Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The End of Diplomacy?

Once up a time, Americans achieved great things abroad. No longer.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Back in the day, there was a time when American diplomacy did big and important things.

No more, it seems. The world's gotten complicated, America is a good deal weaker, and the U.S. administration is handicapping itself with a dysfunctional bureaucratic setup that makes it harder to focus and find its footing. 

Effective American diplomacy may well be going the way of the dodo, and the sad fact is there may be little Barack Obama can do about it.

Back in the day, there was a time when American diplomacy did big and important things.

No more, it seems. The world’s gotten complicated, America is a good deal weaker, and the U.S. administration is handicapping itself with a dysfunctional bureaucratic setup that makes it harder to focus and find its footing. 

Effective American diplomacy may well be going the way of the dodo, and the sad fact is there may be little Barack Obama can do about it.

Lamenting the absence of great men years before his own shining moment, Winston Churchill wrote that in England, once upon a time, "there were wonderful giants of old." There’s always a danger in idealizing what once was or seemed to be in order to make a point about the present. Still, looking back over the last 60 years, you really do have to wonder whether America’s best diplomacy and foreign policy are behind it.

America never ran the world (an illusion the left, right, and much of the third and fourth worlds believe; but there were moments (1945-1950, the early 1970s, 1988-1991) when the United States marshaled its military, political, and economic power toward impressive ends.

There were, or course, disasters and plenty of dysfunction during these years, including the Vietnam War and out-of-control CIA operations. But there were also brilliant achievements: the Marshall Plan, NATO, effective Arab-Israeli diplomacy, détente with the Russians, opening to China, a competent American role in the acceleration and management of the end of the Cold War, and the first Gulf War.

For most of the last 16 years, however — under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — America has been in a diplomatic dry patch. In the face of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, wars of choice, and nasty regional conflicts, conventional diplomacy has either not been tried or not been very successful. The image of the shuttling secretary of state pre-empting crises or exploiting them to broker agreements, doggedly pursuing Middle East peace, achieving dramatic breakthroughs with spectacular secret diplomacy seems a world away.

The Obama administration wants to do this kind of stuff. And it has done pretty well in managing the big relationships with Russia and Europe, though it has had its share of problems with China. But frankly, these are the easy ones. It’s not from the big that the president’s problems come; it’s from the small.

In garden spots like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the problems are four parts military, five parts nation-building, and maybe one part diplomacy. And America is unlikely to prevail in any meaningful sense of the word where corrupt, extractive regimes are unable to control their own territory and cut deals with anti-American elements and place their security and political concerns first.

Even in areas where diplomacy might seem to work on paper — Kashmir, Arab-Israeli peacemaking — the United States is hampered by conflicts driven by deep ethnic and religious hostility and by internal politics in which its own allies (Israel, Pakistan, and India) can’t be of much help. And in one of the cruelest ironies of all, the U.S. president who has gone further to engage Iran than any of his predecessors is watching any hope for diplomacy being ground up by a regime under siege in Tehran.

What’s more, the power of the small is being matched by the weakening of the big. You don’t have to be a declinist (I’m not) to see how far the image of American power has fallen. Forget the economic meltdown, which has much of the world wondering about what kind of great power the United States really is. America’s currently fighting two wars where the standard for victory is not whether it can win but when it can leave.

Whether it’s an inability to get tough sanctions from the international community against Iran, bring Tehran to heel, make North Korea play ball, get the Arabs and the Israelis to cooperate, or push the Pakistanis to hit the Taliban and al Qaeda in a sustained way, the world has gotten used to saying no to America without cost or consequence. And that’s very bad for a great power.

Finally, there’s the issue of how the country organizes itself. A new bureaucratic flowchart won’t replace skill and luck, better marshal American power, or create genuine opportunities for success abroad. But if you don’t have the right structure, it makes success all that much harder.

And the United States has departed from the one model that has proven successful: the strong foreign-policy president empowering the strong secretary of state who rides herd over subcabinet-level envoys in real time and in close coordination with the president on strategy.

Instead, the Obama administration has created an empire of envoys with power concentrated in the White House but without real purpose or strategy. The nation’s top diplomat (the secretary of state) seems to be everywhere and nowhere in terms of owning issues and finding a way to take on some of the nastiest challenges, which is what secretaries of state are supposed to do.

It’s still early, and maybe the Obama administration will get lucky. Perhaps the Iranian regime will collapse or the Arabs and Israelis will do something good by themselves. But the next several years are more likely to be tough ones for American diplomacy. And the image that comes to mind isn’t a terribly kind one: America as  a kind of modern-day Gulliver tied up by tiny tribes abroad and hobbled by its inability to organize its own house at home.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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