Daniel W. Drezner

Diplomacy is dangerous business — a fact Washington needs to remember

One of this blog’s minor keys over the years has been the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy. I don’t mean this in the "all the U.S. does is bomb! Bomb!! BOMB!!!" way.  Rather, as the bulk of the U.S. international affairs budget has shifted towards the defense department, so has the operational control of ...

One of this blog’s minor keys over the years has been the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy. I don’t mean this in the "all the U.S. does is bomb! Bomb!! BOMB!!!" way.  Rather, as the bulk of the U.S. international affairs budget has shifted towards the defense department, so has the operational control of American foreign policy. This extends to cabinet-level appointments, as ex-generals wind up occupying too many foreign policy principal positions. 

Last week, I speculated that the Petraeus scandal might cause a reassessment of trust in the military. To my pleasant surprise, this appears to be happening, but in a targeted and focused manner. That is to say, what’s being questioned is the behavior, ethics and massive perks of the military’s top brass. 

At the same time, perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on some foreign policy commentators that America’s diplomatic corps has been undervalued. The Wikleaks cables, for example, revealed U.S. diplomats to be extremely acute in their assessments of foreign counterparts. The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens has regrettably highlighted the risks that the diplomatic corps faces in some of their postings. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made economic statecraft a priority during her tenure at Foggy Bottom. As her speech in Singapore a few days ago suggested, the ball is rolling on quite a few significant agreements — a point that has been raised here recently. 

So this could be a moment when U.S. diplomats can wrest just a wee bit of influence back from the generals.  Which is great — unless one reads this Robert Worth story from yesterday’s New York Times Magazine

[Ambassador Chris Stevens’] death was treated as a scandal, and it set off a political storm that seems likely to tie the hands of American diplomats around the world for some time to come. Congressmen and Washington pundits accused the administration of concealing the dangers Americans face abroad and of failing Stevens by providing inadequate security. Threats had been ignored, the critics said, seemingly unaware that a background noise of threats is constant at embassies across the greater Middle East. The death of an ambassador would not be seen as the occasional price of a noble but risky profession; someone had to be blamed.

Lost in all this partisan wrangling was the fact that American diplomacy has already undergone vast changes in the past few decades and is now so heavily encumbered by fortresslike embassies, body armor and motorcades that it is almost unrecognizable. In 1985 there were about 150 security officers in U.S. embassies abroad, and now there are about 900. That does not include the military officers and advisers, whose presence in many embassies — especially in the Middle East — can change the atmosphere. Security has gone from a marginal concern to the very heart of American interactions with other countries.

The barriers are there for a reason: Stevens’s death attests to that, as do those of Americans in Beirut, Baghdad and other violent places. But the reaction to the attack in Benghazi crystallized a sense among many diplomats that risks are less acceptable in Washington than they once were, that the mantra of “security” will only grow louder. As a result, some of the country’s most distinguished former ambassadors are now asking anew what diplomacy can achieve at such a remove.

“No one has sat back to say, ‘What are our objectives?’ ” said Prudence Bushnell, who was ambassador to Kenya when the Qaeda bombing took place there in 1998, killing more than 200 people and injuring 4,000. “The model has become, we will go to dangerous places and transform them, and we will do it from secure fortresses. And it doesn’t work.”

If U.S. diplomats have to do the bulk of their work behind fortresses, then pretty soon there will be no difference between their worldview and those of the four-star generals. The more a foreign policy official lives in a protective bubble, the less nimble they will be with rapidly shifting circumstances on the ground. And if there is any lesson from 21st century diplomacy, it’s that things shift on the ground really fast

In a world of real-time diplomacy, a fundamental truth has to be acknowledged in Washington:  being a foreign service officer carries risks with it. While, all else equal, those risks should be minimized, the U.S. needs to live with some degree of risk rather than sacrifice the ability of its diplomats to interact and engage with counterparts and locals in foreign countries. 

Rather than the simple mantra of "never again" when reacting to the death of Ambassador Stevens, the life and mission he desired should be valorized a bit more. Stevens knew that the best way to advance U.S. interests in Libya was to be on the ground. Doing that from embassies that resemble Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a difficult task. 

There is a tradeoff between protecting U.S. officials overseas and promoting their ability to advance the national interest. I fear the pendulum has swung way too far towards the protection side, and Stevens’ death will only exacerbate that shift. The cruel irony is that Stevens, of all people, would have abhorred that shift. Better that we openly acknowledge the risk that foreign service officers face in overseas postings, recognize the bravery and loyalty that their service entails, and let them do their f***king jobs. 

Am I missing anything? 

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