the time. [See slide 3.]

At present, we collectively "ad-hoc" our way through political-military situations with which we have little familiarity and no existing doctrine, training or tactics. In the Horn of Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Southern Philippines, and elsewhere our strategic impact is not only delivered by tanks, JDAMS, and the like; rather our strategic actors are as likely be Foreign Service economic officers, agricultural attaches and colonels of infantry acting as political development experts. Similarly, our tacticians may be forensic accountants rather than snipers or scouts. The fact of the matter is that we all need to change how we think about war and what it will take to win our nations wars in the future. Our military is learning some hard lessons now and transforming, and at State we have realized that we need to also transform to hold up our end of the political-military interface.

This chart shows the levels of activity by Department of State and the Department of Defense on a continuum conflict over time.In the world we face, military actions must be designed and undertaken with the best political and diplomatic advice we are capable of providing – both before and during the fact. We must commit to planning for and providing holistic, comprehensive, integrated multi-agency support to every step of military operations, not just to Phase 0 or Phase IV operations. [See slide 4.] We need to get our best and brightest young Foreign Service officers out to where the rubber meets the road – in the pol-mil environment, with field commanders who need their language, culture, and policy skills. Our Foreign Service culture tends to reward negotiators in Geneva to a greater extent than foreign policy advisors to our operating forces, and I hope to, along with the Stabilization and Reconstruction Office, help change that paradigm. And I know Secretary Rice feels we cannot transform our diplomacy for the non-Westphalian part of the world (which is the part producing most of today’s threats) without transforming the way we assign and reward our professionals.

The recent Robert Kaplan piece, "State versus the Pentagon," makes much of the widespread perception that Defense is bureaucratically more effective and better led, while State tends to be marginalized because our organization and leadership is less adaptable to the realities of power politics. Well, given that the entire State Department’s worldwide human capital inventory is about half the size of the Navy’s ready reserve (and over half of those State employees are foreign nationals employed by local posts overseas), it’s a bit of a military apples to foreign policy oranges comparison. In fact, while I understand Kaplan’s points about institutional inertia and focus, I’ve been very encouraged to find at State a foreign policy establishment working with great ingenuity and intellectual courage to come to terms with a world in which power structures are as often as not transnational or sub-national – and in which demarches between capitals may be less important than emails between colleagues in non-governmental organizations.

Even so, a new vacuum has emerged in the political-military universe, one that is being filled primarily by DoD people and resources – because they can get to the action quickly, in flexible configurations, can sustain themselves, and are prepared to operate in a number of different field environments with varying levels of permissiveness. The military has a can-do fix-it-now culture, which is also present in a different way in State professionals, but one which I think everyone recognizes would be ill-suited for many of the tasks of negotiation and diplomacy if manifested in the same way that fits the kinetic needs of military operations. The magnificent cultural imperatives and institutional traits of the military that many warriors like to express by saying that they are in the business of "killing bad people and breaking things" could hardly animate the world of policy and diplomacy. Even so, the primary reason that the pol-mil vacuum in the field has been almost exclusively filled by DoD of late is because the military got there firstest with the mostest. But the question I ask you today is whether this early dynamic should represent the way we plan and build institutions for complex contingencies in the future.

I think it is fair to say that in the game of jump ball for interagency influence in ongoing pol-mil operations in the field, or even in security assistance planning and implementation, State is too often jumping lowest. I would offer to this audience that this is not in the Pentagon’s best long-term interest, and it is unlikely, in the final analysis, to be in the best interests of the nation. If we subvert, however unintentionally, our ability for the lead foreign policy agency of the US government to deliver credible and consistent messages - in the field and at all levels - to those actors whose behavior we are trying to shape and change, we will lose influence and legitimacy. Especially when those messages are inherently about democracy, political pluralism and compromise, the rule of law, civilian control of the military, the importance of institutions in civil society, legitimacy and governance gained through peaceful means and processes, and diplomatic exchange and negotiation as the preferred way of solving differences. These are not inherently military messages needless to say, but today it is most often the US military that delivers them on the ground.

To my mind, the disparity in our respective power structures is to some extent a story of unintended consequences of well-intentioned legislation. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which had the salutary effect of reducing the counterproductive rivalry between the military services, created what are arguably the most efficient and effective power structures of the U.S. government abroad– the combatant commands. The authority and capacity of unified regional commands means that their commanders have, in many cases, a preponderance of inter-agency influence across geographic regions that far outstrips that of the regional assistant secretaries back home or the chiefs of U.S. diplomatic missions in the region.

Chiefs of Mission and Combatant Commanders have very different goals, and to the extent that their activities come into conflict, the President’s foreign policy goals in a given country or region can be placed in jeopardy. The resources that COCOMs bring to bear in their theaters, in terms of people, money, and logistics support, far outstrip the foreign assistance programs that Ambassadors and their country teams can routinely deliver to host governments. When mil-to-mil relationships bear more and better fruit than political relationships can deliver, we run the risk sacrificing our larger foreign policy goals to the exigencies of military priorities with shorter horizons. While it’s hard to argue with success, we must all be mindful of the potential ramifications of a failure to align our respective activities with the priorities of the elected Administration and its appointed representatives to other sovereign nations.

I don’t say any of this in the way of criticism, and I do not begrudge the COCOMs one iota of the non-military influence they’ve gained in their regions – it is all good, so to speak, for American influence and interests. But, I do put the burden on us at State to reinsert ourselves into the pol-mil interface in these regions to be a better foreign policy partner for the COCOMs. The commands should not let up on the gas one bit, it’s up to us at State to find a way to get into that moving car and be seen as a partner who is adding value.

PM’s Role in the New Interface

So our challenge is to rear a new generation of programs, initiatives, and leaders who understand and can operate effectively in the complex new world of inextricably intertwined political-military affairs. The National Security Strategy stresses the need for competent partners, both internal and international, and my Bureau is committed to being an effective partner for DoD and helping to build complementary capacity in partners overseas.

Many of you know about our role in helping to manage security assistance, but we also manage the Political Advisor and State-Defense Exchange Officer programs, both of which I intend to expand as widely as resources will permit, precisely because these programs are critical to the development of the new generation of pol-mil officers. I have early support from the senior leadership at State to make the POLAD program more prestigious, more robust, and importantly, more ubiquitous – so that good political advisors to military forces are not simply present 4-star headquarters staffs. We’ve been experimenting with deploying POLADs or POLAD-like capabilities in the field at the CJTF level and have found that effective POLADs have greatly aided military commanders in keeping operational plans and tactical actions tied to strategic policy.

Just one example of I’ll cite here is the case of our Consul in Naha, Japan. Tom Reich is on his second tour in Naha and has developed great relationships with the Marines. He was such an asset that after the tsunami last year he was requested by name by PACOM to serve as the Polad to the Joint Task Force in Utapao, Thailand. State was happy to agree to the request and Tom's presence helped to smooth coordination during the relief effort. We have a similar set of experiences in the CJTF in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

As we ramp up this program, I hope to be in a position to get mid-career Foreign Service and Foreign Affairs Officers to the staffs of operational commanders in places where we can begin to build relationships, trust and understanding of the skills and capabilities that each of our services bring to the battlefield. This additional dimension of experience will better inform the development of concepts like the Joint Interagency Coordination Group, and the evolution of Combatant Commands as they continue to transform. It will foster the development of integrated campaign plans that take into consideration all the elements of national power, diplomatic, informational, military and economic.

We need our Foreign Service and our military professionals to deliberately and systematically brush up against each other early and often in their own careers – indeed, to "grow up" together. If we do not institutionalize this attitude, our interactions will be inconsistent and will rely upon the personalities of principals and other actors. Moreover, as joint operations over the past 20 years have shown, closer cooperation in the field and early in careers builds greater mutual understanding that stimulates cultural and organizational changes that will better position all of us to deal with tomorrow’s challenges, not just today’s problems.


In the strategic world, there has been so much attention over the past decade, and rightly so, on the technologically-driven revolution in military affairs. And although there were plenty of warnings in the 90’s about the contemporaneous revolutions in strategic, political, and cultural affairs (I am particularly proud of the work we did on the Hart-Rudman Commission in this regard), we all finally "got it" after the tragedy of 9/11. Intellectually we feel comfortable with the shape of the new world and the new security challenges that lay in front of us. But (for my money), institutionally we are changing too slowly to beat the bad guy to the future. Moreover, we are changing in too much isolation from each other. We have in front of us the dawn of a new world - or a returned world, as some old soldiers and politicians might remind us - of an almost complete intermixing of the political and the military, and the blurring of levels and forms of warfare.

A wealth of good ideas is being generated on how to treat this brave new world. The CSIS "Beyond Goldwater Nichols" studies, particularly the Phase II report, is worth reading, as much for the sound analysis of the problems of "the interagency" as for its ambitious recommendations. The Stabilization and Reconstruction office at State has incubated and is beginning to export several valuable constructs for interagency planning and coordination in various contingency environments. And overall at State – among the senior leaders and most especially with our Secretary and Deputy Secretary, people are committed to working with Defense to better align our strategies and plans to achieve our common goals. Moreover, we all recognize that we as a nation are on a war footing and need to be focused and creative to bring the nation victory in this long war – a war of ideas as well as action. As the principal links between the departments, both I and my bureau are committed to holding up our end of the political-military interface in the challenges that lay ahead.

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