This Is What Victory Looks Like

How Aaron David Miller romanticizes the past and underestimates the future.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It’s easy to reminisce about the supposed grandeur of America’s good-old days. Before China was rising, before Russia was roaring, and before Brazil was fit to be a BRIC, the United States canvassed the globe with its impressive, blockbuster diplomacy. By comparison, today’s state visits are frustrating, compromises come slowly, and international summits produce little. It leaves any casual observer wondering: What happened?

Such is the lamenting nostalgia of Aaron David Miller in his recent FP article, "The End of Diplomacy?" The author hearkens back to a time when diplomacy achieved big things. He fears that the image of a "shuttling secretary of state … achieving dramatic breakthroughs with spectacular secret diplomacy seems a world away."

Miller might be right in one sense; U.S. diplomatic ambitions have shrunken since the days of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. But that shift is no accidental decline. Today’s world is more subtle; the challenges are more numerous and complex than those of the past. So while the Cold War world necessitated broad diplomatic strokes, today’s negotiators must paint in detail. In short, the world changed, and Washington did too.

According to Miller, U.S. foreign policy from 1945 to 1991 was a mix of disasters, such as the Vietnam War, and brilliant achievements, including the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO. The past 16 years by comparison were a supposed "diplomatic dry patch" in which the United States achieved little, succeeded even less, and failed to find victory in a host of places from Somalia to Pakistan, Afghanistan to Iraq.

Miller’s dismissal of the past 16 years, however, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He overlooks the U.S. leadership that led to monumental peace treaties in Northern Ireland (the Belfast Agreement) and Bosnia (the Dayton Accords). He neglects to mention the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the expansion of NATO, or even the coaxing of Libya away from nuclear weapons. None of these are of the same magnitude as, say, the Marshall Plan, true. But Washington didn’t get weak; it just got smart.

Big diplomacy made sense in the early years of the Cold War, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson; director of the State Department’s policy planning office, Paul Nitze; and Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan made containing the Soviet Union priority number one. Creating NATO and undertaking the Marshall Plan were large-scale, straightforward initiatives that matched the United States’ large-scale, straightforward containment strategy.

Washington also pursued a second, interrelated strategy: developing and maintaining a healthy international system. And there, the United States has largely succeeded as well. Globalization itself is largely an American construction. It was the United States that led the way in bringing down trade barriers, opening and sustaining the global commons (such as international maritime commerce, which accounted for 90 percent of global trade in 2008), and creating a network of robust international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. None of these battles are over, but the gains won so far have added significantly to global stability and prosperity. If Acheson, Nitze, and Kennan were to see the world today, they would call it a tremendous victory.

Yet as with any victory, this one has given rise to new challenges that will continue to reshape U.S. diplomacy. Asia is on the rise. Climate change looms on the not-so-distant horizon. The global commons are being squeezed harder than ever before. While globalization has helped lift millions from poverty, it has also made it easier for state and nonstate aggressors to acquire disruptive technologies to help them wage cyber and biological warfare. States are free to peacefully pursue their interests, but the disaffected find it easier to attack their perceived enemies as well.

What we are witnessing is not the end of diplomacy, but rather Washington’s attempt to manage the very system it created. Initiatives like the Marshall Plan or NATO were well-suited for their time but would not be effective in the complex, multipolar brave new world that is emerging. The coming years will still require some major diplomatic initiatives, especially on issues of trade and climate change. But in most cases, good diplomacy will mean the less-grandiose, everyday task of integrating diplomatic, military, economic, and soft power to confront the world’s challenges. It will also mean making the case to the American people that U.S. interests are best pursued by staying politically and economically engaged in the world. In the aftermath of a devastating economic crisis, it won’t be easy to fight back isolationist and protectionist sentiments.

In the end, diplomacy is not all about size; it’s about having a vision for what the world can and should be, and knowing how best it can be achieved. The world Washington sees today is profoundly different from the one that Cold War strategists saw before. It would be a mistake if the strategic toolbox were still the same.

Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia from 2015 through January 2017. Prior to that position, he was senior vice president at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Twitter: @AbeDenmark

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