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A Face Lift Can’t Fix the State Department

The Biden administration plans a quick reform of American diplomacy—but fixing the rot requires going much bigger.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
President-elect Joe Biden listens as Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken speaks at an event to introduce key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. 
President-elect Joe Biden listens as Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken speaks at an event to introduce key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.  Mark Makela/Getty Images

You can count me among the people—including newly sworn-in President Joe Biden—who think the U.S. Department of State needs some serious repair work. But reforming the department and revitalizing the foreign service won’t make U.S. foreign policy more successful if America’s diplomats are forced to spend their time, energy, credibility, and other resources on quixotic or misguided missions. A better department will still come up short if it is asked to do the impossible.

To be clear: The State Department was in bad shape before former President Donald Trump showed up to make things worse. Its budget was woefully inadequate, its administrative and computer systems were antiquated, its organizational chart was outdated and overly complicated, and it was repeatedly sidelined by presidents who preferred to run foreign policy out of the White House. Roughly a third of U.S. ambassadorships were handed out to wealthy campaign contributors instead of trained professionals—a bizarre practice that no other major power follows—and the department was sometimes forced to take on new missions in response to congressional whims rather than pressing needs.

Needless to say, the damage got worse under Trump. It began with neophyte diplomat Rex Tillerson’s well-intentioned but inept efforts at reform as secretary of state, followed by his successor Mike Pompeo’s ego-driven and singularly inept approach to diplomacy. More interested in preparing for a future presidential run than advancing U.S. interests, Pompeo helmed a State Department that was long on “swagger” (which the dictionary defines as acting in a “typically arrogant or aggressive way”) but pitifully short on concrete achievements. In fact, Pompeo’s record is one of consistent failure, whether one looks at U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, NATO, or Asia. Morale within the department reached new lows, and experienced officials left in droves. In an era when America’s rivals have been steadily enhancing their diplomatic presence and international influence, Pompeo presided over a sustained act of unilateral diplomatic disarmament.

You can count me among the people—including newly sworn-in President Joe Biden—who think the U.S. Department of State needs some serious repair work. But reforming the department and revitalizing the foreign service won’t make U.S. foreign policy more successful if America’s diplomats are forced to spend their time, energy, credibility, and other resources on quixotic or misguided missions. A better department will still come up short if it is asked to do the impossible.

To be clear: The State Department was in bad shape before former President Donald Trump showed up to make things worse. Its budget was woefully inadequate, its administrative and computer systems were antiquated, its organizational chart was outdated and overly complicated, and it was repeatedly sidelined by presidents who preferred to run foreign policy out of the White House. Roughly a third of U.S. ambassadorships were handed out to wealthy campaign contributors instead of trained professionals—a bizarre practice that no other major power follows—and the department was sometimes forced to take on new missions in response to congressional whims rather than pressing needs.

Needless to say, the damage got worse under Trump. It began with neophyte diplomat Rex Tillerson’s well-intentioned but inept efforts at reform as secretary of state, followed by his successor Mike Pompeo’s ego-driven and singularly inept approach to diplomacy. More interested in preparing for a future presidential run than advancing U.S. interests, Pompeo helmed a State Department that was long on “swagger” (which the dictionary defines as acting in a “typically arrogant or aggressive way”) but pitifully short on concrete achievements. In fact, Pompeo’s record is one of consistent failure, whether one looks at U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, NATO, or Asia. Morale within the department reached new lows, and experienced officials left in droves. In an era when America’s rivals have been steadily enhancing their diplomatic presence and international influence, Pompeo presided over a sustained act of unilateral diplomatic disarmament.

Given this woeful history, it is hardly surprising that proposals to restore the department have become something of a cottage industry. My colleague Nicholas Burns led one such effort at the Harvard Kennedy School, and William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Rep. Joaquin Castro, and Uzra S. Zeya and Jon Finer have provided thoughtful blueprints for reform as well. Prominent think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council have gotten into the act as well.

Biden needed little convincing. He has pledged to “elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy … reinvest in the diplomatic corps … and put U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals.” His nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, previously served as deputy secretary under former President Barack Obama and clearly appreciates the contribution that diplomacy can make. And some of the apostles of reform mentioned above have already been tabbed for key foreign-policy positions in his administration.

I’m entirely sympathetic to these efforts, and I hope they succeed. But restoring the State Department is not a quick fix that will suddenly yield a host of foreign-policy breakthroughs, because creating a cadre of capable and experienced diplomats can’t be done overnight.

Moreover, the real issue is what Biden and Blinken expect a rejuvenated and empowered diplomatic corps to do. As I argued a few weeks back, the Biden team is a familiar array of mainstream liberal internationalists, most or all of whom are still strongly committed to familiar notions of American exceptionalism. Some of his appointees may have been chastened by the failures of the past couple of decades, but others—such as Victoria Nuland, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary for political affairs—do not appear to have altered their views much at all. They favor multilateral engagement, especially with America’s traditional democratic allies, but they also believe it is America’s job to lead and its allies’ job to follow. As Biden himself has written, his foreign-policy agenda “will place the United States back at the head of the table.” Adversaries are expected to tread warily and not to cross whatever redlines Washington decides to lay down.

The obvious danger is that Biden & Co. will try to turn the clock back to 2016 and pursue a grand strategy of liberal hegemony lite. Forcible regime change (as in Iraq or Libya) might be off the table, but this approach assumes the United States should exercise effective “leadership” in nearly every region of the world and on every critical issue. It also implies that Washington can and will continue to spread liberal values to other countries. Not with military force, mind you, but in lots of other ways. Not surprisingly, some of the same people who pushed this agenda back in the unipolar era now insist that such efforts must continue, despite the parlous state of America’s own democracy.

What should Biden do instead? If he genuinely wants to make diplomacy “the first instrument of American power,” senior officials and members of a rebuilt diplomatic corps will have to approach foreign policy in a new way.

Step 1 is to acknowledge that the unipolar era is over. We are now in a lopsided multipolar order in which the United States and China are the two leading powers but other states (Russia, Japan, India, Germany, perhaps the European Union itself) are also consequential players with their own interests. In a lopsided multipolar world, everyone has more options, and no country can get everything it wants. Even close U.S. allies are not going to fall in line with U.S. preferences when their own interests lie elsewhere, and China’s rise, Russia’s partial recovery, and several decades of American blunders have given other states both the incentive and the ability to hedge. Germany is going to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; the EU will deal with big tech companies in ways that reflect their own interests and values, not America’s, and allies in Asia are not going to stop trading with China just to remain on Uncle Sam’s good side. If Biden’s team thinks all will be forgiven once Trump leaves the White House, they had better get used to disappointment.

Step 2 follows from the first. It is time to abandon the “take it or leave it” approach to negotiations that has hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for a long time. All too often, the U.S. approach toward adversaries (and occasionally allies) has been to issue a series of unrealistic demands and then ratchet up sanctions if the target refused to give the United States everything it wanted. This was the illogic of the failed “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and the unsuccessful efforts to get Russia out of Ukraine, convince North Korea to reduce its nuclear arsenal, or stop the Syrian uprising before it turned into a catastrophic civil war. Trump tried it with China on trade and got nowhere fast.

Compounding this problem is the perennial American tendency to see world politics as a Manichaean struggle between virtuous liberal democracies and malevolent, rights-abusing tyrants. Instead of viewing international problems as straightforward clashes of national interest, U.S. leaders routinely depict them as confrontations between good and evil. Once framed in this way, however, even the smallest compromise with an opponent becomes tantamount to surrender. As former Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” Sadly, in recent decades America hasn’t done much of either. For diplomacy to work, there has to be something in it for all the parties, and that means the United States will have to compromise with states or leaders whose conduct and values are sharply at odds with its own.

To be fair, some members of Biden’s future team understand this quite well, as their successful conduct of the earlier nuclear negotiations with Iran demonstrated. The United States tried the “take it or leave it” approach from 2000 to 2012—demanding that Iran end all nuclear enrichment and ratcheting up sanctions and threats to use force. What did this accomplish? Not a damn thing: Iran went from zero centrifuges to roughly 19,000 while the Americans refused to talk to them. Only when the United States dropped its demand that Iran give up control of the full fuel cycle and began negotiating in earnest did a meaningful agreement become possible. The United States didn’t get everything it might have wanted, but it got the better end of the deal, and the agreement was overwhelmingly in the U.S. interest. Why? Because when the Trump administration walked away from the deal and went back to “maximum pressure,” Iran was free to enrich more uranium and move closer to a bomb than before.

Step 3 is to concentrate on defending democracy where it currently exists and to stop trying to export it to where it doesn’t. Creating a stable and functioning democracy—and especially one that is genuinely liberal—is a task that takes years if not decades, and America’s track record in such efforts is abysmal. Moreover, events in Poland, Hungary, India, Israel, the Philippines, Brazil—and yes, right at home in the United States—have shown just how fragile democratic orders can be. If Biden sends his revitalized State Department out to sell Democracy American-Style to the rest of the world, he will be dispatching them on a fool’s errand.

Instead, as Frances Brown, Tom Carothers, and Alex Pascal recently argued, the Biden administration should convene a democracy summit whose purpose is neither to create an alliance of democracies against Russia and China nor to spread the liberal gospel abroad. Rather, its purpose should be to organize a forum where the world’s democracies can consider how to strengthen themselves in the face of the dangers that threaten them from within, including corruption, weak electoral institutions, racism, and social media. Were Washington to approach such a gathering with the appropriate degree of humility, it would “gratify some people, and astonish the rest,” as Mark Twain put it. Here’s an idea: Maybe Biden should find someone else to chair the meeting—Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand comes to mind—instead of reserving the “head of the table” for himself.

Step 4 involves recalling what diplomacy is really all about. As veteran diplomat Chas W. Freeman puts it, “diplomacy is how a nation advances its interests and resolves problems with foreigners with minimal violence.” It is the subtle art of understanding how others see problems, of persuading as many as possible to see these problems more or less as you do, and of crafting solutions that simultaneously advance your interests and the interests of those actors whose cooperation is needed if you are to achieve your aims.

Whether U.S. diplomats are dealing with allies, neutrals, or adversaries, they should follow the approach that my colleague Dani Rodrik and I outlined in a recent working paper. They should begin by asking: Are there any issues where our interests are aligned with theirs, and where we can agree on positive steps to take together or on negative actions that we will all agree to forgo? If there are, then we should try to reach formal or informal agreements along those lines. Next, if other states are acting in ways that harm our interests, can we persuade them to change their behavior, perhaps by agreeing to refrain from actions we are taking that are presently harming them? Mutual adjustment along these lines could leave both sides better off. If mutual adjustment of this sort proves impossible, then the United States would still be free to take unilateral action to protect its interests, aware that others will do the same. Yet even here, skillful diplomacy can help prevent such conflicts from escalating, by limiting America’s responses to only what is necessary to negate the harms being done by others, and not as a pretext for inflicting additional harms on them.

As Kelebogile Zvobgo argued in Foreign Policy last week, Step 5 is to recognize that nothing is more important than getting America’s own house in order. The gravest threat the United States currently faces is not a legion of powerful, crafty, and ruthless foreign adversaries who are bent upon its destruction and outwitting it at every turn; what threatens America’s future is a level of internal disunion not seen in a century or more. This situation makes it nearly impossible for U.S. government institutions to take effective action to address a pandemic, modernize American infrastructure, promote economic and racial equality, address climate change, or handle any number of other emerging problems, including those that lie beyond the country’s shores. In the very worst case, one can imagine scenarios that are far worse.

In particular, Americans of all political inclinations need to recognize that their country’s international influence is primarily a function of its hard power: the size and strength of its economy and the other capabilities that this material foundation generates. Some other countries used to admire American democracy, but it was not its liberal ideals that gave the United States most of its leverage—such as the leverage it used to pressure democratic allies like Great Britain to decolonize and adopt its preferred international economic order after World War II. It was the size of its economy and the military strength that its economy supported. External conditions impinge on American power—as the end of unipolarity shows all too clearly—but conditions at home are its ultimate source.

If Biden cannot find a way to reverse the internal rot that has now set in—and especially the assault on truth that Trump and right-wing media propagandists have been waging for years—then having the Best Diplomatic Corps in the History of the World wouldn’t do the United States much good. So while I’m all for rebuilding the State Department and reemphasizing diplomacy, it is but one ingredient in the recipe for a more effective foreign policy.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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