The U.S. Senate finally confirmed Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins last week to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Her confirmation followed more than six months of delays in the Senate and bipartisan calls among security experts for her confirmation to go through so she could begin the urgent work of leading the State Department’s efforts on arms control and international security.
In addition to her other priorities, including ongoing talks with Russia over arms control, Jenkins also stated during her April testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, “If confirmed, I will strive to ensure that arms transfers and security assistance are focused on building values-based security partnerships.” She added that she would carefully consider nonproliferation, arms control, and human rights. This values-based approach would be welcome news, particularly for human rights, which are too often relegated to an afterthought in arms and security policies.
In the same testimony, Jenkins said she would also look strategically at how U.S. security assistance authorities are structured, balanced, and resourced across the departments of State and Defense, to ensure America’s tools, including security cooperation agreements, “are the most efficient for the U.S. taxpayer, and the most effective for U.S. national security.”
This focus on values and effectiveness would be a deeply needed correction to the current trajectory of U.S. security cooperation, which has largely failed to weigh the human rights and security risks of assistance to foreign security forces. For far too long, America’s security cooperation enterprise has prioritized short-term and tactical goals over longer-term diplomatic and human rights aims. This is how the United States arrived at policies that supported the Saudi-led coalition in the devastating bombing campaign in Yemen, prioritized military assistance to Egypt over its brutal treatment of citizens, and promoted over-militarized policies in the Sahel. Beyond that, U.S. security cooperation has been beset by uncoordinated and overlapping authorities and stovepiped efforts between the departments of State and Defense.
These troubling dynamics have played out nowhere more dramatically than in Afghanistan, America’s largest security assistance effort to date. U.S. security cooperation efforts there illustrate both the lack of cohesion between the State Department and the Pentagon and insufficient attention to the impact on civilians, such as when the U.S. military trained Afghan national police, who then acted more in line with a paramilitary force than civilian police meant to serve citizens.
Fortunately, Jenkins has decades of experience in arms control and is a Department of State veteran familiar with its bureaucracy, making her eminently qualified to address these challenges. (Full disclosure: she previously served on the board of my organization, the Center for International Policy.) Here are a few ways she and her team could improve security cooperation as she begins her new position:
- Increase transparency: Despite the steady expansion of U.S. support for foreign military and police forces around the world, the details of these programs remain largely obscured from the public. We at the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy manage the most comprehensive publicly available data on U.S. security assistance, arms sales, and foreign military training. But even these databases must rely on the information the departments of State and Defense and other U.S. government entities provide. Public reporting on information such as deliveries of arms sold by the U.S. government to foreign partners, proposed commercial arms transfers, and detailed breakdowns of the military aid and training provided to foreign security services across the globe remain troublingly scarce. Even if some information, such as proprietary commercial data and training details must remain private, there are better ways to share topline numbers that the public can use to understand the broad contours of this aid. A lack of good information means civil society is still unable to play its proper role in truly assessing the scope and impact of U.S. security cooperation. Jenkins could take steps to address that and to press the State Department to share more such information with civil society and the general public. After all, President Joe Biden committed earlier this year to bringing foreign policy in line with the highest standards of transparency.
- Identify and communicate values: Jenkins rightly called for values-based security partnerships. She and the bureaus that report to her could strengthen and deepen that commitment by articulating how the United States will adhere to its values when it comes to arms sales and arms control, including prioritizing human rights, civilian protection, and good governance, and assessing the impact on those priorities of security cooperation with foreign partners. How will the United States commit to those values? How will the U.S. government measure the impact of its security cooperation both tactically and strategically? And where is the United States willing to draw the line when shorter-term, tactical security aims come up against longer-term values, such as concerns over a security partner’s treatment of citizens? These are all critical questions to address.
- Consult Congress: Foreign policy-minded members of Congress who are also seeking to strengthen human rights and civilian protection in security cooperation can be powerful allies for the State Department in its efforts to work across government lines to strengthen U.S. efforts in this field. A bipartisan group of Senators — Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Bernie Sanders — last week introduced legislation that, in addition to other measures to strengthen Congress’s foreign policy role, especially in relation to war powers, would also require Congress to affirmatively approve certain kinds of higher-risk arms sales before they could proceed. Jenkins would do well to consult with these members and others on the Hill who have been studying these issues and can help modernize America’s approach to security cooperation.
- Avoid counterproductive arms buildups: There is a line of logic often repeated in alarmist tones in foreign policy circles that claims the United States must build up and sell more weapons at the expense of its other values, in order to counter the militaries of China, Russia, Iran, and other actors. This rhetoric, besides being untrue — the United States far outspends any of those potential antagonists in military terms — can heighten tensions and increase the odds that other countries will, in turn, hasten their own military expansions.
- Leverage civil society: Finally, Jenkins can achieve her goals by leveraging the knowledge and expertise of civil society in both the United States and overseas. By consulting with local civil society in particular, in the countries where the United States provides military aid, Jenkins and her colleagues at the Department of State can better consider the impact of U.S. security cooperation and the associated actions of the security forces with whom the United States partners. Weighing the effects on the populations served by military and police forces is essential to understanding the consequences of U.S. security policies and coming closer to an approach that embodies values-based partnerships, and thus truly strengthens national security for the long term.