WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday called for a spending increase in the budget of another federal agency, the State Department, to strengthen and rebuild America's ability to ply its "soft power" around the world.
In a lecture at Kansas State University, Gates argued that the United States must improve its ability to conduct diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance and economic reconstruction.
"We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military," Gates said at the university in Manhattan, Kan. "We must focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the years to come."
Gates compared the yearly defense appropriation -- at nearly $500 billion, not counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- with an annual State Department budget of $36 billion. He noted that even with new hires, there are 6,600 career U.S. diplomats, or "less than the manning for one aircraft carrier strike group."
Gates acknowledged that having a Defense secretary plead for money for another department could be seen as an improbable "man bites dog" story. And, he added, he plans to ask for still more money for his own agency next year.
But Gates also said that he believed increased spending for the State Department was even more important than additional defense spending.
"What is clear for me," Gates said, "is that there is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security."
The cuts in defense spending after World War I, World War II and the Cold War were a mistake, Gates argued. Accepting national "peace dividends" after those conflicts had left the country ill-prepared for subsequent crises, including the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.
Gates said it was an error to slash the size of the CIA and active-duty Army during the 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But he said it was "arguably more shortsighted" to gut the U.S. Information Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the ranks of American foreign service officers.
"Even as we throttled back," Gates said, "the world became more unstable, turbulent and unpredictable than in the Cold War years."
During the Vietnam War, Gates said, the U.S. eventually was able to integrate its reconstruction efforts with its military campaign, pacifying many hamlets in South Vietnam.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, the military has come to embrace nontraditional roles in helping teach locals how to govern and in overseeing rebuilding efforts. Although the Pentagon should retain those skills, Gates said the military was "no replacement for civilian involvement and expertise."
Lately, Gates noted, U.S. provincial reconstruction teams have begun to bring civilian expertise to Iraqis.
"Where they are on the ground, even in small numbers, we have seen tangible and often dramatic changes," he said.
But the so-called PRTs, Gates said, were created on an ad hoc basis, and the U.S. needs to find a way to institutionalize the ability of civilian agencies to work overseas.
Gates cautioned against the urge to undo past mistakes by trying to revive agencies that have shrunk and withered. Citing the post-World War II reorganization of the U.S. defense and intelligence apparatus through the National Security Act of 1947, Gates urged a new effort to advance the government's communications and reconstruction efforts.
"New institutions are needed for the 21st century," Gates said.