The cult of the persuasive: The organizational origins of US strategy in military assistance

  • Spring 2020
The cult of the persuasive: The organizational origins of US strategy in military assistance

Rachel Tecott is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Her research interests include US grand strategy, military strategy, security force assistance, and civil-military relations. Before attending MIT, Rachel studied nuclear proliferation and worked in political risk consulting.

SPRING 2020 : précis Student Feature : Rachel Tecott
Rachel Tecott and photo of soldiers in Iraq
May 19, 2020

In June 2014, nineteen Iraqi Army brigades collapsed at the hands of a few hundred Islamic state fighters in pickup trucks.1 The disaster was less a testament to the strength of the Islamic State than to the weakness of the Iraqi Army, and, by extension, to the failure of a vast military assistance program that absorbed billions of dollars and occupied thousands of personnel for more than a decade. Why, despite the colossal effort, did the United States fail to build an Iraqi Army capable of providing security in Iraq?

The collapse of the Iraqi Army is the most vivid contemporary illustration of the United States’ persistent struggle with military assistance. In 1936, General Douglas MacArthur (with the assistance of Major Dwight Eisenhower) set about building the Philippine Army from the ground up. In 1942, President Roosevelt sent General Joseph Stilwell (“Vinegar Joe”) to professionalize the Chinese army to face Imperial Japan. The US dismantled and rebuilt the militaries of Germany and Japan in the wake of WWII, supported the Greek military during the Greek Civil War, rebuilt the Korean military after Japanese withdrawal, and hemorrhaged cash and equipment in the ill-fated effort to professionalize the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

The United States’ long record building militaries in partner states is decidedly mixed. Though efforts in Greece and South Korea bore fruit, efforts failed in South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The spotty results do not appear to have dampened US enthusiasm for the project. Between 1999 and 2016, the US trained some 2,390,080 trainees from almost every country in the world.2 And the US is not the only player in the game. The US encourages its allies to strengthen the militaries in their own backyards, and gazes warily on as the People’s Liberation Army trains and equips soldiers around the world. 

Although military assistance has emerged a core competency of the US military, a central pillar of US foreign policy, and a ubiquitous feature of international relations, the international relations literature to-date remains largely silent on the subject.3

My research seeks to explain why the United States sometimes succeeds but more often fails to build stronger militaries in partner states. 

Framing the challenge

For a long while, the conventional wisdom within government around military assistance could have been summed up in one word: more. More money, more training, and more equipment were considered the keys to more military competence in recipient states.4 The disappointing results in Iraq and Afghanistan despite enormous expenditures have forced interrogation of this conviction. 

Indeed, faith in “more” belies a mature academic literature showing that military effectiveness depends not only on what states have—or what they receive—but on what states do with what they have. Political and military leaders up and down the chain of command may have access to resources but misallocate them, they may have large populations but implement personnel practices that fail to bring the best and brightest to key commands, they may have advanced equipment but neglect to invest in sustainment. Patterns of decisions around personnel, training, command structures, and information management shape performance on the battlefield.5

And leaders may not always choose wisely. Civilian and military leaders may be deeply committed to building a more competent military, and yet lack the expertise to make the optimal decisions. Alternatively, civilian and military leaders may make suboptimal decisions around personnel, training, command structures, information management, and doctrine, not in error, but in pursuit of parallel or even directly competing objectives. For instance, political leaders may be more interested in reducing the risk of a coup than in building stronger militaries, and employ personnel practices intended to ensure loyalty rather than competence on the battlefield.6 Some military leaders may seek opportunities for personal enrichment, and happily pocket the salaries of AWOL soldiers rather than seek to inspire esprit de corps or impose discipline. 

The problem of motivation is often particularly acute in the nations selected by the United States for the largest scale military assistance projects. In a textbook illustration of adverse selection, the United States tends to provide the most assistance to the nations with the weakest militaries—these are often nations whose leaders are less than deeply committed to building stronger militaries. 

The central challenge for military assistance providers, then, is influence over the political-military decisions of recipients. The United States builds stronger militaries in partner states when it successfully encourages recipient leaders to implement and sustain professional military organizational practices. Often, however, recipient leaders take US cash and equipment but ignore US guidance, and continue to prioritize coup-proofing, rent-seeking, or other objectives that undermine the professionalization of the armed forces. 

Strategies of Influence

What strategies of influence does the United States employ to encourage military assistance recipients to implement professional military organizational practices? 

Both the alliance management literature and the nascent military assistance literature emphasize bargaining—the conditional application (and promise) of carrots and sticks tied to compliance and defiance.7 According to the assumptions underpinning both literatures, the United States employs a bargaining strategy to shape behavior, and fails to build stronger militaries in partner states when it lacks the bargaining power necessary to shape recipient decision-making. Bargaining is not, however, the only strategy of influence the United States employs to shape the behavior of allies and partners, nor is it even the United States’ preferred strategy of influence in military assistance. Indeed, bargaining is actively discouraged in military assistance doctrine. FM 31-20-3, for instance, admonishes advisors against using “bribery or coercion, since results achieved from these actions are only temporary."8

The preferred strategy of influence in US military assistance is persuasion. Persuasion is an umbrella strategy of influence that encompasses at least four distinct tactics. US servicemembers (1) engage in conversations and debates with recipient leaders designed to convince them to comply; (2) demonstrate “what right looks like” to inspire counterpart emulation; (3) provide no-strings inducements intended to lead to reciprocation; and (4) build relationships in hopes that personal rapport and trust will encourage concessions. 

The preference for persuasion is clear in US military assistance doctrine and practice. FM 3-22, for instance, counsels personnel developing partner militaries to “accomplish their mission by building relationships and rapport with [local forces], motivating and influencing them to accomplish tasks.” It is through “their interpersonal skills [that they will] positively affect the actions and decisions of their counterparts and work toward shared goals. The measure of effective rapport is whether Soldiers can inspire foreign counterparts to take the desired action and guide them to succeed.” In service of rapport-building, FM 3-22 further instructs advisors to study human nature, to study the particularities of the host-nation culture, to “smile often,” to “remember and use people’s names, encourage others to talk about themselves, listen to others, discuss what the other person is interested in, and make the other person feel important.” The manual cautions: “It is important to remember that genuine rapport is developed slowly, but it can be ruined in an instant.”9

Practice appears to match doctrine. From commanding generals down to embedded military advisors, the strategy of influence US servicemembers usually employ to shape recipient decisions is not bargaining, but persuasion. Succinctly summarizing the theory of influence through relationships that guided US military assistance in Iraq, former Coalition Military Assistance Transition Team (CMATT) commanding general Brigadier General James Schwitters explained: “We needed people who were temperamentally and experientially trained to go in, put their arms around a bunch of folks and develop relationships from which they could then influence action and behavior and develop capabilities.”10 Embedded American advisors generally practiced what their doctrine, training, and commanding officers preached.

Persuasion does not appear to be an effective strategy of influence in military assistance. Conversely, the exercise of leverage is positively associated with improved recipient military organizational practices and stronger recipient militaries.11 Earlier US efforts to strengthen partner militaries relied more liberally on bargaining, and tended to produce better results. Contemporary military assistance largely eschews bargaining, relies almost exclusively on persuasion, and has generally produced poor results. 

The cult of the persuasive

Why does the United States lean so heavily on a strategy of influence that has proven largely ineffective? 

My research suggests organizational ideology at work. Just as the European militaries embraced the “cult of the offensive12 in years before WWI, the US military has embraced what may be called the “cult of the persuasive” in contemporary military assistance. Like the cult of the offensive, the cult of the persuasive is an organizational ideology characterized by normative beliefs blind to conflicting norms, and efficacy beliefs impervious to conflicting information. The normative belief is that persuasion is the appropriate strategy to influence allies, partners, and friends, whereas “bribery,” “transactionality,” “coercion,” and “bullying” should be reserved for adversaries. The efficacy belief is the conviction—sticky despite all evidence to the contrary—that persuasion is a more effective strategy of influence than bargaining.

Like other military doctrines and ideologies, the cult of the persuasive is strengthened, formalized, promulgated, and perpetuated through a variety of mechanisms including standard operating procedures (SOPs), training courses, doctrine, statements by influential military leaders, and bar-room conversations. 

The cult of the persuasive serves the interests of the US military, which has no organizational incentive to adapt. A persuasive approach to military assistance reduces the risk of conflagrations with partners that could spark the attention of and precipitate intrusion by civilian leaders. The military can generate the metrics necessary to claim progress, even while acutely aware of the rot within the militaries it builds. All throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the US military presented metrics to the executive and legislative branches—e.g. number of partner soldiers who graduated from basic training, training hours completed, etc.—designed to create the appearance of progress to the untrained (or uninterested) civilian eye. The persuasive approach also creates a permission structure for failure (consider the refrain “it is up to Iraqis to build Iraq”). 

In short, an important factor undermining United States efforts to build stronger militaries in partner states is the powerful—and powerfully sticky—organizational ideology of the United States military. So long as the White House and the Congress continue to grant the military the autonomy and the resources to perpetuate military assistance projects without serious evaluation (equipment distributed and hours trained are inadequate measures), the military will have no incentive to reform its approach, the cult of the persuasive is likely to persist, and US military assistance projects are likely to fail.


1 Michael Knights, “The Long Haul: Rebooting US Security Cooperation in Iraq,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, (2015).

2 Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, key recipients of US training included Colombia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Mexico. See Theodore McLauchlin, Lee J.M. Seymour, Simon Pierre Boulange-Martel, “Tracking the Rise of US Foreign Military Training: A New Dataset,” unpublished working paper, available upon request.

3 For important exceptions, see Mara Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018); Stephen Biddle, Julia MacDonald, and Ryan Baker, “Small Footprint, Small Payoff: the Military Effectiveness of Security Force Assistance,” Journal of Strategic Studies, (2017); and Eli Berman and David Lake, Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence through Local Agents (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).

4 Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States, p. 2.

5 Caitlin Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (New York: Cornell University Press, 2015).

6 Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army.

7 Glenn Snyder, Alliance Politics (Ithaca: Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 1997), pp. 165-200. Snyder’s “Alliance Management” chapter remains the most extended treatment of alliance management in what is still a surprisingly thinly theorized area of international relations.

8 Department of the Army, FM 31-20-3: Foreign Internal Defense Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Special Forces (Washington, DC: GPO 1994), I-3, cited in Biddle et. al, “Small Footprint, Small Payoff,” p. 116.

9 Department of the Army, FM 3-22: Army Support to Security Cooperation (Washington, DC: US GPO, 2013).

10 Interview with Steven Clay, Operational Leadership Experiences, with Brigadier General James Schwitters, 13 December 2006.

11 See for instance Biddle, MacDonald, and Baker, “Small Footprint, Small Payoff;” and Berman and Lake, Proxy Wars.

12 See Stephen van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War,” International Security Vol. 9, No. 1 (1984): pp. 58-107.