Engineering as an Instrument of National Power

To understand how we might make America great again in the world of international affairs, it is instructive to explore our engineering heritage and how it might reinvigorate our posture on the global scene. 

By Dr. Christopher K.Tucker 

It seems that America has forgotten what once made it great, both at home and abroad.  America used to be a nation of builders, engineering a future that advanced American interests and principles.  Early Americans explored and mapped the frontiers, and engineered all manner of “internal improvements” that laid the groundwork for the American Century. On the international scene, America has a long, rich history of helping partner nations build capacity in support of our collective stability, security, growth, liberty and democracy.  But, somewhere along the line, the American national security establishment suffered a sort of institutional amnesia, forgetting the engineering foundations that made the Pax Americana possible.  To understand how America found itself in this spot, it is instructive to explore our current conceptions of American grand strategy.





Some think that engineering is simply a subset of the economic instrument of

national power. History tells us otherwise.



For years, the continuous repartee in Washington about “American Grand Strategy” has generated much heat but shed little light.  In this debate, the characterizations of our core national interests and our desired end state have been broad enough for nearly any agenda.  At the same time, the characterizations of our instruments of national power have demonstrated a kind of institutional amnesia about what made America strong and established America as a dominant force for good on the global scene.  Since grand strategy seeks the seamless integration and synchronization of all aspects and instruments of national power so to achieve the desired end state, this dual deficit has left our collective discussion on grand strategy wonting.

 Perhaps some clarity can be achieved by exploring how we define and use the term “instruments of national power.” These “instruments” are those tools that each country uses in order to shape the international environment to its advantage by influencing other countries, international organizations, non-state actors, and corporations.  In the United States, Congress mandates that the president lay out how they plan to use these instruments of national power to achieve national security objectives in a National Security Strategy (NSS).

The standard reference for describing the “whole of government” range of instruments of national power is summarized by the acronym “DIME”: Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic. These four instruments are surely essential to the art of statecraft. 

 First, diplomacy is our primary conduit for engaging other nations, international institutions, and populations around the world.  Second, it is essential that we shape the informational landscape of our national security environment to our advantage, thereby protecting and advancing American principles and interests abroad.  Third, constituting a military capability that can both deter and/or compel our enemies, while also shaping Phase 0 environments through security sector assistance, is key to quelling those who would oppose American principles and interests by force.  And fourth, our nation must wield the economic instrument of power so as to ensure free access to markets, predict and prevent economic and financial crises, and to encourage economic growth. Some have advocated for the addition of Financial, Intelligence and Legal instruments of national power (DIME-FIL), which are also essential to the art of statecraft, and welcome additions.

However, what if this complement of instruments of national power was necessary but not sufficient?  What if they all were predicated upon another instrument of national power that is so ingrained in our modern way of thinking that we fundamentally fail to recognize it, organize and resource it, and then wield it to our advantage?  This has been the case for a long time.  But, what could be so ingrained in our modern way of thinking as to be invisible to national security decision-makers?  What is the capability on which the success of the United States, and other developed nations is predicated?

In short, the missing piece is engineering. It is the ability to engineer our landscapes with infrastructure, and the built environments that depend on this infrastructure, that is a fundamental instrument of national power.  It is what people around the developing world and in conflict zones yearn for, but which we in the developed world take for granted, and forget to properly resource in our adventures abroad.

It is easy for those of us in the developed world to forget about the infrastructure that provides us potable water and separates our wastewater from our storm water. The prime power generation and distribution that brings us the electricity needed for nearly every facet of modern life is often invisible to us—at least until a power outage occurs.  Freedom of mobility, at great speed and over great distances, whether for freight or for passengers, is simply an assumption of modern life, due to widespread transportation infrastructure.  And, our ability to avoid travel over great distances in order to communicate is predicated upon the engineering of a near ubiquitous telecommunications infrastructure. These and many other forms of engineering are the basic building blocks on which the developed world is based. 

Yet, national debates on a grand strategy are nearly devoid of any discussion of engineering, and the infrastructure it creates, even though these are in large part what people around the world desire, and to which they aspire.

 Some think that engineering is simply a subset of the economic instrument of national power. History tells us otherwise. In the evolution of a nation, it is engineering institutions that enable new forms of economic activity long before commercial industries drive widespread engineering-based progress. Without these basic engineering institutions, and infrastructural building blocks, our partner nations and those who aspire to model their lives on the developed world are left adrift. DIME(-FIL) methodologies have stalled progress in large swaths of the planet as they have simply omitted the obvious: engineering.



If American interests and principles are to see a renaissance across the globe, it is essential that American citizens and American policymakers recognize the centrality of engineering to modernity, and recognize that it requires more than American economic power to bring the marvels of modern engineering to places that suffer for lack of capacity, stability, and security.  To achieve this goal, we require a refactored national security posture that properly harnesses America’s engineering institutions and properly integrates them into American national strategy. 

People often forget that America began as a colonial nation at the edges of a great frontier that required comprehensive engineering surveys to inform the needed “internal improvements.”  America was a fragile nation at risk of instability with its ungoverned frontiers, myriad diseases and natural hazards, security threats, as well as enormous resources—many of which were unknown and all of which required costly engineering to unlock. 

While the Corps traces its roots to June 16, 1775, when the Continental Congress first chartered the U.S. Army with a chief engineer, the modern U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was established in 1802 as part of the Military Peace Establishment Act, which had been drafted by Thomas Jefferson as an advancement of a new set of authorities for, and limits on the U.S. military.  The Corps and its home at West Point were established with the primary function of training expert engineers loyal to the United States. The worldview that guided this founding was informed by a number of observations, including concerns that America’s canals were woefully inadequate for the timely and cost-efficient transport of goods and people, and that its ports had no means of defending their perimeters. During this era, the young nation’s roads, canals and natural navigable waterways required engineering and maintenance to support regular trade.

The General Survey Act of 1824 furthered this mission by authorizing the Corps to survey roads and canal routes—an act that then caused the Corps to be named as the responsible party for the “Act to Improve the Navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.” Such need for engineering internal improvements continued to grow exponentially, and by 1838, Congress established a dedicated U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to undertake the mapping, design, and construction of federal civil works, coastal fortifications, and navigational routes. This division of engineers later merged back into the Corps in 1863.

In World War II, the Corps built some 27,000 military and industrial projects all over the world.  The Marshall Plan called on the engineers to establish new districts in Europe where infrastructure and construction were required to put Europe back in working order.  The Corps also played a key role in the occupation and reconstruction of Japan.  During the Cold War, the Corps played a leading role in engineering infrastructure within over a hundred countries worldwide.  In many places, this work helped to build a persistent presence and bi-lateral relationships with the host nation partner - relationships that have continued to this day. 

Over the past several decades, policymakers and strategists have come to confuse the kinds of technical assistance projects advanced by the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) with the kind of infrastructure systems that had demanded the establishment of USACE engineering districts.  These districts once covered geographies so large that they could provide integrated engineering strategies sized to meet the political demands of host nation partners. Now, however, the previous vision of national engineering projects based on engagement and committed to capacity building, stability, and security has been displaced by a short-term focus on “aid” projects, modestly linked to an integrated strategy for advancing U.S. interests abroad.  

To provide partner nations with capacity building, stability, security, and prosperity, a long-term engineering vision must be established in collaboration with each partner nation or region, with an eye toward establishing governance, long-term economic growth, hazard mitigation, stability, and security.




Engineering is not simply a subset of the economic instrument of national power.  Engineering’s roots run deep in the development of nations, and must be treated as such.  The basics of governance require an engineering of the land.  Going back to colonial days, the engineering of a country’s domain began with a geographical survey of its domain.


1)     Governance. Governance is not just a product of the law and politics. Indeed, its foundations are literally engineered. Land is surveyed. Boundaries are established. Parcels are apportioned. Deeds are assigned to these parcels. Addresses are assigned. Identities tie individuals to these parcels based on residential ownership or rental contracts. Contracts become enforceable because of the accountability borne out of tying individuals to specific locations on the landscape. Censuses then count individuals as they are tied to the land.  These censuses help the government to apportion democratic representation, allocate public resources, regulate private action, and shape private investment. This is all geospatial engineering in action. 


2)      Growth. Many discuss the importance of America’s economic instrument of national power.  This discussion tends to focus only on the importance of financial and trade mechanisms as they shape the behavior and success of both partner nations and adversaries.  It does not focus on the equally important mechanisms by which America can help nations achieve long-term economic growth—namely engineering, which shapes a nation’s land for connectivity, productivity, and long-term economic growth.  Engineering is the instrument of American national power that should be leveraged and invested in so as to put our partners on a successful path of long-term economic growth. Before economies can truly develop, the physical infrastructure must be developed in order to provide transportation, telecommunications, and energy distribution connectivity.  The land must be engineered to meet agricultural, industrial, and health requirements. Local organic engineering capability and engineering educational institutions must also exist to ensure long-term self-sufficiency and viability.


3)      Hazard Mitigation.  Too often, we talk about natural and human disasters as exogenous shocks that by and large cannot be helped.  However, engineering has a long tradition of pre-emptively mitigating the effects of such disasters by building resilience in an otherwise fragile system.  In the direct aftermath of a disaster, national policy rightly focuses on the undeniable human toll paid and how humanitarian assistance/disaster response (resource should be deployed.  This kind-heartedness also represents a kind of institutional myopia, or rather, a failure to appreciate that the thoughtful and strategic deployment of engineering capabilities to at-risk environments could make such responses less acute or even less necessary.  Such a use of engineering as an instrument of national power would mitigate the great loss of partner nations’ capital stocks, including their physical capital stock, financial capital stock, and human capital stock.  By engineering hazard mitigations and resilience in our partners, America’s engineering instrument of national power can help them move more smoothly up what one might call the “stability maturity curve.”


4)      Stability.  Even if systems are engineered to be resilient, and both natural and manmade hazards are mitigated through engineering, “stability” requires the full suite of engineering initiatives.  A foundational geographical survey must be established, and continually nourished, as the only constant of a nation’s landscape is change. The engineering foundations of governance must be built, drawing on this data.  Foundations of long-term economic growth must be engineered.  And, stability partnerships must be established across nations that are committed to some level of data transparency, openness, and sustained presence by partners.  Through institutionalized engineering capacities within partner nations, we create long-term, non-political, technocratic, bi-lateral relationships that can provide stability by preventing isolation, opacity, and autocracy.


5)      Security.  To be clear, security is no afterthought.  Engineering as a state institution in modern societies often began within the Army in order to help engineer security into the landscape.  And while one could and even should legitimately discuss engineering as an instrument of national power through the lens of Security Sector Assistance and Security Cooperation, it is crucial that engagement with partner nations deploys this instrument of national power in whatever manner will ensure local success.  USACE is a 37,000 person civilian agency with a military leadership. This allows it to deploy into harms way as part of the Army or other military components and to undertake complex engineering endeavors. It also allows for the deployment of engineering capabilities in support of partner nations’ civilian engineering institutions.  Engineering as an instrument of national power, as manifested in USACE, has the flexibility of deploying as a military to military, military to civilian, civilian to civilian, or civilian to military capability, depending on which is culturally and geopolitically appropriate.  This ensures that America’s security goals, interests, and principles can be advanced through the deployment of engineering capability and that it can be done without demanding a large military footprint.



It is not a new thing for USACE to deploy its considerable engineering might as part of a coordinated national security strategy aimed at building partner nations’ capacity, stability, growth, liberty, and democracy.  Post-World War II and Cold War examples abound.  But the past several decades have seen a shift away. First, we have lost sight of history too much, and underappreciate the role the Corps played in building the United States into the dominate and resilient power of today.  America’s modern domestic political narrative often recognizes the Corps for both its contributions and also failures as it relates to the management of navigable waterways, the flood plains they traverse, and the human disasters that can result. This narrative forgets about engineering’s long-established role in foreign affairs.

Second, the Army has made a profound transformation from a “constructive Army” with its early officer corps trained as engineers to a “destructive Army” with an officer corps that sees USACE for its combat engineering prowess and its military construction budget. Third, to some, USACE is a military organization headed by a three-star general who reports to the Chief of Staff of the Army. To others, USACE is a 37,000 person civilian engineering organization. Fourth, USACE’s Interagency &International Services program is a crucial resource for providing technical assistance to non-defense federal agencies, state and local governments, tribal nations, private U.S. firms, international organizations, and foreign governments—yet it is still funded on a reimbursable basis, without its own budget.

Lastly, it is also important to note that due to many of its environmental and social justice implications, the engineering heritage of the early 20th Century has led some to shy away from engineering solutions to the needs of developing countries. Critics rightfully shy away from the kinds of large-scale “white elephant” projects that are so iconic, and both their neocolonial overtones and environmental liabilities.  The engineering community has learned many lessons from the past. Engineering with nature has become valued in the modern era, as has critical thinking about how the human/infrastructure nexus can be tuned to support human security and social justice.  Still, such critiques have sapped the enthusiasm around the kinds of engineering and infrastructure centric approaches that offer such great hope to the developing world.

This mix of issues has meant the long-term neglect in innovative thinking about how USACE might guide the application of the engineering instrument of national power across the American foreign affairs portfolio. With a few tweaks to its congressional authorization and some reallocation of national security appropriations, USACE could rapidly be transformed in to a formidable force on the international scene. It could reshape the world for the better through the strategic deployment of American engineering power that will, in turn, support partner nations and advance American interests and principles abroad.


By engineering hazard mitigations and resilience in our partners, America's engineering instrument of national power can help them move more smoothly up what one might call the stability maturity curve. 






While many have raised concerns about the militarization of American foreign policy at the turn of the 21st century, others have bemoaned the country’s loss of influence in foreign affairs.  Few seem to have reflected on the value that American power can and should bring to the world. In business, if you are not bringing value to your customers and investors, you fade in to irrelevance.  Any nation that refuses to re-imagine its value to both its partners and the wider world will also fade into irrelevance.

The DIME (-FIL) construct that is taught to every national security decision-maker, whether military or civilian, envisions a certain array of value that America might bring to the world.  It suggests a certain constellation of ways in which America can shape the world to support its interests and principles. Perhaps it is time to raise the status of engineering so that it is, as it deserves to be, an instrument of national power—DIME-FILE, if you will. 

Looking around at the developed world, one sees a heavily engineered built environment that provides modern amenities on which our daily lives depend. If we open our eyes further, we should see in these environments the foundations for our society’s stability, security, prosperity, and even our liberty and democracy.  Rather than taking it for granted, we must explicitly recognize that infrastructure and the engineering capabilities that bring it to us, are the foundation of modern society. It is high time we appreciate that most people in the developing world desire the benefits that engineering brings, and aspire to the benefits of modern infrastructure. If we believe that advancing American interests and principles worldwide depends on developing enduring partnerships with stable societies abroad, it is vitally important that we once again make engineering an integral part of our grand strategy. 


Dr. Christopher K. Tucker is Chairman of the American Geographical Society and is affiliated with the Institute for State Effectiveness. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..