Crowding Out Diplomacy

How the mantra of “no military solutions” makes it more difficult to resolve conflicts

Shortly after President Biden announced he’d end support for offensive Saudi military operations in Yemen, appointed a veteran diplomat as special envoy to the country, and took them of America’s terrorism sanctions list, Yemen’s Houthis launched a renewed offensive aimed at seizing the province of Marib.  State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a statement calling on the Houthis to cease their offensive and head to the negotiating table. He concluded with a refrain that’s become all-too familiar in progressive foreign policy circles and among international diplomats: “There is no military solution.”

As a matter of fact, there are no purely military or diplomatic solutions to the conflicts many in the United States hope to bring to an end. If it does not take the balance of military power into account, diplomacy intended to end a conflict may prove ineffective at best and could well prolong it at worst. That’s not at all to say that the United States or any other country should necessarily intervene militarily in a given conflict to tip the balance of power in one way or another. But it does mean that American diplomacy needs to take military and security considerations seriously if it wants to be effective – or at least mitigate the unintended consequences involved in certain diplomatic moves that fail to do so.

The mantra of “no military solutions” contains a large grain of truth: even World War II ended with formal German and Japanese acceptance of Allied terms, after all. But in general, it amounts to an intellectual shortcut that prevents us from thinking clearly about the complicated security involved in resolving conflicts – and what the United States could do to help answer them. Like “ending endless wars,” it’s a foreign policy cliché that we ought to discard if we truly want to address the difficult political and policy issues at hand. 

Let’s start with the reality that the “no military solution” mantra crowds out serious thinking about security considerations and balances of military power that often determine whether or not a given conflict can be brought to a lasting end. The Assad regime in Syria, for instance, clearly believes it can slaughter its way to survival by any means necessary. Likewise, the Taliban in Afghanistan seems to think it can seize power in Kabul through armed force. Same goes for Vladimir Putin, who appears convinced that Russia can use force to achieve its geopolitical goals in eastern Ukraine.

But when we conceive of military force and diplomacy as intrinsically opposed to one another rather than simply different facets of power, we wind up with inaccurate analyses of conflicts and formulate inadequate policies to resolve them. Indeed, diplomacy cannot succeed if it fails to take into account the balance of military power on the battlefields of a given conflict – or how shifts in that balance of power affect the perceptions, concerns, and goals of various parties to the conflict. Insisting that there’s no military solution to a given conflict only blinds us to this sad reality and narrows American diplomatic options.  

Take the recent Houthi assault on Marib, for example. The State Department, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, and the International Crisis Group all correctly observe that this offensive only sets back diplomacy. But they don’t take into account that when the Houthis can take what they want through force, a negotiated settlement isn’t a priority for them. Worse, a Houthi seizure of Marib would likely make Saudi Arabia even less willing to contemplate a negotiated end to its own military intervention in Yemen. 

It’s a tragic dynamic that’s led one Yemeni observer to call for “one big military operation – well-planned, well-executed – to push the Houthis far enough from Marib so that they don’t pose a threat to the city in the future.” Given the Saudi military’s extraordinarily poor track record, there’s no reason to believe that it could pull off such an operation – even with American help. But if nothing can stop the Houthis from taking what they want through force, it’s hard to see how diplomacy stands a chance of achieving a stable and lasting end to Yemen’s multiple conflicts all on its own.

Much the same could be said for Syria, where the Assad regime’s murderous pursuit of a military solution to the country’s civil war has only been temporarily stymied by the threat or use of force by the United States and Turkey. There may be no purely military solution to Syria’s civil war – or any armed conflict, for that matter – but denying parties to these conflicts the ability to seek military solutions of their own could well prove critical to successful diplomacy. 

It’s something American political leaders and policymakers used to understand as recently as the conflicts in the Balkans. But after 9/11 and the war in Iraq, military force and diplomacy came to be seen as polar opposites – and not without reason. While diplomat Richard Holbrooke took the lead in American efforts to end Bosnia’s civil war in the mid-1990s, for instance, he found himself demoted to the “wingman” of Gen. David Petraeus when he served as President Obama’s Afghanistan envoy. Military power became “hard,” while diplomacy became “soft” – and ideas about “integrated” and “smart” power reinforced this false intellectual dichotomy even as they tried to overcome it. 

Instead of thinking clearly about how military force and diplomacy can be reconnected in both theory and practice, however, we’ve come to deny that one has anything to do with the other. We undercut diplomacy when we deceive ourselves about the nature of the task at hand, especially when those directly involved believe they can get what they want through continued use of military force. Denial of this reality only hinders diplomacy, making it more difficult to actually resolve conflicts.

If we’re serious about ending conflicts through diplomacy, we need to seriously consider how military force and diplomacy affect one another – and that’s not possible if we dismiss a large variable in these complicated foreign policy equations before we even start thinking about them.