Guard's SPP Bright Spot in U.S. Foreign Policy

Civil war in Syria, intelligence leaks, tenuous relations with foreign powers, and heated budget debates have created an aura of uncertainty and skepticism throughout the U.S. defense and intelligence community.

News stories often focus on conflict, not on quiet diplomacy and nation-building programs.

The National Guard operates a program that is worthy of attention for its positive impact around the globe.

The National Guard State Partnership Program is a 65-nation, 20-year-old program that pairs state Guard units with similar units in foreign countries. The SPP provides unique partnerships that showcase the Guard’s ability to effectively develop strong international partnerships at the “worker-bee” level. The SPP supports U.S. interests abroad by engaging nations that often are not at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, like Senegal, which was part of the President Barack Obama’s agenda during his visit to Africa.

There are currently eight partnerships between states and African nations:  California/Nigeria; Michigan/Liberia; New York/South Africa; North Carolina/Botswana; North Dakota/Ghana; Utah and South Carolina/Morocco; Vermont/Senegal; and Wyoming/Tunisia.  These partnerships pave the way for diplomatic discussions and agreements.

Speaking at last year’s NGAUS General Conference, Gen. Carter Ham, then the commander of U.S. Africa Command, said, “The greatest impact that the National Guard has on contributing to long-term stability in Africa is through the State Partnership Program. It fosters enduring, sustainable relationships between a state and its national leaders. These partnerships transcend politics. . . . They open the door to engagements in other areas that might not be possible without the State Partnership Program.”

Much of Africa has been riddled with bloody conflicts, destructive social policies and constant regime changes. Amid a struggling economy, many Americans are reluctant to pledge support to such troubled nations in the form of foreign aid. A 2011 Gallup poll showed 59 percent of Americans in favor of cutting U.S. foreign assistance budgets. 

The SPP is proof that foreign military engagement does not have to take the form of massive federal loans, arming rebel groups, no-fly zones or boots on the ground. Instead, the SPP offers military to civilian interactions—citizen-soldiers helping citizen-soldiers—rather than military-to-military engagements. For instance, the California National Guard is currently working with the Nigerian Air Force to improve its C-130 fleet.

Earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahue II, the current U.S. Africa Command boss, spoke at an SPP Conference for Africa in Warren, Mich. He noted the African states “can readily access a wide variety of skills and specialties, given the size and composition of states’ National Guard forces and the civilian skills that National Guard personnel bring to the table.”

The future of the SPP is bright. The House of Representatives recently codified the program in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, cementing its importance and tenants into law (found in H.R. 1960 Section 1204). It was a well-deserved milestone when the House took the initiative to support this unique and successful program.

Hopefully, the Senate will follow suit when the NDAA comes to the floor later this year. 

During an era of uncertain U.S. foreign policy, this Guard program, conducted by our brave and patriotic Guardsmen, will continue to build and maintain strong international partnerships. Peaceful engagements seem all too rare when thinking about national security and foreign policy.

The National Guard State Partnership Program is the model for promoting peace and partnership.

Adam Lutterloh is an intern in the NGAUS legislative department. He is working on his master’s degree at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

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