“We’re not only expected to fight like soldiers, but to act like diplomats.”

I let the words hang in the air for a few seconds, hoping a dramatic pause would help them sink in.

My hopes were dashed by the blank looks on my soldiers’ faces. The awkward silence was deafening, only to be rendered comical by the loud smacking sound of one of my grenadiers chewing gum.

“So instead of conducting a usual cordon while the commander and I meet with the village elder,” I continued, doing my best to convey a sense of conviction, “we need you guys to mingle with the local population. Talk with the people. Shake some hands. Practice some diplomacy.”

A collective groan arose from the room. Several of my soldiers shook their heads in dismay. I couldn’t blame them. As a son of two foreign service officers, I felt like I had an idea of what diplomats looked like. As a newly minted platoon leader, I knew my soldiers and I had a long way to go.

“But, sir,” called out the gum-chewing grenadier, “We’re infantrymen, what do we know about diplomacy?”

I paused a few moments, inadvertently helping the salience of his question sink in.

Nothing yet, I thought mournfully. But we’ll have to learn. And quickly.

Several years and two wars later, the expectation that national security practitioners be well versed in the professions of their interagency partners is more prevalent than ever. And given the advent of a new, complex era of great-power competition, this demand could not be more relevant. But despite the vital role played by whole-of-government cooperation in the projection of American power, it has yet to reach its full potential. To do so, those working to develop the United States’ new strategic approach must adopt a philosophy of grassroots empowerment. Divining a new strategy for applying America’s instruments of statecraft may be vital to the nation’s success, but it is only half the battle. What remains is the need to empower those who convert strategy into action.

In order to quit carrying on with business as usual, practitioners must be empowered to achieve a level of interagency familiarity and cooperation that reaches far and wide across the national security establishment and extends deep into the halls of mid-level management. If they are to achieve a new level of success, interagency partners must be able to empathize with one another across institutional boundaries, leverage each other’s capabilities, and apply tailor-made, whole-of-government solutions. Only then can they hope to bypass the inevitable hurdles that bureaucracies produce and truly meet the nation’s strategic objectives.

The Need for Interagency Interoperability

When the US military talks about interoperability, it’s typically in reference to the separate armed services, as well as those of allies and partners, being able to operate together. There’s another form that will be deeply important in order for the United States to compete with rivals and adversaries in the future: interagency interoperability.

The good news is the baseline for empowering national security practitioners to work across agency boundaries already exists. The agencies responsible for wielding America’s instruments of statecraft have all enshrined their raisons d’être within the documents that drive their everyday operations. Foundationally, the National Security Council is responsible for the development and publication of the president’s National Security Strategy. In turn, the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) act within the scope of their Joint Strategic Plan. The Department of Defense follows the National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy, among others. For its part, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence uses the National Intelligence Strategy to guide the country’s intelligence community. And the list goes on.

But having a baseline is not enough. Its dissemination through the national security establishment inevitably leads to a protracted game of “telephone” across innumerable layers of rank and file. What started as a clearly defined set of policy goals can easily fall victim to tribal barriers, territorial rivalries, and bureaucratic stove-piping. This is only natural, as people are inclined to establish hierarchies and processes that enable both efficiency and effectiveness. But it can also result in unfortunate miscommunications, losses of initiative, and impediments to success.

This is not a new problem, as shown by the red tape that stifled interagency cooperation in the years leading up to 9/11. And in the two decades since, many steps have been taken to break down barriers within the national security enterprise. However encouraging these efforts might seem, though, they must be extended more widely. Many military officers can spend their entire careers never interacting with an employee of the State Department until forced to do so operationally, when it matters. According to DoD joint doctrine, military commanders conducting stability operations in a conflict zone are expected to work directly with the State Department and the host nation while managing the transition “from military to civilian program management,” and yet the lack of opportunities for even basic familiarization beforehand leaves them poorly prepared to do so.

Likewise, many State Department foreign service officers’ interactions with DoD personnel are mostly limited to military attachés assigned to US embassies, who are often senior officers. Yet not only are career foreign service officers expected to collaborate with DoD entities, but in their interactions with foreign interlocutors they represent the full gamut of America’s national security interests, including those in which the military is a primary stakeholder.

The interdependence between agencies in the national security enterprise is obvious, which only emphasizes that those routinely entrusted with practicing national security must be afforded the opportunity to build mutual understanding early on in their careers, long before the habits of culture and experience set in.

A Common Enterprise Culture

What is lacking at the institutional level, among the ranks of the national security enterprise’s mid-level managers, is a common atmosphere in which all parties have an important level of familiarity with their counterparts and can reach across boundaries for collaboration. Interestingly, this problem is similar to one the military itself faced not long ago. Prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, the separate branches of the military suffered from cultural barriers, which came into sharp relief after the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1979. The act was aimed, in part, to encourage and enable members of the different branches to see one another as belonging to the same joint force. We need a similar spirit of jointness across interagency lines today.

The potential for this concept to exist at the enterprise level is evident in recent history. Two decades of fighting asymmetric networks of nonstate actors across the globe have demonstrated that various departments involved in national security can cooperate and succeed.

And now that the United States is facing off against near-peer competitors who are content to “operate below the level of conventional military conflict,” it must double-down on a proven method and scale it globally.

At a bare minimum, separate agencies should infuse their early-career education and training programs with in-depth instruction on the mission, functions, and capabilities of interagency partners with whom they can expect to work.

Military officers, as future representatives of the US government abroad, should learn about the role of the State Department and USAID, for example, including the need to nest their interactions with the local population directly within the intent of the local US ambassador. Cultural sensitivity missteps and misrepresentations of foreign policy interests can have catastrophic effects on bilateral relationships. A cursory knowledge of the local US diplomatic mission’s interests and efforts can go a long way in avoiding faux pas and even create inroads for future State Department successes.

Foreign service officers preparing to serve in US embassies abroad could similarly undergo a familiarization course on the role of the military, to include US geographic combatant commands, Special Forces advisory missions, and security cooperation initiatives. This will only underscore their ability to represent the enterprise as a whole, and further enable them to collaborate with their DOD counterparts when the need arises.

The pay-off of investing in practitioners’ interagency education long before they are asked to perform—of generating a degree of familiarity with partner agencies’ cultures and even vocabularies—cannot be overstated. Interdepartmental instructor exchanges would go even further in instituting a baseline of mutual understanding prior to practitioners beginning their work.

Another step would be to increase the scope of interagency exchanges beyond exclusive fellowships and one-off requests. Navy logisticians could be assigned to USAID global response teams. Foreign service officers could conduct rotations with Army civil affairs units. Air Force physicians could serve as regional medical officers for US embassies. These exchanges would all occur at the junior or mid-grade level, ensuring lessons learned would spread among those putting strategy into practice.

Instrumental to this effort’s success would be its evolution from a rare career opportunity to an ordinary career expectation. Just as certain professional milestones are expected of practitioners for promotion, so should experience with another department be expected of officers who hope to graduate from practitioner to senior leader.

Working as a Unified Enterprise

The positive dividends of eliminating a cultural disparity within the national security enterprise are not only a strengthened understanding of each other’s capabilities, but also a tendency to promote their cross-functionality.

Too often, self-imposed limitations act as an excuse for bureaucratic rigidity. Too often, solutions are neglected because of a practitioner’s lack of familiarity with policy, or a lack of trust between entities hailing from different agencies. This leads to desperate efforts to protect “equities.” Meanwhile, while different teams jockey for supremacy, problems go unsolved, and America’s national security interests remain unattended.

But teammates who know each other, appreciate one another’s perspectives, and have suffered through crucibles together are much more likely to solve difficult problems together.

For years this mentality has existed on a smaller scale and yielded national security “wins.” Twenty years of interagency teams working together during America’s post-9/11 wars serve as one example. The inherently joint nature of DoD special operations forces is another. And US embassies provide excellent examples of an ideal interagency microcosm: a team of diverse practitioners, working for a direct representative of the president, all leveraging one another’s resources under the banner of unified action.

The challenge to be met now is devising steps to reproduce these types of successes on a larger scale. By breaking down bureaucratic barriers and encouraging cross-functionality, interagency practitioners will be able to tailor solutions to the demands of the problem, rather than struggling to apply ready-made answers in a vacuum.

In an era when the resurgence of great-power competition necessitates a new strategic approach, America can hardly afford to rely on old philosophies and expect different results. It must, instead, scale its successes globally and encourage their replication across the national security enterprise. By empowering its national security practitioners with an expanded understanding of their collective potential, the United States can trust them to be ingenious, creative, and adaptive when strategy must be turned into action.

Looking back on that fateful moment with my soldiers years ago, the grenadier’s question—“What do we know about diplomacy?”—still sticks with me. I can’t quite remember how I answered it back then. Given my lack of preparedness, it probably wasn’t anything remarkable.

But when the question comes up again—and it will—I hope my successors will have been prepared for it, educated and trained by an interagency system that recognizes the importance of grassroots interoperability.


Emmanuel C. Gfoeller is a US Army officer currently stationed in Washington, DC. A graduate of West Point, he has served tours of duty in Japan, South Korea, and Afghanistan. Emmanuel’s work has previously been published in Real Clear Defense.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any organization or institution with which the author is affiliated.