Which Works Best: Force or Diplomacy?

Which Works Best: Force or Diplomacy?

What are the "greatest hits" of U.S. foreign policy since World War II? I mean: what would you regard as the most important "success stories" in America’s handling of world affairs? Off the top of my head, here’s a list of possible contenders.

1. The Marshall Plan. By almost any account, the Marshall Plan was brilliant success.  It jump-started European economic recovery, demonstrated U.S. goodwill to former adversaries like Germany and Italy, and helped stave off the appeal of communism in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  It was also a remarkably far-sighted and innovative policy, and implemented with great skill.

2. Bretton Woods, the GATT & the WTO. Management of the world economy hasn’t been perfect since World War II, but the institutional arrangements that were set up after World War II and that have evolved since then have played a critical role in reducing barriers to trade and investment and fueling a long period of economic growth. Most of us would be a lot poorer had these institutions not been in place, and U.S. leadership has been critical to their expansion over time.

3. The Non-Proliferation Regime. The NPT and its associated arrangements haven’t prevented nuclear proliferation, but they played a major role in discouraging it and have made it much easier to keep tabs on states with nuclear ambitions. Back in the 1960s, many experts believed there would be forty-plus nuclear weapons states by 2000; the NPT is a big reason why that didn’t happen.

4.  The Opening to China, 1972. Nixon’s decision to end the long U.S. ostracism of China was both a major event in modern diplomacy and a smart geo-strategic move. It increased external pressure on the Soviet Union, facilitated the U.S. exit from the Vietnam conflict, and laid the foundation for subsequent Sino-American cooperation. China may be a peer competitor in the decades ahead, but this breakthrough was still the correct policy for its time.

5. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. There were five wars between Israel and Egypt (and sometimes others) between 1948 and 1973; there have been precisely zero since this treaty was signed. Unless you’re a big fan of Middle East wars, this is a good thing, even if the United States (and others) failed to follow through with the rest of the agenda laid out in the original Camp David process. At a minimum, the treaty also reminds us what US mediation can accomplish when it is run by skillful and tenacious leaders who aren’t afraid to push both sides.

6. German Reunification. When empires collapse, it usually means big trouble. Indeed, the break-up of the Soviet Union led to various conflicts throughout the former Soviet territories. The prospect of a reunified Germany alarmed many people–including some Germans–yet it took place with remarkably little conflict, and Europe (and the world) are far better off as a result. There were many players involved, but sober guidance from the first Bush administration was an important ingredient in the relatively benign outcome. 

One can think of other candidates: NATO, the Dayton Accords, the first Gulf War, etc.-but the six items listed above aren’t a bad list. 

Now here’s the question: what do all of these successes have in common? Answer: they were all primarily diplomatic initiatives, where the use of force played little or no direct role. This stands in sharp contrast to U.S. foreign policy today, where the preferred response to many problems tends to be some form of "kinetic action" (in the form of drone strikes, special operations, covert action, large-scale bombing raids, or in a few cases, all-out invasions). And notice that those cases where we turn to military force don’t seem to be working out all that well. It failed in Indochina and in Iraq, it is failing in Afghanistan, and it is by no means clear that trying to kill our way to victory against al Qaeda is going to work out either.  

The apparent futility of military power is partly due to selection effects: governments tend to use force when other approaches have failed (and one is therefore dealing with highly resolved opponents and situations where success may be elusive). But our poor track record in recent years is also due to a tendency to shoot first and talk later, and to use military force to solve problems for which it is ill-suited. Just look at the recurring debate over whether the United States should even talk to Iran, and you get an idea of how much we have devalued diplomacy and privileged military power.

To be sure, military power can be a key to diplomatic success. As George Kennan once remarked, "you have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet force in the background." But the key word there is "quiet," and the focus is still on diplomacy, not simply on blowing things up.  

Bottom line: it is worth remembering that America’s greatest foreign policy successes were mostly the result of skillful diplomacy, not military prowess. Having a big stick is nice, but speaking softly is usually more effective. And if a country finds itself using that stick over and over and over, that’s a very good sign that its foreign policy has lost its way.