America Needs a National Service Program

Jonathan W. Padish/Indianopolis

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. has faced upwards of 200,000 deaths, nationwide civil rights and anti-racism protests, a growing deficit, a fractured economy, and long-term great power competition. America needs an institutional rebirth. History shows us that similar periods of institutional flourishing—like that which followed World War II—required a strong sense of domestic unity and international strength. But rather than unifying the country, the pandemic has only deepened the divisions which regional, economic, and electoral conflicts have conditioned into the population. As things stand, America will leave COVID with more strife than ever. A concerted effort to rebuild the country’s unity will be necessary before anything else is possible.

One of the most tried and tested models for creating unity across Western democracies is that of national service: a compulsory gap period, usually between one and two years, in which young adults contribute directly to the country. Nations such as Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland continue to have such programs today, and countries like France and Germany only suspended their peacetime mandatory service programs after the end of the Cold War—although most of these countries have or had civilian service alternatives before then. 

A similar program implemented in the U.S. would be an effective way to reinvigorate the country’s civic ties. We could call this proposal the American Service Fellowship (ASF). Under the ASF program, it would be possible for approximately 90% of American high school graduates to enter a year of military service, and for the remaining 10% or so to serve in diplomatic roles through the State Department or other agencies. This would remake and eliminate the existing draft structure, moving toward a hybrid draft and volunteer force model. It would reapportion the military recruiting budget—roughly $3 billion as of 2017—and a portion of the civil and foreign service recruiting budget of nearly $100 million.

This is not a new idea: Stanley McChrystal and Pete Buttigieg have each floated a more limited version of this proposal in recent years. But the current moment has made the necessity for institutional renewal more clear than it has ever been. 

There are three reasons why now is the time for a national service program.

Why Should We Do This?

The reemergence of great power competition is one of the defining foreign policy and security issues the ASF would be well-suited to address. The ASF would not be meant to function as a military mobilization; it would instead serve as a program for military reserve and diplomatic force strengthening. Overseas military placements in logistical or technical roles combined with international diplomatic placements would prepare a key cohort to serve abroad in both security-focused and diplomatic roles.

From a military perspective, all of the service branches have been given lofty goals for force strengthening, such as attaining a 355-ship Navy, establishing the Space Force, and growing the military’s cyberwarfare capabilities. The military’s mobilization structure is fundamental to meeting the challenges of modernizing a growing force. Unfortunately, the U.S. structure is currently embodied in the antiquated Selective Service System, which was not even included as a relevant mobilization option in 2019 Joint Force planning hearings.

The Selective Service System, currently led by former Washington state senator Donald Benton, could be leveraged to a far greater extent. It has the potential to include not only men of 18-25 years of age, but also women, and to expand the upper age bound to 35. This is a reasonable target, especially given the resources that great power competitors such as Russia and China dedicate to national defense education. According to one CNAS scholar, nearly 3,000 Chinese higher educational institutions and 22,000 high schools annually organize students to undertake military training. In 2018, nearly 6 million Chinese college students were required to complete military training prior to starting the academic year.

Although the ASF would be a one-time commitment, it would continue for 12 months. This would make it longer, but also more concentrated than annual and repeated 2-week commitments as in China. This would give Fellows the opportunity to become familiar with the issues and skills in their area of specialty—such as maintaining domestic nuclear arsenals—on a deeper level than is possible in a short-term commitment. It would also invest in potential recruits for long-term military service, especially in areas involving cyber or other technological expertise. This has been a significant challenge for the military up to now. Marine Corps General Dennis Crall noted in a 2018 Senate hearing that it was difficult to recruit competent cyberwarfare experts across the country, due to private sector competition and low numbers of qualified people. By exposing top coders to the services early on, the military would be able to increase its recruiting reach far beyond its current capabilities.

The emergence of great power competition is far from the only reason to implement this proposal, however. Although most national service proposals focus solely on the military, a defining upgrade of the ASF should be to place the top 10% of high school graduates who apply in a diplomacy-related track overseas. This would serve to reinvigorate the Foreign Service pipeline.

This reflects a need to recruit the best talent possible to the Foreign Service, which represents America to the world. Too often, America’s most visible representatives around the world are wearing camouflage. Although the military is vitally important to American security interests, it would behoove the U.S. to project a more approachable, confident, and competent image. This initiative can expose the world to America’s future Rhodes Scholars, National Science Foundation grantees, Phi Beta Kappas, and service club presidents, and likewise expose those future leaders to international careers in government. 

The State Department is currently at its lowest level of recruitment in over a decade. The ASF would give it the first chance to recruit top talent before it goes to Google, Harvard, or McKinsey. This would be a tremendous step towards rebuilding and rethinking the public sector, as career diplomat William Burns has called for, while simultaneously giving Fellows exposure to the work of America’s diplomats and special agencies. 

Finally, in addition to preparing for great power competition and restoring the federal government’s non-military strength abroad, the ASF would fill a potential need for a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the post-COVID economy. If the program is revenue-neutral, and not just another deficit-increasing entitlement, it is likely to win over much popular support. One scholar estimates that reducing the size of the active-duty forces of the Army and Marine Corps with conscripted soldiers in the Reserves could save over $75 billion annually. 

The ASF would be quite ambitious, and probably have to involve earlier intervention in high school physical and civic education, as well as whole new institutions to absorb the new recruits. But while it may require significant effort to coordinate, in the long run it will help to foster greater national unity and social integration by exposing citizens of all backgrounds to work for the previously-distant federal government. Additionally, it can aim to decrease political radicalization by unifying recruits towards common goals, and increase skills and virtue through specialized technical and physical training. The latter could potentially go a long way to combat obesity, drug addiction, and homelessness among the next generation.

How The ASF Would Work

How would the ASF structure achieve the above goals? The first step would be to comprehensively review all existing similar programs that could be subsumed or integrated into the ASF, as well as which ones might need to be discontinued altogether. One example of how this could be done would be by surveying alumni, staff, and international liaisons of past programs on a Net Promoter Score (NPS) scale. Some measures of success will necessarily be subjective, but in such cases long-term staff members could submit briefs as to the tangible and intangible goals achieved over the last 5 years of the program and the future potential of integrating them.

As this review is being undertaken, a broad coalition of universities would need to be brought on to agree to one-year mandatory deferrals for an incoming class. This would lead to a temporary drop in the number of undergraduate students, which some universities may initially balk at; but would only impact one class of incoming students, as future classes would all have completed the ASF. The best way to bring universities on would be to persuade leading institutions such as the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and the University of California system to participate, and lobby others to follow.

A carrot and stick approach should be possible here. Ideally, universities could be brought on board with a combination of arguments: the ASF would increase their graduates’ post-grad employment rates, reduce their debt burdens by providing more access to government careers and loan repayment programs, and give them a stronger sense of drive and discipline that would help them in the classroom. If there are still significant concerns, it may be reasonable to provide a limited number of one-time grants to universities that can make a case that they will face significant financial shortfalls in this year that threaten their long-term stability. Should this approach be inadequate, using the stick of revoking Pell grants and reducing federal loan funding to schools which fail to comply would be a less ideal, but potentially effective, hardball option.

Once existing programs have been integrated into the ASF, and most universities have agreed to grant one-year deferrals to students, the next step would be to integrate applications from all military branches, entry-level non-career-appointment State Department positions, and other relevant talent or fellowship programs. A scoring system would be put into place to rank applicants based on the application responses and other factors such as GPA, test scores, extracurricular interests, and personal statements. Although all graduating high school seniors will be required to submit an application, exceptions could be granted based on extenuating factors such as grounds of conscience, medical inability, etc.

The admissions officials should target sending approximately 90% of applicants to the military, and the rest to serve overseas in diplomatic roles, broadly defined. In order to do this, Congress will need to overhaul the existing Selective Service System when enacting the ASF in order to make the ASF mandatory for all graduating high school seniors, plus non-graduates 18 and over. Military standards may need to be adjusted as well in order to accommodate varying levels of physical fitness, given the U.S.’s status as the country with the highest obesity rates in children and adults among developed countries. This has successfully been done in other developed countries, such as South Korea, Israel, Finland, and Greece, and could be remediated at least in part by reforming the secondary school physical education curriculum.

As mentioned above, overseas diplomatic Fellows should be top performers. The U.S. has an incentive to share America’s best students with the world and help them to learn as much about their host country as possible, rather than making its primary presence a military one. For reference, many top Chinese diplomats have been in the same region or even country for their whole career, and they are able to lean on that experience when times are particularly difficult. If the U.S. had 500 Mandarin-fluent experts in its Chinese embassy and consulates, that could do wonders for U.S. diplomacy in China.

The type of work that diplomatic Fellows could do ranges from entry-level State Department roles in a consulate to positions that would encompass Fulbright teaching assistant roles or Peace Corps fellowships. Consular roles could take the form of public diplomacy or entry-level administration: running and assisting English language or other educational programs abroad; administrative work at foreign embassies and consulates; researching and writing policy briefs for political officers, and so on. Training that currently exists for the Fulbright and Peace Corps could also be integrated into the preparation for ASF diplomatic Fellows.

Some may critique this model, saying it could potentially exacerbate pre-existing inequalities in the relatively homogeneous U.S. diplomatic corps. In response, a diversity initiative may be helpful. The ASF could also implement a state-based competition like the PSAT test rather than a national standard to give the ASF a more geographically representative corps of Fellows.

In addition, the significance of the ASF to Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be understated, as they will be exposed to better opportunities than may otherwise be available. After the ASF, options should be given to top performers for full scholarships and a post-graduation job guarantee, or even to take a job immediately. This would increase upward mobility for disadvantaged students, which may on balance help to reduce overall inequality.

Objections and Responses

Among the objections to an ASF, perhaps the most salient would be that the plan is politically infeasible. On one side, conservative congressmen may say that the ASF would be too expensive and bureaucratic, while civil liberties-minded progressives may say the program is too paternalistic and too militaristic.

However, the plan can likely be made less bureaucratic than the current system, since it would be streamlining multiple burgeoning programs into one. And although the cost of mandatory conscription may be high, it may not be as high as one might think. A 2001 Rand analysis put the cost of reinstituting the draft at $4 billion, which would today equal roughly $5.79 billion; but a cut in the current military recruiting budget of nearly $3 billion could significantly reduce that cost, allowing the administration to far surpass the White House’s goal of establishing an end strength of 2,140,300 active and reserve military personnel, while increasing the quality of the State Department’s diplomatic corps as laid out by the Secretary of State in the 2019 strategy and budget request as well.

In addition, the ASF Fellowship is less paternalistic than you might think. Exceptions for reasons such as health, familial necessities, and conscientious objection are well-established precedents in American national service. National service is also far from a marker of militarism. Many Western countries with such a program are known as among the least militaristic nations in the world: for example, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden have mandatory conscription, and Mexico, Brazil, and Denmark have an active draft system. Unlike other programs, however, a well-executed ASF would be desirable enough that those eligible won’t want to opt out of an opportunity to do overseas peacekeeping work and develop practical skills in mostly domestic military posts. 

In terms of concern about the military aspect, the trust Americans have in the military translates into fairly high and bipartisan support for its reliability: 83% of Americans said in a 2020 Pew poll that they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the military, greater than religious leaders and journalists and exceeded only by scientists. While support among younger people may be somewhat lower, on balance this matches attitudes in other Western states, and there is little reason to think that conscription avoidance would be much higher than in any comparable Western country.

Although the political fulcrum is constantly shifting, it is conceivable that in the post-COVID economy, there would be a political appetite for a government jobs guarantee like the ASF in 2021, particularly on the political left. There has also been bipartisan support for such an idea in the past. For reference, Pete Buttigieg proposed a similar opt-in program in the 2020 Democratic primary, and a healthy majority of 57% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters supported a mandatory draft in 2017. The same poll showed support among 39% of Americans ages 18 to 29, not a majority but by no means small—and this is without the broader aspects of an ASF beyond military service.

It is also possible that business-minded groups will lobby Congress against the ASF because they stand to cede the first chance to recruit students to the government and the military. To alleviate this, the ASF could open up an incentive for business groups to do high school apprenticeships, which may preclude some needing to even attend college. It could also counter-lobby business groups, promoting the patriotic nature of the program to serve the country, and emphasize that the vast majority of students going through this program will enter the workforce. For reference, the Thai Army, which conscripts a small percentage of those eligible for the draft, had a retention rate of just 13% of conscripted soldiers last year.

The ASF would provide a focused solution to shoring up America’s position abroad and strengthening its military at home, in advance of growing great power competition. Regardless of the victor of the 2020 presidential election, this program could be folded into a program of domestic renewal (such as Biden’s ‘Building Back Better’ plan) and a foreign policy approach of responding to great power competition, as Mike Pompeo has done in his role as the Secretary of State. 

The ASF can streamline existing government programs, boost the economy, and bring about a greater sense of national unity through shared commitment to America’s institutions and interests. It could yield a sharper, smarter fighting force, while strengthening America’s domestic supports. This is a solution to the most fundamental problem facing the country, and the best time to get started is now. 

James Haynes is a researcher at the Brookings Institution’s China Center, research consultant for the New Yorker’s China correspondent, and editor of the China Biotech Bulletin. He can be found on Twitter @jameshaynes22.