Integrating Diplomacy and Defense in the Indo-Pacific

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ADM Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), escorts U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson into PACOM Headquarters in Honolulu in August 2017. The author is third from the right. (Photo courtesy of PACOM)
ADM Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), escorts U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson into PACOM Headquarters in Honolulu in August 2017. The author is third from the right. (Photo courtesy of PACOM)

Integrating Diplomacy and Defense in the Indo-Pacific

In a world with increasingly complex political and security challenges, bridging the gap between diplomacy and defense is more vital than ever to U.S. foreign policy. Serving as a U.S. Department of State Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) to U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), I am proud to have one of the most dynamic and challenging jobs in the Foreign Service. 

U.S. Pacific Command’s area of responsibility encompasses about half the earth's surface, stretching from the waters off the west coast of the U.S. to the western border of India, and from Antarctica to the North Pole. Or as my colleagues like to say, “from Hollywood to Bollywood and from penguins to polar bears.” There are few regions as culturally, socially, economically, and geo-politically diverse as the Indo-Pacific. The 36 nations comprising the Indo-Pacific region are home to more than 50 percent of the world's population, 3,000 different languages, several of the world's largest militaries, and six U.S. treaty allies: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Republic of Philippines, Republic of Korea, and Thailand. Two of the three largest economies are located in the Indo-Pacific, along with 10 of the 14th smallest. Working as a diplomat at U.S. Pacific Command means a day in the office interacting with the most populous nation in the world (China), the world’s largest democracy (India), and the largest Muslim-majority nation (Indonesia). We also work to strengthen partnerships with smaller island nations that make up more than one third of the region’s nations, including the smallest republic in the world (Nauru) and the smallest nation in the Indo-Pacific (Maldives).

As a POLAD, I 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. At the same time, every day I find myself learning firsthand about the challenges and opportunities faced by senior military officers at higher headquarters within the United States and at forward-deployed commands around the world.

Nearly 90 POLADs from the Department of State like me 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. At the same time, a similar number of mid- to senior-level military officers are detailed as Military Advisors (MILADs) to bureaus throughout the Department of State, bringing a military perspective to diplomatic efforts while also learning about the processes and inner-workings of the Department of State.

Back in Washington, D.C., the Office of State-Defense Integration (SDI) in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) oversees this unique exchange of personnel between the Departments of State and Defense.

A map of where the Department’s almost 90 POLADs are assigned.

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.

U.S. Pacific Command’s ADM Harry Harris and Indian Ambassador to the United States Navtej Sarna prepare to embark on a Commander's Barge Tour of Pearl Harbor in August 2017. The author, Department of State Foreign Policy Advisor Du Tran, second from right (Photo courtesy of US PACOM)

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 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: Du Tran serves as a Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) at U.S. Pacific Command.

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

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Du Tran

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