The Long Rise and Sudden Fall of American Diplomacy

One of Washington's most accomplished diplomats has traced how U.S. foreign policy went astray over decades—and how it can get back on track.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad  shakes hands with U.S. under secretary for political affairs William Burns ahead of their meeting in Damascus on Feb 17, 2010. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with U.S. under secretary for political affairs William Burns ahead of their meeting in Damascus on Feb 17, 2010. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, one of America’s most experienced diplomats, William Burns, sat in the deserted U.S. State Department compound, five blocks from the evacuated White House, contemplating the future of American foreign policy. The department’s computer systems were down, so he reverted to writing longhand. Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, composed four pages that he later handed to Secretary of State Colin Powell, outlining ideas for the “imaginative and hard-nosed diplomacy” necessary to drain the Middle East of the terrorism that had now reached the United States. Burns’s advice was prescient; its rejection by the White House, Congress, and much of the American public reveals the debilitating “militarization of diplomacy”—the subject of Burns’s compelling memoir, The Back Channel.

“What was unfolding,” Burns writes, “was less a clash of civilizations than a clash within a civilization, a deeply battered Islamic world in the midst of a desperate ideological struggle. There were limits to what we could do directly to shape that debate. What we could do, however, was to help create a sense of geopolitical order that would deprive extremists of the oxygen they needed to fan the flames of chaos, and give moderate forces the sustained support they needed to demonstrate that they could deliver for their people.”

These were the insights of a former ambassador to Jordan who had served in high-ranking positions on the National Security Council (NSC) and in the State Department. In his memoir, Burns explains why his emphasis on diplomacy was so important as the United States embarked on a new global war against terrorism. Washington could never master the deeply complex histories, motivations, and factions within and around the region. The United States would have to rely on local relationships, which would require compromise, negotiation, and some humility. U.S. military power could not replace the necessary deference to regional sensibilities. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak captured this well when he warned Burns, “You must not underestimate how much trouble those Iraqis can be. They spend their whole lives plotting against each other.”

If Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s classic memoir, Present at the Creation, narrates the growth of U.S. diplomacy during the early Cold War, Burns’s memoir captures the apex of U.S. diplomacy and its rapid decline 50 years later. Acheson’s generation of political leaders valued and supported the nation’s diplomats; Burns’s political masters, particularly after 9/11, did not. Burns offers a cogent argument for why that must change, soon.

U.S. leaders had excelled in the diplomacy surrounding the end of the Cold War. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker built enduring relationships with diverse leaders across the Soviet bloc and the Middle East. They negotiated compromises that gave other leaders what they needed in return for endorsement of key U.S. aims: nuclear arms control, reunification of Germany, and the reversal of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Bush and Baker were less successful in negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors, but they made progress there, too. Baker was the great U.S. diplomat of the late 20th century, as seen by Burns, who served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and frequently traveled with the secretary: “His skills, weight within the administration, relationships with all the key players in the region, and proven ability to deliver could not be easily replicated. He seemed like the right peacemaker at the right time.”

Bush and Baker’s international achievements left a void as their successors undervalued the diplomacy they had carefully crafted to reach those results. A unipolar post-Cold War hegemon, the United States possessed unmatched military and economic power, and its ideological righteousness seemed unassailable. Who needed difficult, slow diplomatic compromises when U.S. leaders could get what they wanted largely through pressure and force?

The militarization of U.S. diplomacy began, according to Burns’s account, when President Bill Clinton pushed for rapid NATO expansion into the former Soviet bloc, despite prior U.S. commitments to the contrary (as confirmed by Burns in his memoir) and strong Russian objections. Although Clinton offered strong personal support to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he failed to address the growing sense of insecurity and grievance within Russia. It appeared that the United States was muscling into Russian geopolitical space, brandishing guns and dollars. Washington offered little to assure concerned Russians, other than continued aid to a drunk, pro-American figure in the Kremlin.

The former Soviet bloc states had good reason to seek NATO membership, but the United States needed to do more to accommodate Russian fears. Diplomacy of this kind received little attention among Clinton’s impatient advisors. Burns, then the U.S. minister-counselor for political affairs in Russia, recounts: “Sitting at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-1990s, it seemed to me that NATO expansion was premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst. … It was wishful thinking, however, to believe that we could open the door to NATO membership without incurring some lasting cost with a Russia coping with its own historic insecurities.”

The destructive cocktail of U.S. wishful thinking, military power, and ideological self-righteousness reached maximum potency with the Iraq War. Burns calls it America’s “original sin” of the post-Cold War order, “born of hubris, as well as failures of imagination and process.” Burns commends President George W. Bush’s personal sincerity, but he describes him as “reckless” in his commitment to overthrow Saddam Hussein militarily and ignore all advice to the contrary. Burns recounts what he and others at State, and within the Western alliance, told the White House: “There was ‘no evidence of an Iraqi role’ in 9/11, ‘no [regional or international] support for military action,’ and ‘no triggering event.’ There was a ‘relatively weak internal opposition [in Iraq],’ and little clarity on what might happen on the day after.”

These observations—repeated and confirmed by virtually all experienced diplomats at the time—were not an argument for doing nothing. Burns fills many pages with elaborations on the options, short of U.S. invasion, that would have addressed terrorism and other threats in the Middle East. These options included tightened international sanctions, increased support for alternative groups and power centers in the region, and, most important, closer cooperation among U.S. allies—most of whom were eager to show their support for the United States after 9/11.

Washington ran roughshod over all of these diplomatic options. The United States isolated itself, antagonized allies and adversaries, and diverted its resources to a lengthy military occupation that further destabilized the region. The winner of the war was Iran, which saw a regional rival defeated and found new influence in Iraq. The United States was a clear loser, as the “war in Iraq sucked the oxygen out of the administration’s foreign policy agenda.” Mired in Iraq, facing opposition around the globe, Washington found its diplomatic leverage diminished in almost every region. Burns recounts how Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of this situation by throwing his weight around in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Southeastern Europe. The United States had cornered itself.

Most damaging, the United States never recovered the diplomatic capital lost in Iraq. Burns recounts many skilled U.S. efforts to contain Russia and denuclearize Libya and Iran, but from military intervention to drone warfare Washington consistently “overrelied on American hard power to achieve policy aims and ambitions.” Even critics of the Iraq War presumed the United States had underused or misused military power; they did not address the diplomatic deficit. U.S. leaders failed to educate the public about the importance of forging compromise abroad, and they frequently encouraged more skepticism toward diplomacy. This was most evident during the Barack Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, when members of Congress worked to undermine sensitive negotiations while they were still in process, calling recklessly for military intervention instead.

Before Donald Trump’s presidency, many Americans had adopted a dangerous “dismissiveness toward diplomacy.” This was a marked change from the last decades of the 20th century and the presidency of George H.W. Bush in particular. Allies, including much of Western Europe, now distanced themselves from Washington, both frustrated and concerned about U.S. callousness. Adversaries, especially Russia and China, swooped in to acquire new partners and isolate the United States. Ironically, post-Cold War U.S. militarization cracked open the liberal international order that U.S. diplomats had carefully and successfully nurtured for more than 50 years.

There are no easy solutions. The skilled U.S. diplomacy of the late Cold War was a historical aberration, reflecting the accumulated experience of the prior half-century and the leadership of a few distinctive personalities. The U.S. electoral system does not favor diplomats or the slow compromises they nurture in foreign policy. And the United States invests far more in military power than other less kinetic elements.

Nonetheless, Burns’s memoir reminds us of the continued importance of diplomacy, and it points to a number of things Americans can do to improve its practice for the national interest. First, it is high time Americans grapple with the failure of the war in Iraq. They need to hold their leaders historically accountable for their disastrous dismissal of diplomacy, rather than hunting for successful military roads not taken. Recognizing that military power cannot succeed without diplomacy, as evidenced in Iraq, is crucial for building the domestic support U.S. diplomats desperately need. They are the keys to winning future conflicts.

Second, the militarization of U.S. diplomacy is centered in the White House. Burns recounts how the NSC grew in size and influence during his 30 years in government. It frequently crowds out the diplomatic voices coming from the State Department, as happened during deliberations surrounding the expansion of NATO and the war in Iraq. The NSC has become a crisis-driven center for foreign policy, which has repeatedly privileged rapid military solutions for deep diplomatic problems. Reducing its influence, and empowering professional diplomats with area-specific experience, will create more space for creative, informed policymaking. Burns makes this point well: “Responsibility needs to be pushed downward in Washington, and ambassadors in the field need to be empowered to make more decisions locally.”

Third, and perhaps most important, Americans need to educate themselves about diplomacy. This is an old problem in a society that is skeptical about cosmopolitan elites and generally ignorant of its own history. In a very competitive world, managing global relationships will be more important than ever for business and policy. Investing in educating citizens about diplomacy—through language instruction, history, political science, and other related subjects—must become a priority. Educational leaders should take up this cause. The U.S. government should also invest in the issue, beginning with the education of its own diplomats. A recent study that I completed with my colleague, Ambassador Robert Hutchings, shows that the U.S. foreign service is behind many of its peers in the quality and quantity of diplomatic education that it offers to its own diplomats. The United States should at least begin to address the diplomatic deficit among its talented representatives.

Burns’s career captures an underutilized asset in U.S. foreign policy. America has the capacity to produce world-class diplomats, and it needs more of them than ever before. The “imaginative and hard-nosed diplomacy” that Burns describes amid the smoldering ruins of 9/11 should guide thinking about U.S. foreign policy as the country emerges from recent setbacks. Without renewed diplomacy, U.S. force will never be enough.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

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