Today, the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was released online. The QDR details the future thinking and direction of the US military for the next four years. The 2010 release describes itself as “truly a wartime QDR”, examining the doctrine of a military involved in two major conflicts in Central Asia and smaller operations around the globe. In addition to outlining the DoD’s thinking on the combat operations, the review highlights two areas relating to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Strengthening Civil Affairs
The QDR correctly points out that non-state violent groups flourish in regions with ineffective governance. Improving the capacity of governments to provide basic services, including health, to populations can deny those areas to enemies of the United States. This mission is the purview of civil affair units. In recent years, civil affairs have been almost entirely manned by reserved personnel. To improve civil affairs capacity, the QDR calls for expanding the DoD’s civil affairs teams with “the first active duty civil affairs brigade to support general purpose forces”. In other words, the DoD is enlarging its soft power forces.
The review places particular emphasis on the United States’ “unmatched capabilities and a willingness on the part of the nation to employ them in defense of our interests and the common good”. The stewardship role referred to in the QDR is largely operationalized through strengthening and supporting US allies, especially in Oceana and Asia.
Poignantly given the earthquake in Haiti, humanitarian disasters are mentioned as one such area where the US could have a national security interest in strengthening weakened governments against natural disasters. The DoD envisions achieving this goal mainly through assisting foreign militaries: “In some nations, the military is the only institution with the capacity to respond to a large-scale natural disaster. Proactive engagement with these countries can help build their capability to respond to such events”. Comparatively, little space is dedicated to working with foreign civilian institutions and NGOs.
The DoD discusses at length partnering with Asia and Oceanic states to improve their capacity to respond to humanitarian crises and natural disasters. Africa and South America are only briefly mentioned regarding the same topic. Clearly the disaster diplomacy that occurred in Asia after the tsunami is still part of the DoD’s institutional memory and is driving the focus on DoD health diplomacy in Asia as opposed to other regions.
Overall, the QDR offers a glimpse of a military shifting increasingly towards soft power while still hoping to maintain its traditional hard power focus. Whether they can achieve expertise in both will be the question of the decade.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.