The State Department Needs Rehab
American diplomacy is losing its battle with the Trump administration — but it can still win the war.
When a U.S. president thinks most positions at the State Department are “unnecessary” and insists “I’m the only one that matters,” it’s a safe bet that serious, professional diplomacy will get short shrift. And that has clearly been the case in the Trump administration. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have done serious damage to American diplomacy. And it’s time to consider how that damage can be repaired.
It’s important to understand the State Department was falling on hard times even before the Trump administration accelerated the trend. The United States has had a rather casual attitude about diplomacy for much of its history, even though some of its greatest foreign-policy successes were achieved by diplomacy rather than by force of arms. As I’ve observed elsewhere, initiatives such as the Louisiana Purchase, the Marshall Plan, the Camp David Accords, and the negotiated end of the Cold War were remarkable foreign-policy achievements won not on the battlefield but across the negotiating table. And you could add to that countless other agreements and arrangements that advanced U.S. interests at remarkably little cost, because skilled diplomats were able to discern other parties’ interests, resolve, and sensitivities and fashion accords that their foreign counterparts accepted, implemented, and preserved.
Yet even as the benefits of effective diplomacy are manifest, Americans have long viewed it with a certain suspicion and disdain. Instead of thinking of foreign policy as primarily the art of pursuing arrangements of mutual benefit and adjustment — where we get most of what we want while others get some of what they want as well — Americans prefer the moral clarity of unconditional surrender. That approach is usually short-sighted, however, because it encourages others to fight harder and longer and because losers who are not reconciled to their defeat (such as Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War or the Confederate states after the Civil War and Reconstruction) will try to renege on whatever the United States forced them to accept.
Diplomacy is also devalued because Americans (falsely) associate it with secrecy, deception, and double-dealing. Americans like to think of themselves as honest, plain-speaking truth-tellers, in contrast to those wily and unscrupulous emissaries whom foreign powers send abroad. The American satirist Ambrose Bierce famously described diplomacy as the “patriotic art of lying for one’s country,” and that same innate suspicion was apparent in President Woodrow Wilson’s naive insistence that the affairs of nations should be managed via “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” A similar belief that diplomacy requires no special training or skill is evident in the U.S. policy of reserving more than 30 percent of its ambassadorial appointments for untrained amateurs (read: big campaign donors), a practice no other great power has seen fit to imitate.
Disdain for diplomacy also reflects America’s fortunate history. The Founding Fathers did not neglect diplomacy during the War of Independence (e.g., Benjamin Franklin helped persuade France to come to the colonists’ aid, and John Jay negotiated the treaty that ended the war), but their successors mostly tried to remain aloof from foreign entanglements. Even after the United States became a great power, its providential position in the Western hemisphere gave it a level of security that made skillful diplomacy seem like a luxury rather than a necessity. To be sure, U.S. leaders began to take diplomacy more seriously during World War II and afterward, but by then the United States was a global superpower and could get its way without having to be very knowledgeable, subtle, or skillful. With some noteworthy exceptions, U.S. leaders tended to rely on brute force, arm-twisting, and coercion rather than more subtle arts of persuasion. And when they failed, the consequences were mostly visited upon unfortunate populations far away.
Of course, such failures are beyond the Trump administration’s State Department, which has been consumed with its own internal troubles. Tillerson’s efforts to modernize the department are backfiring badly, with resignations mounting and morale plummeting. Indeed, after a year in the job, we still have little idea what Tillerson is trying to do at State or what he thinks America’s top diplomatic priorities are. I did my best to defend the poor guy a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t even convince myself.
Seriously: The United States is trying to counter China’s rising influence in Asia and deal with a continuing confrontation with North Korea, and it still has no ambassador in South Korea and no assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Earlier this week, the department’s top expert on North Korea announced his retirement. It’s as if Tillerson were back trying to run ExxonMobil but believed he didn’t need anyone in charge of pumping oil.
In some ways, this situation reminds me of the challenges the U.S. military faced in the years between the two world wars. It is often forgotten today, but the United States put more than 4 million men and women under arms in World War I, and would have mobilized even more had the war not ended in 1918. Yet this force was demobilized immediately afterward, and the U.S. military endured on a starvation diet until the late 1930s. In 1932, for example, the U.S. army had only 136,000 enlisted, with divisional structures that existed mostly on paper.
Yet military leaders did not sit idle. Instead, they worked to preserve the institution and prepare for the moment when the nation would require their services and expertise again. In particular, senior military leaders identified a cadre of talented officers who would eventually lead it when World War II came, and they prepared the detailed mobilization strategies that would prove invaluable when the country began to rearm in the late 1930s and went on a war footing after Pearl Harbor.
Today, the “demobilization” of the State Department and the disdain for diplomacy that it reflects creates a similar imperative. Those who recognize the value of diplomacy should use the present period to lay the groundwork for a revitalized and reformed set of diplomatic institutions and a broader appreciation of diplomacy’s role in U.S. foreign policy.
We’re going to need it. The Trump era is looking more and more like a foreign-policy train wreck, and his successors will have a lot of repair work to do. Moreover, the unipolar moment is clearly over, and it’s going to be harder for the United States to run a foreign policy based mostly on blowing things up, issuing threats, imposing sanctions, and twisting arms. In a world where power is more diffuse and ephemeral, the need for sophisticated and adroit diplomacy will increase. The long-term competition with China is an obvious example: Much of this rivalry will be a competition for influence — especially in Asia — and preserving America’s current position will require a subtle and sophisticated understanding of the region and a lot of nuanced and convincing conversations with our many and varied Asian partners. In short, it will require diplomacy.
If this forecast is correct, then what steps could be taken now to facilitate rebuilding America’s diplomatic capacity later? The Trump administration is hardly going to spearhead this effort, so it will have to be led by private foundations, think tanks, universities, and other institutions in civil society. What might such an effort entail?
First, a reform movement should launch a well-organized campaign to educate the American people about the importance of diplomacy. Few people question that military weakness could imperil the nation, and most people recognize that preserving a strong economy is essential even if they disagree on how to do it. But relatively few people appreciate the risks we face from a half-hearted and inept approach to our official dealings with other countries, or understand the benefits that effective diplomacy can bring. To put it bluntly, our diplomats have not sold their product nearly as well as their military counterparts.
In addition to documenting diplomacy’s “success stories,” such an effort could also identify episodes when poor diplomatic capacity or preparation had costly consequences. Americans understand what happens when a country goes to war with inferior weapons or inadequate training, and so we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to preserve clear military superiority. Americans also need to grasp what can go wrong when you send unskilled emissaries off to do the nation’s business overseas and expect them to outperform their better-prepared counterparts.
Diplomacy’s defenders also need to do a better job of explaining exactly what diplomats do. In addition to conveying the official U.S. position on relevant matters to the governments to whom they are accredited, diplomats are an invaluable source of political intelligence and cultural interpretation. U.S. leaders are constantly drowning in information, but what they often lack are smart and knowledgeable people who can tell them what it means. In particular, diplomats with a deep and intimate knowledge of other societies and governments provide the indispensable capacity to explain how problems look to others. This quality of empathy is essential to crafting successful international agreements; unless one knows how the other side is thinking, it’s hard to put forward proposals that will achieve our aims and that the other side will accept.
Second, this campaign should develop a blueprint for American diplomacy in the 21st century, emphasizing the need to develop a genuinely professional diplomatic service. Like the U.S. military, it should design and seek funding for a program of career-long education. Senior military officers are routinely sent back to school (at various service colleges or other U.S. universities), but State Department officials and foreign service officers rarely enjoy similar opportunities to enhance their skills and training as their careers advance. Like the U.S. military, America’s diplomats should routinely conduct “after action” reports of major diplomatic initiatives, seeking to draw lessons from past performance with an eye toward constant institutional improvement. And like the military, a revitalized State Department should employ both scholars and practitioners to create a formal “diplomatic doctrine” derived from its past experience — i.e., something akin to the Army’s Field Manuals — that would guide training and practice and be revised and improved over time.
It is hard to be optimistic about the current state of U.S. foreign policy. The United States is still trying to manage an impossible array of international problems, still engaged in several endless wars, largely bereft of a clear and compelling strategy, and under the leadership of the least competent president in modern memory. Yet the present crisis of American diplomacy is also an opportunity to design a new set of diplomatic institutions, build a broader consensus on the value of diplomacy itself, and eventually forge a new approach toward dealing with other nations. For those of us who recognize the value of skilled diplomacy, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Acknowledgement: I had the pleasure of hearing veteran U.S. diplomat Chas W. Freeman speak on two occasions last month, once at the Harvard Kennedy School and a few days later at the Camden Conference. Freeman is especially eloquent on the sorry state of American diplomacy, and this article was inspired and informed by his remarks and writings on this topic. He is of course not responsible for the use I have made of his ideas.
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