The Foreign Policy Advisor Program: Leveraging Diplomacy to Provide for a Smarter Defense

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Foreign Policy Advisor Bridget Gersten briefs U.S. and international military personnel.
Foreign Policy Advisor Bridget Gersten briefs U.S. and international military personnel. (U.S. Department of State photo)

The Foreign Policy Advisor Program: Leveraging Diplomacy to Provide for a Smarter Defense

In a world with increasingly complex political and security challenges, bridging the gap between diplomacy and defense is of vital importance to U.S. foreign policy. Global issues are increasingly interconnected and cross-cutting, with both political and military aspects, making it more important than ever to have an agile, adaptable approach to foreign policy that can quickly adjust to changing circumstances.

The Office of State-Defense Integration (SDI) in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) helps make such a goal attainable by facilitating an exchange of personnel between the Departments of State and Defense. Nearly 100 mid- to senior-level military officers are detailed as Military Advisors (MILADs) to bureaus throughout the Department, including PM; Counterterrorism; Conflict and Stabilization Operations; International Security and Nonproliferation; Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance; International Organizations; Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; and each regional bureau amongst others. These MILADs bring a fresh perspective to their offices while also learning about the processes and inner-workings of the Department of State.

A map of where the Department’s almost 100 POLADs are assigned.

Similarly, nearly 100 Foreign Policy Advisers (POLADs) from the Department of State are assigned to mid- to senior-level positions in the Department of Defense from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to each Geographic Combatant Command, with about one third serving in overseas assignments. POLADs help to bring a State Department perspective to military operations and ensure that commanders and other military staff benefit from the diplomatic expertise of Foreign Service Officers. They also gain firsthand experience of the challenges and opportunities faced by senior military officers at higher headquarters within the United States and at forward-deployed commands around the world.

These exchanges help to clarify how the Departments of State and Defense intersect and how they can collaborate more effectively. They help both agencies find answers to the practical, real world problems posed by day-to-day interagency cooperation so that they can respond more quickly and with greater agility in a crisis. Ultimately, POLADs and MILADs work to ensure that our foreign and defense policies are mutually supportive and find ways we can most effectively align our strategies.

The decision-making models and the focus of the Department of State and Department of Defense often differ. The Department of State focuses on policy and relationships, and considers both near- and long-term objectives when deciding on a course of action. The Department of Defense is more objective oriented, seeking to reach a desired end state with a clear path forward. Both methods are necessary for a successful national security policy, advancing U.S. strategic interests in complementary ways. POLADs and MILADs work at the center of this deliberative process and their varied experiences and perspectives are essential to its success.

The POLAD and MILAD exchange programs have been in operation for over fifty years, and have grown from only a handful of individual exchanges to almost 200 State and Defense positions combined. Those individuals who are fortunate enough to be selected are on the frontline of interagency collaboration, advancing U.S. national security interests on a daily basis.

About the Author: Kelly Reese is a student at Texas A&M University, who served as an intern in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.