When Diplomacy Fails

Washington and its European allies sought a negotiated solution—but even as the tanks roll, the West’s diplomatic offensive could still yield dividends.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gesture as they arrive for a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gesture as they arrive for a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gesture as they arrive for a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 19, 2021. SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Diplomacy has limits. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine occurred despite every effort of Western diplomats to avert it. The Biden administration deployed a Swiss Army knife of both traditional and innovative tactics aimed to avoid armed conflict. In the lead-up to the conflict the U.S. government’s spotlighting of Russia’s maneuvers and motives penetrated the fog of war, exposing Putin as an unmistakable aggressor.

But the logic of international security dictates that even the most fervent diplomatic efforts don’t always prevail. As the United States contends with the current crisis and contemplates a future of renewed superpower rivalry, simmering regional conflicts, and escalating cyber-capabilities, the path to war in Ukraine will endure as a reminder of diplomacy’s extraordinary potential but also its inescapable limitations.

Diplomacy is the primary tool of statecraft for good reason. Diplomats have averted and ended wars, bolstered human rights, and alleviated human suffering. Washington’s diplomatic triumphs include the formation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the Camp David Accords, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Dayton Accords, and countless others. Diplomacy is efficient and safe. The U.S. State Department’s budget is just one-tenth of the Pentagon’s, and deaths in the line of duty are rare.

Diplomacy has limits. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine occurred despite every effort of Western diplomats to avert it. The Biden administration deployed a Swiss Army knife of both traditional and innovative tactics aimed to avoid armed conflict. In the lead-up to the conflict the U.S. government’s spotlighting of Russia’s maneuvers and motives penetrated the fog of war, exposing Putin as an unmistakable aggressor.

But the logic of international security dictates that even the most fervent diplomatic efforts don’t always prevail. As the United States contends with the current crisis and contemplates a future of renewed superpower rivalry, simmering regional conflicts, and escalating cyber-capabilities, the path to war in Ukraine will endure as a reminder of diplomacy’s extraordinary potential but also its inescapable limitations.

Diplomacy is the primary tool of statecraft for good reason. Diplomats have averted and ended wars, bolstered human rights, and alleviated human suffering. Washington’s diplomatic triumphs include the formation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the Camp David Accords, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Dayton Accords, and countless others. Diplomacy is efficient and safe. The U.S. State Department’s budget is just one-tenth of the Pentagon’s, and deaths in the line of duty are rare.

In recent years, post-9/11 faith in military intervention faded, and diplomacy moved to the forefront. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost lives, sapped U.S. credibility, stoked anti-American sentiment, distracted from other festering problems, and left affected regions still simmering. To many, despite two decades without catastrophic terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, Afghanistan’s reversion to Taliban rule last summer seemed a high-water mark of war’s futility. Even highly contained U.S. military engagements, such as those in Syria and Libya, could not vindicate military intervention as a strategy.

Those operations were less costly in American lives, and they prevented an Islamic State caliphate from taking root. But they did not stop ongoing armed conflict in both countries, rising Russian regional influence, or a mass refugee exodus that has stoked xenophobia and authoritarianism in Europe.


Today, these Middle Eastern interventions are the only ones that a younger generation of diplomats and policymakers has ever known, with the more successful U.S.-led operations in the first Gulf War and Bosnia and Kosovo having faded from memory.

As a result, there is little appetite among Democratic or Republican leaders, or among any ideological faction, even for military engagements that stop short of out-and-out war. Right and left have converged on a commitment to end “endless wars”—a mantra recited by politicians from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders and embraced by President Joe Biden. Bedfellows as strange as George Soros and Charles Koch jointly bankrolled a Washington-based think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, devoted to opposing the United States’ use of force.

A deep antipathy to armed conflict is no doubt a good thing. But in saying on the eve of Russia’s incursion that “there is no alternative to diplomacy,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres spoke rhetorically. Those who are determined to avert war don’t always get to decide whether war will happen. That prerogative rests with those who are eager, or even reluctantly willing, to risk military conflagration.

A government’s steadfast refusal to go to war doesn’t mean that war won’t ensue.

A government’s steadfast refusal to go to war doesn’t mean that war won’t ensue. Calm talk and delaying tactics may sometimes dissuade a violent intruder, but they don’t always work. While diplomacy and the use of force are sometimes juxtaposed as binary alternatives in the news media, they are often intertwined. The threat of force can catalyze compromise. Failed diplomacy can devolve into war. Once war begins, diplomacy doesn’t end but often escalates, with a focus on containing conflict, curbing civilian casualties, and achieving a cease-fire.

Diplomats sometimes use the metaphor of a toolbox. As Putin’s troops encircled Ukraine, the Biden administration tried just about every hammer, vise, and scalpel within reach. It pursued high-level direct engagement between Biden and Putin; face-to-face negotiations with the Russians at varied levels and venues; written exchanges; packages of incentives; multilateral talks through the U.N. Security Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; an effort to resurrect four-party talks under the so-called Normandy Format; and diplomatic gambits by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The Biden administration spelled out the consequences of a Russian invasion explicitly in terms of punishing financial sanctions while leaving to the imagination what Biden called “swift and severe” reprisals that go well beyond that. U.S. officials worked assiduously to forge unity among Western nations, creating a remarkably united front. They made incisive use of intelligence, exposing Russia’s alleged schemes to manufacture Ukrainian provocations as justification for attack and to install a pro-Kremlin Russian leader.

Normally low-key U.S. diplomats have summoned dramatic flair, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken making a last-ditch speech to the U.N. Security Council laying out Putin’s purported plans in minute, riveting detail. During a Security Council meeting late last week the Indian delegation cynically abstained from a resolution deploring Russia’s incursion saying, “it is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up.” But, of course, the only party to give up on diplomacy was Putin himself when he ordered troops to cross the border. A majority of the Council understood that well, forcing Russia to exercise its veto in order to escape condemnation.

After the agonizing U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin’s march on Ukraine seemed premised on the conviction that neither Washington nor the EU would intervene.

Timed just months after America’s agonizing withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin’s march on Ukraine seemed premised on the conviction that neither Washington nor Western Europe would have the stomach to intervene militarily to defend Moscow’s onetime client state. Back in December, Biden announced unequivocally that troop deployments to Ukraine were off the table.

Yet the United States continues to bulk up its military presence in Poland, Romania, and Germany, acknowledging that war isn’t always easily contained. The administration has repeatedly now avowed that should Putin enter NATO territory, he will meet with the full military force of the alliance.

The Biden team rightly learned the lesson of former President Barack Obama’s breached red line over chemical weapons use in Syria that once an explicit threat of force is made, failure to follow through invites adversaries ready to push and provoke without fear of consequences. Whether greater ambiguity on the West’s part about the possibility of allied intervention to defend Ukraine’s borders might have deterred Putin’s designs—and perhaps pried open a diplomatic solution—is unknowable.


War has erupted in Ukraine not because diplomacy wasn’t tried but because diplomacy couldn’t deter a leader such as Putin, who saw advantage in an all-out invasion and is willing to tolerate the fallout. Signs that Putin is becoming unhinged and distanced from even his closest advisors underscore a risk that has loomed all along: that the Russian leader is beyond appeals to reason or logic. Nonetheless, the Biden administration and its allies now hold the moral high ground of having exhausted preventive efforts, short of preemptively trading away Ukrainian sovereignty.

As with all wars, however, now that tanks are rolling, events become hard to predict. It is difficult to know if the pain of sanctions will constrict Putin and force concessions as the parties meet at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Initial demonstrations of Russian popular opposition to the war may swell up, or die down depending on how things unfold on the battlefield.

No one knows exactly how calamitous the conflict will be for Ukrainian civilians nor the country’s future as an independent nation. Even harder to foresee is whether this particular breach of national sovereignty might be the one that breaks the dam, prompting a copycat rash of audacious power grabs that gut international norms against cross-border invasion and creating a more chaotic, war-prone world.

That diplomacy sometimes fails doesn’t render it useless. By persuading the world that they have done everything possible to try to avert war, the United States and its allies have won themselves crucial leeway in how they respond to the fighting now that it has started. Their sweeping sanctions, closures of airspace and infusions of military aid to Ukraine are recognized not as warmongering, but as a last resort.

Facing up to the limits of diplomacy also does not imply an embrace of war. It may mean learning to live with the consequences of aggression, as the world has grudgingly done with respect to Russia’s appropriation of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. It may also mean regrouping to mount far more assertive strategies to fend off a next phase of Putin’s westward ambitions.

Even as the United States prioritizes avoiding military entanglements, Americans must be prepared—both militarily and also politically—for the fact that even the most ardent and virtuosic diplomatic efforts won’t always prevent war.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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