The Undiplomatic Style of American Diplomacy

The gulf between America's politicians and diplomats has been widening for years.


Politicians and diplomats are typically a study in opposites. Politicians try to drive the behavior of crowds by attracting attention and exciting passions. Diplomats tend to distrust crowds, and they often work in the shadows to build agreement with a small number of partners. Politicians are wholesale operators, seeking to persuade hundreds of thousands or millions; diplomats are in the retail trade, keeping only a handful of decision-makers in their sights. At core, though, the two groups have long been in the same business: judging human behavior, and bending it in their desired direction.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, one of the premier politician-diplomats of his time, observed in his memoirs that “diplomacy is the continuation of politics.” Political constraints become diplomatic constraints. Further, Baker argues, most foreign leaders are political leaders, so they tend to see diplomacy through a political frame. It makes sense, then, that shifting politics would shift diplomacy.

And politics has changed. The drive toward exciting the base and ridiculing the opposition is getting stronger. Contempt for opponents seems more and more prevalent. Politicians race to impugn others’ motives. In an earlier age, political triumphs often came when agreements had been struck. Increasingly, winning today means that the other side has lost.

The extent to which the Trump administration will bring its political approach to its diplomacy is a central concern in capitals around the world. It would be a mistake, though, to think that this change is limited only to Donald Trump, or only to the United States. Domestic politics are changing around the world, and we are likely to be witnessing a similar change in the way governments relate to each other. As ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, grapples with the changing political context for diplomacy, at home and abroad, he will have his work cut out for him.

In the United States, it all started with television. When cable television providers created C-SPAN in 1979, they wanted to improve American governance. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives was intended to have a huge educational impact, demystify governmental processes, and let regular Americans into the room where decisions were being made. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, C-SPAN has helped usher in an age in American politics in which politicians talk less to each other and more to far-flung audiences.

Newt Gingrich pioneered much of the shift, giving televised speeches on the House floor in the early 1980s when there was no audience in the chamber to listen. He played to television viewers, assuming an untraditionally combative stance toward colleagues even when his targets were absent. In his wake, legislators increasingly stoked their political base, often ignoring the task of winning concessions and making accommodations with peers in Washington.

Legislative sessions shortened and district work periods lengthened, so legislators were less and less connected to each other. In 2013, the House of Representatives spent about half as much time in session as in 2007, by far the lowest total since it started being tracked in 2005. Thirty years ago, the 99th Congress passed 664 public laws. The 114th Congress, just concluded, passed 277.

Some who resisted the pull to their home districts, such as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, were defeated by opponents who charged they had lost touch with their districts. Others succumbed. The bipartisan institutions of congressional rooming houses and nightly poker games gave way; many members of Congress spend as little time with their colleagues as possible. In fact, more than 50 members of the House of Representatives are so seldom in Washington that they sleep in their offices the few days a week that they are in town. They have no friends in the opposite party, and few in their own.

It is not surprising, then, that politicians and diplomats are finding themselves further and further apart. Politicians increasingly run on a record of ideological fealty rather than accomplishment. A willingness to compromise is a sign of weakness in today’s politics, not strength.

Of course, American politicians have always reserved the right to contradict diplomats; presumably, diplomats have always muttered about the short-sightedness of politicians. The examples are legion: Almost a century ago, the Senate blocked President Woodrow Wilson’s accession to the League of Nations, and in 1978, it came within a hair’s breadth of defeating the Panama Canal Treaty. Congress has also moved to check the president’s prerogatives in foreign policy, in 1970 voting to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized U.S. military action in Southeast Asia, and passing legislation three times in the 1980s barring Ronald Reagan’s administration from spending money to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

But the way in which Congress now increasingly intervenes in diplomacy has no clear precedent. Consider, first, the extraordinary letter of March 2015 that 47 Republican senators signed to the Iranian government at a time when the Obama administration was negotiating with Tehran over its nuclear program. The senators advised the Iranian government, arguably incorrectly, that any agreement President Barack Obama signed with them would have no force after Obama left office. Not a single Democrat signed on.

The clear intent of the letter was to undermine the president; to a striking degree, it did so by addressing a foreign audience. Despite all manner of political disputes in the United States, it is hard to recall any precedent for this. And, arguably, any effort to shape a foreign government’s conduct in a dispute with the U.S. government is a violation of the Logan Act, which has stood as law since 1799. This was not Congress second-guessing the president, or even opposing him. Instead, it seemed to be a calculated effort to undermine the president’s negotiations because senators expected they would dislike the compromises reached.

In a very different incident, in September 2016 Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The bill allows victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments for acts of terrorism, specifically targeting Saudi Arabia’s alleged support for the 9/11 hijackers. Without a single hearing, and seemingly without much forethought, the bill passed both houses of Congress by voice vote.

If members of Congress considered the impact on customary principles of sovereign immunity that had helped form a foundation for international law, or if they considered the potential impact on the United States, which in decades of warfare has been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, they must have done so in private. Any judge seeking to divine legislative intent, as many seek to do, would find the cupboard entirely bare. When the president, secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of the Central Intelligence Agency all slammed the bill, congressional supporters said there was no time to stop it from becoming law. They overrode the president’s veto in overwhelming numbers.

Unlike the Senate letter on Iran, the JASTA vote was not a partisan issue. But like the Iran letter, it was a political issue in which nuance and compromise was no match for the drive for clarity.

It would be one thing if American diplomacy were becoming increasingly uncompromising at a time of increasing U.S. preeminence. When U.S. economic and military power are increasing, and when vulnerable states feel close ties to the United States will make them more secure, Washington has greater leverage to gets its way. In such an environment, we might expect to see a world emerging similar to that of the 1950s, when Western nations aligned their policies and their economies under a U.S. security umbrella against a pervasive Soviet threat.

But today, American diplomacy is becoming increasingly uncompromising at what seems to be a time of U.S. retrenchment. Americans are looking for more say in the outcomes of global affairs while at the same time wanting others to do more. Foreign governments doubt that being closer to the United States will help them much, and many doubt the wisdom of U.S. advice.

At the same time, foreign governments are going through their own domestic political transitions. Populism is rising, and standing up to the United States often makes good politics. So, too, does resisting the sorts of liberal open-market reforms that the United States has been promoting for decades. Politicians often turn to subsidies and seek to protect industries to demonstrate their commitment to the public. What fires crowds up in Indiana fires them up in India as well.

High-minded appeals to international institutions have lost whatever political appeal they ever had. In the current political environment, in both the United States and abroad, they can help end a political career. Politics are becoming more zero-sum, and the U.S. strategy of appealing to mutual benefit in diplomacy is increasingly at odds with that approach. Diplomacy hasn’t changed much over the years: Leverage always matters, but wins and losses still come most often from a delicate ability to appreciate other points of view.

As the gap between politics and diplomacy widens, diplomacy will have to adapt. Some of the zero-sum impulse is likely to cross over into diplomatic work. When it does, the result will not merely be that some countries will chalk up clearer wins. More issues are likely to remain unresolved, and more conflicts are likely to remain unmanaged. The cost of clearer political victories will be more wars raging on with no end in sight.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Jon B. Alterman is the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

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