#Reviewing Exporting Security: America’s Shift from Confrontation to Cooperation

On July 22, 2017, at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford, President Donald Trump called the brand-new aircraft carrier a "100,000-ton message to the world." He also reminded his audience that "American military might is second to none." To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, given America’s military dominance, does Washington even need allies?

According to Derek Reveron of the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University, it very much does. In the second edition of his comprehensive book on security cooperation, Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military, Reveron argues the security challenges America faces in the twenty-first century are so geographically dispersed and so politically complex they can only be solved in partnership with American allies.

Reveron believes that over the past two decades U.S. commanders quietly came to recognize this reality and transformed the military from “a force of confrontation to one of cooperation.” When a crisis erupts today, America responds “not by sending combat forces...but instead by sending weapons, trainers, and advisors.” In other words, it tries (and often succeeds) in finding allies whose interests are sufficiently close to those of the U.S. they are willing fight its wars. Reveron also points out a fact that few observers even bother to think about: in nearly every American Embassy there are American military personnel. They work in Security Cooperation Offices, little-known but crucially important organizations that fall under both the American Ambassador within the host nation as well as the Combatant Commander in the geographic area of operations. The full-time job of military personnel stationed within Security Cooperation Offices is to assess the host nation's capability gaps and figure out how to fill those gaps. Their work impacts high-level decision-makers in the country and region where they operate (such as the Ambassador and the Combatant Commander) as well as policymakers in Washington.

Filling a foreign country's military capability gaps normally implies exporting American arms and training—or, in the euphemistic parlance of the U.S. government, supplying recipients with defense articles and services. On any given day, thousands of American advisors, trainers, planners, and technical experts—flown in on a rotational-basis—can be found scattered around the world filling these gaps: training border guards to enhance border security; transferring military equipment; providing technical assistance on the latest combat aircraft; and organizing and leading multinational exercises on the high-seas to make foreign armies, navies, and air forces stronger, and preferably more interoperable with America’s armed forces.

In general, the U.S. military aims to train others to enable them to fight in furtherance of both their own and America's interests. There is no pure altruism in international relations. Security cooperation is a critical instrument of American statecraft. Thus the U.S. provides allies with military training and equipment in western and northern Europe to deter Russia, in Asia to balance China, in Latin America to fight organized crime, in the Persian Gulf to counter Iranian influence, and the Middle East to degrade terrorist networks. Because it is an ally-rich country, and those allies often have interests in line with those of the U.S., America can count on other nations—with a bit of help from Washington—to carry out the aforementioned tasks.

A U.S. Special Forces trainer supervises a military assault drill for a unit within the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in Nzara. (Andreea Campean/Reuters)

Reveron argues America’s approach to security cooperation has been largely effective. He points out that over the past few decades the U.S. military has brought twelve countries in Europe up to NATO standards, thereby bolstering U.S. prospects for containing Russian expansionism. In the Balkans, he believes security cooperation has built military forces in Kosovo and Bosnia that, along with the presence of international peacekeeping troops, have prevented the powder keg of Europe from erupting. He also points out that from South America to Southeast Asia American military aid has helped Colombia, the Philippines, and other states effectively confront insurgencies, terrorism, and transnational organized crime.

A shortcoming of the book is that it underestimates the failures of U.S. train-and-equip efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reveron writes, “...security cooperation enabled the 100,000-person U.S. force in Afghanistan to add 50,000 more from coalition partners and train and equip another 350,000 from Afghanistan.” On paper, these numbers are impressive, but in practice they have fallen short of attaining the strategic objectives of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and now Resolute Support Mission Afghanistan (RSMA) commanders. Time and again, in the most crucial moments, American-trained foreign forces in these two critical battlefields either lost (even dropping their weapons and running when faced with much smaller adversaries) or turned American weapons on U.S. troops (as happened more recently in Afghanistan). The book would have benefited from a more critical analysis of how and why such efforts did not succeed, though it is worth noting these efforts were undertaken in Afghanistan under organizational constructs different than that might have been in other locations (e.g., absent a security cooperation and at levels out of scope for most such offices).

Overall, Reveron makes a compelling case that the majority of activities currently carried out by many American servicemembers are of an advisory—rather than a combat—nature. (The two roles may not be mutually exclusive, as is the case with Foreign Internal Defense, which includes a spectrum of advisory missions, from those not involving combat to direct support involving combat.) But the reader is left wondering whether, in this regard, the American military in 2017 is an historic anomaly or whether there are precedents.

At his confirmation hearing and later at a security conference in Asia, Defense Secretary James Mattis stated, “History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.” The book would have benefited from discussing how, for example, during the mid-Roman Republic (338 to 388 BC) Roman consular armies had more foreigners than Roman citizens fighting in infantry and cavalry units during campaigns. Similarly, during the Napoleonic wars (1803 to 1815), Poles, Italians, Spanish, and other non-French forces fought in vast numbers and for different reasons for Imperial France. During the same period, the British government spent as much money financing hundreds of thousands of Austrians, Prussians, and Russians to fight Imperial France as it spent on its own Royal Navy. Most great military powers of the past were not islands entirely of themselves: they needed allies to help uphold the transnational systems they helped create in order to land political legitimacy to them and to provide material support, sometimes as badly as the allies needed the great powers to protect them. Reveron makes this argument, but his book would have benefited from adding more historical examples and comparing modern-day U.S. security cooperation with how great powers trained and equipped foreign forces in the past.

Exporting Security’s greatest strengths lie in the size and scope of its research. Reveron examines how the various Combatant Commands and the military services (i.e., the entire Joint Force) conduct security cooperation across the globe, and he also describes how diplomats and national security officials aim to use this important instrument of American foreign policy. During 2010 and 2011, I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and observed tangentially, truly from the sidelines, how security cooperation played out on the ground. Following the news, I noticed how strongly the Iraqi government was asking the United States for F-16 fighters.[1] At the time, it seemed to me that our own diplomats, and especially our political-military leaders, faced undue resistance from the bureaucracy, particularly in this case from the Total Package Approach. Under the Total Package Approach, we seek our allies and partners to not only purchase the aircraft they want but also the logistics and training package. While the approach does make sense in many cases, it can also be financially infeasible to some of our partners, and in many cases it does not make sense strategically, especially when a partner government has insurgents or terrorists knocking on its doorstep. In the case of Iraq, it seemed we were putting aside our strategic interests to satisfy bureaucratic demands. Ultimately, the first batch of F-16s (four of them in total) were delivered to the Iraqi Air Force, but only in July 2015—over a year after the Islamic State had already taken over Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi. Our adversaries (Russia and Iran) had meanwhile delivered jets and helicopters to the Iraqi Air Force a year before we did; of course, this did not prevent the losses of Mosul, Fallujah, or Ramadi, but one does wonder what it does for long-term relations between states.

Iraq’s Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi sits in a F-16, during an official ceremony to receive four aircraft from the U.S. at a military base in Balad, Iraq, July 20, 2015. (Reuters)

Watching this unfold from the sidelines, I decided to do my doctoral research on the topic of security cooperation. During my ownn research, I was surprised at the dearth of material that exists on the subject, especially in a post-Cold War context. A few narrow studies of the subject did come up—focused on U.S. security cooperation with one country (e.g., with India) or in the context of one specific service (e.g., the U.S. Air Force)—but Reveron is one of the few academics who comprehensively examine how the United States trains and equips foreign militaries across the globe. It looks at how the U.S. conducts security assistance from top to bottom and inside out.

Reveron’s Exporting Security is best read alongside the other few modern analytical works examining the effectiveness and limits of U.S. security cooperation across the globe. One such work is Security Cooperation and Assistance: Rethinking the Return on Investment, by Dafna Rand and Stephen Tankel of the security think-tank CNAS. But Exporting Security can also be read as a standalone book, geared primarily for policymakers, especially officials in the Departments of State and Defense and the National Security Council. Security cooperation will continue to be an incredibly important instrument of American foreign policy, but it is often not very well understood in those agencies, and even fewer individuals know how the machinery of this instrument works. Reveron’s book provides an overview of all of these issues.

Oleg Svet is a defense analyst. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the historic impact of security cooperation on the Iraqi armed forces between 1968 and 1990. The views expressed in this review are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government or the author’s employer.

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Header Image: A guest instructor debriefs students from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School after afield training exercise. (R.J. Stratchko/U.S. Navy)


[1] It is useful to consider why nations without a substantial external threat from conventional militaries might pursue such conventional technologies. One interesting exploration this phenomenon is given in Dana P. Eyre and Mark C. Suchman, "Status, Norms, and the Proliferation of Conventional Weapons: An Institutional Theory Approach," in The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. Peter J. Katzenstein (New York, NY; Columbia University Press, 1996), 79-113.