Diplomacy: A Rusting Tool of American Statecraft

Diplomacy: A Rusting Tool of American Statecraft
A Lecture to programs on Statecraft at American University, Harvard, and MIT

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Washington, DC and Cambridge, Massachusetts, February, 2018

I am here to talk about diplomacy.  This may seem an odd moment to broach the subject.  Our president has told us that it doesn’t matter that his administration is not staffed to do it, because “I’m the only one who matters.”  In other words, “l’état c’est moi.”

Now that it’s got that straight, the United States Department of State has set about dismantling itself.  Meanwhile, the Foreign Service of the United States is dejectedly withering away.  Our ever-flatulent media seem unconvinced that Americans will miss either institution.

I suspect they’re wrong about that.  Diplomacy is an instrument of statecraft that Americans have not been educated to understand and whose history they do not know.  It is not about “making nice.”  Nor is it just a delaying tactic before we send in the Marines.

Diplomacy is a political performing art that informs and determines the decisions of other states and peoples.  It shapes their perceptions and calculations so that they do what we want them to do because they come to see doing so as in their own best interest.  Diplomacy influences the policies and behavior of states and peoples through measures short of war, though it does not shrink from war as a diversion or last resort.  It is normally but not always overtly non-coercive.  It succeeds best when it embraces humility and respects and preserves the dignity of those to whom it is applied.  As the Chinese philosopher, Laozi put it:  “A leader is best when people barely know he exists.  When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.”

Napoleon called diplomacy, “the police in grand costume” but it is usually not much to look at.  It seldom involves blowing things up, most of its action is unseen, and it is relatively inexpensive.  Diplomacy’s greatest triumphs tend to be preventing things from happening.  But it’s hard to prove they wouldn’t have occurred, absent diplomacy.  So diplomats are more often blamed for what did happen than credited for what didn’t.  Diplomats are even worse than sailors at marching.  Diplomacy stages no parades in which ambassadors and their political masters can strut among baton-twirling majorettes or wave to adoring crowds.   Nor, for the most part, does it justify expensive programs that generate the pork and patronage that nourish politics

All this makes diplomacy both obscure and of little or no direct interest to the central institutions in contemporary Washington’s foreign policy.  As any foreign embassy will tell you, the U.S. Department of Defense and other elements of the military-industrial-congressional complex now dominate the policy process.  Both are heavily invested in theories of coercive interaction between states.  Both favor strategic and tactical doctrines that justify expensive weapons systems and well-paid people to use them.  Activities that cost little and lack drama do not intrigue them.  They see diplomats as the clean-up squad to be deployed after they have demolished other societies, not as peers who can help impose our will without fighting.

U.S. foreign policy is heavily militarized in theory, practice, and staffing.  No one has bankrolled the development of professional diplomatic doctrine, meaning a body of interrelated operational concepts describing how to influence the behavior of other states and people by mostly non-violent means.  So there is no diplomatic equivalent of military doctrine, the pretensions of some scholars of international relations (IR) theory notwithstanding.  This is a very big gap in American statecraft that the growing literature on conflict management has yet to fill.  The absence of diplomatic doctrine to complement military science eliminates most options short of the raw pressure of sanctions or the use of force.  It thereby increases the probability of armed conflict, with all its unpredictable human and financial consequences.

Working out a diplomatic doctrine with which to train professional diplomats could have major advantages.  Diplomatic performance might then continually improve, as military performance does, as experience emended doctrine.   But developing diplomatic doctrine would require acceptance that our country has a need for someone other than dilettantes and amateurs to conduct its foreign relations.  Our politicians, who love the spoils system, seem firmly convinced that, between them, wealthy donors and campaign gerbils can meet most of our needs in foreign affairs, with the military meeting the rest.  The Department of State, which would be the logical government agency to fund an effort at the development of tradecraft and doctrine, is usually led by diplomatic novices.  It is also the perennial runt at the federal budgetary teat.

Leadership of foreign policy by untrained neophytes was to a great extent  the American norm even during the Cold War, when the United States led the world outside the Soviet camp and  deployed unmatched political attractiveness and economic clout.  Now retired and active duty military officers have been added to the diplomatic management mix.  They are experts in the application of violence, not peaceable statecraft, to foreign societies.  How is this likely to work out in the new world disorder?  As the late Deng Xiaoping said, “practice is the sole criterion of truth.”  So we’ll see.  But while we wait for the outcome, there is still time to consider the potential of diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft.

The basis of diplomacy is empathy for the views of others.  It is most effective when grounded in a sophisticated understanding of another’s language, culture, feelings, and intellectual habits. Empathy inhibits killing.  It is not a character trait we expect or desire our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to have.

Language and area training plus practical experience are what enable diplomats to imagine the viewpoint of foreign leaders, to see the world as they do, to analyze trends and events as they would, and to evaluate the pros and cons of actions as they might.  A competent diplomat can use such insights to make arguments that foreign leaders find persuasive.  A diplomat schooled in strategy can determine what circumstances are required to persuade foreign leaders that doing what the diplomat wants them to do is not yielding to superior power but deciding on their own to do what is in their nation’s best interest.

Empathy does not, of course, imply alignment or agreement with the viewpoints of others, just understanding of them.  It is not the same as sympathy, which identifies with others’ perspectives.  Sometimes the aim of diplomacy is to persuade a foreign country to continue to adhere to established policies, because they are beneficial.  But more commonly, it is to change the policies, behavior, and practices of other countries or individuals, not to affirm or endorse them.  To succeed, diplomats must cleave to their own side’s interests, convictions, and policy positions even as they grasp the motivations and reasoning processes of those whose positions they seek to change.  But they must also be able to see their country and its actions as others see them and accept these views as an operational reality to be acknowledged and dealt with rather than denounced as irrational or duplicitous.

To help policy-makers formulate policies and actions that have a real chance of influencing a particular foreign country’s decisions, diplomats habitually find themselves called upon to explain how and why that country’s history and circumstances make it see things and act the way it does.  In the United States, most men and women in senior foreign policy positions did not work their way up the ranks.  They are much more familiar with domestic interest groups and their views than with foreign societies and how they work.  Explanation of foreign positions is easily mistaken for advocacy of them, especially by people inclined to dismiss outlandish views that contradict their prejudices as inherently irrational or malicious.

It’s good domestic politics to pound the policy table in support of popular narratives and nationalist postures and to reject foreign positions on issues as irrational, disingenuous, or malevolent.  But diplomats can’t do that if they are to remain true to their calling.  In a policy process driven more by how things will look to potential domestic critics than by a determination actually to change the behavior of foreigners, diplomats are easily marginalized.  But when they are backed by strong-minded leaders who want results abroad, they can accomplish a great deal that military intervention cannot.

Let me give a couple of examples of how U.S. diplomacy has rearranged other states’ and people’s appraisals of their strategic circumstances and caused them to decide to adopt courses of action favored by the United States.  These examples show both the complexities with which diplomacy must deal and its limitations in terms of its ability to secure assured outcomes.

Exhibit A is American diplomacy in late Cold War Africa.  In the 1980s, a U.S. policy called “linkage” rearranged the strategic geometry in southern Africa in order to free Southwest Africa (Namibia) from South African colonialism and end Soviet-sponsored military intervention on the continent.  The “linkage” policy proposed and carried out by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester A. Crocker was a classic exercise in regional balance of power diplomacy and offshore balancing in support of Cold War objectives.  It was also politically friendless, which may be why it remains essentially unstudied.

Crocker inherited a failed policy focused on shaming and sanctioning South Africa  into implementing a UN Security Council-mandated independence process for its Namibian colony.  He replaced this with diplomacy that enlisted American power to ensure that none of the key actors in the region could get its way on the issues it cared most about unless all others did and Namibia also achieved independence.  If Cuba were to withdraw from Angola as South Africa withdrew from Namibia and as elections replaced civil war in Angola, all would be able to claim some measure of success.  Otherwise, the fighting would continue, with American favor withheld, the Namibian issue unresolved, and South Africa ostracized.[1]

“Linkage” diplomacy required dealing forthrightly with several of America’s and the world’s most prominent bêtes noirs: apartheid-era South Africa, Communist Cuba, and the Soviet Union.  The Cubans and Soviets had earlier humiliated South Africa, the United States, and the CIA in Angola by intervening to forestall elections and install a Soviet-oriented government.  Crocker ended up accepting semi-clandestine aid to Angola’s UNITA[2] insurgents as a way to pressure the Angolan regime and its Cuban and Soviet backers to agree to negotiate a regional deal.  UNITA was  also supported by apartheid South Africa, making it persona non grata in international society.

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, Crocker’s diplomacy was under constant attack from both the Left and Right.  The Left saw dealing with South Africa under apartheid as immoral.   Accepting the need to deal with the interests of adversaries like Cuba and the USSR contradicted the Right’s determination to punish them.  Diplomacy offered an unwelcome and, as American politicians saw it, unrighteous and unrealistic distraction from their ideological idées fixes and preference for the use of force to counter Soviet intervention in the Third World.  The CIA sought to undermine the policy.  But George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, resolutely backed Crocker’s diplomacy.  President Reagan backed Secretary Shultz.  And Crocker had the courage of his convictions.  That made all the difference.

The decolonization of Namibia was the focus of UN diplomacy in southern Africa, but it was not a top priority for any of the actors there, each of which had other objectives to which it attached greater importance.  For white-ruled South Africa the priority was removing the threat that Soviet-backed Cuban troops seemed to pose to it.  For the Angolan government and its Cuban sponsors it was consolidating control of Angola by defeating UNITA and the South African expeditionary forces that supplied and fought alongside it.  The Cubans wanted to demonstrate their power to help end colonialism in Africa.  For the by-then-overextended Soviets, it was cutting the costs of their policies while showing that they were still a great power whose interests could not be ignored by the United States or regional powers. All concerned wanted better relations with the United States.

The main U.S. goal in southern Africa at the time was derived from the Cold War grand strategy of containment.  It was the reduction and prevention of further advances in Soviet influence there.  Linking Cuban troop withdrawal to the UN Security Council’s demand that South Africa give Namibia its independence gave U.S. policy a claim to international legitimacy that enabled very useful backstage support from senior UN diplomats.

A time-honored tool of diplomacy is shameless repetition of an unwelcome proposition so that it becomes so familiar that it is no longer ruled out.  With persistence on the part of the United States and other countries[3] that quietly cooperated with American diplomacy, the initially very recalcitrant parties came to see that there could be something for everyone in a deal based on “linkage.”  The Cubans could take pride in having stabilized Angola and helped end colonialism in Africa.  The South Africans could rid themselves of the Cuban-Soviet threat and take pleasure in American and Soviet recognition that they were the greatest power in their region.  The ailing USSR would no longer have to subsidize Cuban intervention in a region that was of only marginal strategic importance to it.  The Angolans could gain a chance to pursue domestic tranquility through an election process.  The UN could finally oversee the independence of Namibia.  And, to those few who paid attention, the United States would show its diplomatic mettle, while removing significant Soviet influence from southern Africa..

Much to the surprise of its many detractors, “linkage” diplomacy eventually produced the deal it had set out to produce.  This had the incidental side effect of depriving the Communist-backed Southwest African People’s Organization (SWAPO) of any claim to have liberated Namibia through heroically violent struggle.  Four thousand SWAPO guerrillas invaded Namibia to preempt its peaceful independence under UN supervision pursuant to the ”linkage” accords.  SWAPO’s assault united Cuba, South Africa, Angola, and the members of the UN Security Council in full support of the deal “linkage” had produced.  SWAPO’s historic supporters, Angola and Cuba joined others in approving the annihilation of the SWAPO invaders by the residual South African forces in Namibia.  Ironically, given the needless sacrifice of its military wing, SWAPO candidates then easily won a majority in the UN-supervised elections that cemented Namibian independence.

The Cubans withdrew from Angola.  Portuguese mediation helped hammer out an agreement to hold elections in a badly divided Angola, but domestic tranquility in that country proved elusive and ultimately fatal to UNITA’s hopes of participating in its governance.  More importantly, as an added bonus, the contacts “constructive engagement” and “linkage” diplomacy had brought about between South Africa, its black African neighbors, and the international community helped catalyze decisions by the Afrikaner establishment that ended apartheid in their country a few years later.

Exhibit B is the diplomatic strategy that underpinned  the third US-China Joint Communiqué, which was issued on August 17, 1982.  This finessed disagreement between the United States and China over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.  More importantly, it incentivized both sides in the unfinished Chinese civil war to search for non-military means to manage their interactions and resolve their differences.

The Taiwan question is the issue of what political relationship Taiwan and the rest of China should have.  It arose from the confluence of two wars.  After Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China’s defeat on the China mainland in 1949, he retreated to the Chinese province of Taiwan.  In 1950, as Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army prepared to pursue Chiang to his island redoubt, north Korea’s Kim Il-sung invaded south Korea.  The United States interpreted this as part of a broader Soviet bloc move to break out of “containment.”  It interposed the U.S. Seventh Fleet between the Chinese combatants in the Taiwan Strait to prevent the Korean war from spilling over to Taiwan and adjacent areas of the China mainland.

With U.S. support, Taipei then continued to represent China internationally and to affirm its intention to reconquer the Chinese mainland.  Meanwhile, Beijing stressed its determination to complete its victory in the Chinese civil war by “liberating” Taiwan.   As part of “containment,” the United States undertook to ensure Taiwan’s defense against assault from the mainland.  With each party to the unfinished Chinese civil war constantly proclaiming its intention – however unrealistic – to use force to invade the other and reunite China under its rule, worst case analysis, which weighs capabilities without assessing intentions, needed no supplement to gauge Taiwan’s defense needs.  Washington took the measure of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, including U.S. forces, and then offered or added what seemed necessary to maintain the balance.

But, as the 1970s began, the United States stopped using Taiwan to contain China and turned to using China to contain the Soviet Union.  In December 1978, Washington recognized Beijing rather than Taipei as the seat of the Chinese government.  Beijing followed this with a pledge to make best efforts to resolve the Taiwan question by peaceful means.  The withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan and an American undertaking to exercise restraint in future sales of “carefully selected defensive weapons” to Taiwan had facilitated this Chinese policy change.  The United States appeared to have consolidated China’s alignment with it against the Soviet Union while successfully extricating itself from all but indirect military involvement in the residuum of the Chinese civil war.  By disengaging militarily, Americans seemed to have laid the basis for realizing our stated policy interest “in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.[4]

But, in Ronald Reagan’s 1980  presidential campaign, he pledged to “return” to a policy of unrestricted arms sales to Taiwan.  This led to a Sino-American crisis over the issue after he took office.  But both China and the United States had a stake in at least the appearance of solidarity in their opposition to the Soviet Union.  Toward the end of 1981, Beijing and Washington began exploring the possibility of a renewed modus vivendi.  Beijing saw an American commitment to temper and eventually end arms sales to Taiwan as essential to justify its normalization of relations and overt foreign policy cooperation with the United States.  Washington wanted Chinese public commitments both to stand with the “free world” against the USSR and not to use force against Taiwan.

In their agreement of August 17, 1982, neither side got all it wanted, though each got enough to reaffirm cooperation against Moscow.  More importantly, the agreement put in place an understanding on how U.S. arms sales to Taiwan should be handled.  In return for a U.S. pledge to cap the quality and gradually reduce the quantity of arms sales to Taiwan, China affirmed and implemented a “fundamental policy” of striving for reunification by peaceful means.  As intended, these parallel policy shifts caused both Taipei and Beijing to rethink how best to pursue their respective strategic interests.

China’s policy of peaceful reunification plus its rapid modernization made worst case approaches to the military balance in the Taiwan area increasingly problematic.  It was becoming ever more evident that the indefinite maintenance of military parity between an island of 23 million inhabitants and the emerging great power across the Strait was infeasible.  Beijing’s acceptance of a political rather than military approach to reunification enabled the United States to incorporate an appraisal of Chinese intentions into the analysis of what arms sales might be necessary to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” for Taiwan, as U.S. policy required.  As the threat diminished, so might the need for U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan.  This made it very much in Beijing’s interest to emphasize its peaceful intent.

The prospect of steadily diminishing American military assistance had the predictable effect of focusing Taipei on realistic alternatives to military confrontation as a response to the threat Taiwan faced from the mainland.  Within a decade, it had stopped challenging Beijing as the government of China and decided that it was in its interest to respond to Beijing’s offers of political dialogue.  In meetings in Hong Kong in November 1992 and Singapore in April 1993, Taipei and Beijing found a framework to justify ongoing dialogue and negotiations between them.  Without prescribing any particular course of action to either party to the Taiwan dispute, U.S. policy had created circumstances that induced the parties to set aside military confrontation in favor of a “peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question” between themselves.

The realization by both Beijing and Taipei that dialogue offered a better prospect than military approaches to the management of cross-Strait differences took time to take root.  But it did take root.  To the surprise of many, it survived the abrupt abandonment by the United States of the agreed limits on its arms sales to Taiwan.  In September 1992, the collapse of the common Soviet enemy, the deterioration in US-China relations after the Tiananmen incident, and a long-running campaign by proponents of military approaches to securing Taiwan came together with the expediencies of election-year politics to produce a massive sale of advanced fighter aircraft to Taiwan – the largest  arms sale package to any single purchaser to that date.  The U.S. turnabout predictably encouraged defiance of Beijing by Taiwan independence advocates and provoked the remilitarization of cross-Strait relations.

Subsequent twists and turns in cross-Strait relations included attempts by some in Taipei to repudiate previous understandings with Beijing and Chinese and U.S. shows of force in the Taiwan area.  But, in 2005, Taiwan and the mainland extended their rapprochement in a detailed program of cooperation based on their earlier understandings.  Few in Beijing and none in Taipei now advocate exclusive reliance on military means to deal with each other.  Many Americans, by contrast, still advocate a purely military approach.  Ironically, with the Taiwan roller-coaster now apparently headed for yet another hair-raising descent, there is more bellicose talk in Washington than between Taipei and Beijing.  Neither the Taiwan story nor the risks it presents to Sino-American relations is over.  The danger remains that, if Sino-American disagreement about Taiwan is not addressed creatively, it will lead eventually to a bloody rendezvous between American honor and Chinese nationalism.

These two examples of diplomacy as strategy – Namibia and Taiwan – show that patient diplomacy based on accurate assessments of the perceived needs of the parties to apparently intractable conflicts can maneuver them toward peace when reflected in hard-nosed policies.  Armed intervention was not a realistic means of addressing the issues in Namibia or the Taiwan Strait,  though there were powerful interest groups that nonetheless advocated some form of military action in both cases.

Each of these examples of diplomacy as strategy contains important lessons for diplomatic doctrine.  But, to the extent the diplomatic concepts and actions that produced them has been analyzed at all, this has been almost entirely from the perspective of ideologically tinged African or East Asian area studies or IR theories uninformed by the reasoning processes that produced success.  Such overspecialized analyses miss the points relevant to practical statecraft

Diplomacy is not just the strategic manipulation of circumstances and perceptions to guide, direct, and control the decisions of those affected by them.  It is also, self-evidently, the means of tactical maneuver by which a state defends and improves its competitive position in relation to other states and peoples. And it is the process by which states adjust their relations with each other without unleashing the unpredictable havoc of war.  In this sense, diplomacy is almost a synonym for “negotiation.”  It is also how states conciliate and mediate between other states to ensure that outcomes benefit them.  Mediation is a skill that involves the simultaneous exercise of empathy with multiple conflicting parties.  Handling such complexity demands professional awareness and competence well beyond what is required for resolving simpler human equations.

Both diplomatic dialogue and negotiation are poorly understood in American civic culture.  One purpose of dialogue is to build a basis for empathy that enables the insight into the motivations and perceptions of another party necessary to shape an environment and craft an approach that can persuade that party to do what you want it to do.  Another is to convey one’s own motivations and interests directly to underscore one’s resolve or reduce misunderstandings that might unproductively escalate tension. Diplomatic dialogue is not a favor to the other side in a confrontation, but a means of conducting  reconnaissance, shows of determination, and maneuver for future gain.

Americans like to substitute sanctions for dialogue with a state with which we have serious disagreements.  But sanctions unconnected to serious offers of deal-making through negotiations do not promote reflection on the part of their target.  They entrench differences.  “We won’t talk until you come out with your hands up” is seldom an effective path to persuasion.  It is usually seen as humiliating and taken to signal a lack of seriousness about addressing issues of concern to the party to which it is addressed.

This decade’s U.S. interactions with Iran and north Korea illustrate this.  It was only after direct talks with Tehran in Muscat began secretly in March 2013 and offers of sanctions relief were conveyed by the American negotiators that agreement became possible.  The inability to find a suitable format for a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang to address not only the  U.S. denuclearization agenda but also the existential concerns of the  Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRKs) helps explain the current, dangerous confrontation with it.

No party enters negotiations unless it believes it has something to gain by bargaining and something to lose if it doesn’t.  The absence of dialogue deprives the parties of both the influence and insights that only face-to-face encounters afford.   Willingness to negotiate does not necessarily foreshadow concessions.  What matters is not the fact of meeting.  It is what is said in it.  The purpose of negotiations is not to come to agreement or to resolve differences through compromise with the other side.  It is to advance the interests in one’s charge.

This can mean conducting talks in such a way as to avoid rather than produce a resolution of differences between the parties.  Using negotiation as a stalling tactic can enable change that obviates concessions or facilitates a more favorable outcome in future.  A good example of such “diplomacy of deception and delay” can be seen in Israel’s approach to the interminably unproductive “peace process” for the decades that followed its beginning in the mid 1970s.

Israel provided what it knew both Palestinians and foreign audiences wanted to see in terms of the prospect of progress toward peace.  It did its best to keep hope alive for a deal based on “land for peace.” But, even as Israel engaged in on-again off-again talks with Palestinians about their self-determination, it was erecting barriers to the creation of a Palestinian state that it calculated would ultimately prove insuperable.  In its use of diplomacy as a cover for annexation and settlement activity rather than a resolution of it, Israel had the cooperation of American “peace processors.”  Perhaps these Americans, whose sympathy for Israel rather than the Palestinians ultimately became notorious, will one day explain whether they were witting or unwitting accomplices in Israel’s protracted duplicity.

Diplomacy may also be directed at producing an impasse or insult that triggers a war, when war is necessary to achieve a desired adjustment in relations with other states.  In 1870, Bismarck’s effort peacefully to unite Germany required such a war.  To cause other German states to accept Prussian leadership, Bismarck needed the French to appear to be the aggressor.  An apparently defensive war would activate treaties that placed Prussia’s King Wilhelm I in command of all the armies of Germany, including those in its Prussian-suspicious south.

By altering a telegram and then releasing it to the public, Bismarck made it sound as if King Wilhelm had demeaned a ranking French envoy.  Duly provoked by this apparent insult, as Bismarck had supposed it would be, France declared war on Prussia six days later.  In response, the southern German states united under the command of their Prussian compatriots.  As Bismarck had calculated, the victory of a Prussian-led German army over the French paved the way for the creation of a German Empire under Wilhelm I.

Sometimes, diplomacy is a means of deception that conceals the intention to use force to effect change.  In August 1990, Saddam Hussein used Iraqi negotiations with Kuwait to convince Kuwaitis and their Gulf Arab partners that there was no imminent danger of his forces attacking them.  An hour after Iraq abruptly broke off talks with the Kuwaitis in Jeddah, it invaded Kuwait.  Four days later, it was poised to attack Saudi Arabia.  When an adversary talks in deliberately unproductive and provocative ways while continuing preparations for the use of force, one has reason to be especially vigilant.  Kuwait was not.

Diplomacy is not just the craft of adjusting relationships at minimal cost, it is also risk management.  It is the means by which a state builds political capital, sustains a reputation for reliability and responsiveness to foreign partners and events, and interacts with them day to day.  The management of alliances, ententes, relations with dependencies, neutrals, adversaries, and enemies is a never-ending task that diplomats necessarily carry out around the clock.

If you represent a foreign government and you want to know why the United States has boots on the ground in Mali and Niger but not in Guinea or Côte d’Ivoire, ask your local American embassy, the U.S. mission to the United Nations, or the Department of State.  In normal times, the answers will be the same.

Want to learn what U.S. objectives in Laos or Vietnam are or what concerns the United States has had about deporting people to Haiti or Cuba?  In normal times, ask the American embassy in your capital to brief you or have your embassy in Washington seek a briefing at the Department of State.

Interested in American policy on female genital mutilation, anti-missile defense, or the Israel-Palestine issue?  In normal times, connect with the experts on these subjects in Foggy Bottom.

Suppose you are an American university and need help to get shoplifting students of yours out of a Chinese jail.  In normal times, you can get such help through the U.S. consular officers who support the application of international norms on the spot.  Concerned about international internet freedom?  Your advocate is the Department of State.  Interested in understanding the progression of events in contemporary Saudi Arabia?  In normal times, there are experts at the Department of State who can explain them and their implications for American interests to you.

Do you need to object to excessive tariffs or discriminatory inspection procedures affecting your company’s exports to a particular foreign market?  Communicate your concerns to the U.S. ambassador there directly, or indirectly, through the Department of State.  Providing there is an ambassador in place and the Department of State is staffed to assist you, you can register your views through them to the foreign government concerned, while increasing your leverage in any bargaining for relief.

Need help figuring out how to be government friendly as you build a market for your sales or production abroad?  The U.S. embassy and the Department of State are where you can get this help.   In normal times, you will seldom need a visa to enter a foreign country because the Department of State will have negotiated visa-free border crossing for you.

But these are not normal times.  The United States is not now performing these basic diplomatic functions reliably or effectively.  Power in Washington is no longer brought into focus through a coherent policy process.  Interagency coordination is the poorest it has ever been.  Many key policy positions outside the White House remain vacant.  There is minimal guidance and delegation of authority by the president and his cabinet officers to subordinates.

Attempts to understand U.S. policy through contacts with the Department of State and other departments of the federal government now frequently fail.  The White House or National Security Council have no time to staff answers to private  inquiries.  Routine visits between key officials of our government and other governments no longer take place.  Different components of the U.S. foreign affairs bureaucracy now either duck questions aimed at elucidating U.S. policy or answer them in an uncoordinated, unauthoritative, or even contradictory manner. Every policy pronouncement that is issued remains subject to sudden correction by presidential twitterstorm.

The failure to staff and perform the routine tasks of diplomacy has significant short and long-term costs.  It is eroding foreign trust in the United States and undermining cooperation between Americans and their foreign allies, partners, and friends.  It is replacing foreign confidence in American reliability as an international actor with concern about American erraticism and unpredictability.  It is creating a diplomatic vacuum that others are filling and from which they will not be easily dislodged.  It is causing confusion about U.S. purposes and draining foreign support for US-led alliances and partnerships.  In short, it is making the United States a smaller factor in world affairs by quietly but radically shrinking American influence in foreign capitals.  It is lessening the extent to which the United States can count on backing for its interests and policies from others.

The evisceration of the Department of State and the Foreign Service of the United States continues as we speak.  Experience teaches us that it takes decades, if not centuries, to form effective government departments or professions.  The damage already done to the U.S. government’s foreign relations management capabilities is likely to take many, many years to repair.  In the interim, the United States will suffer and others will gain from the consequences of what amounts to unilateral diplomatic disarmament by Washington.

It is no consolation that the American diplomatic capabilities that are being weakened were less robustly professional and competent than they might have been.  The margin of error in American foreign policy is contracting as other nations become wealthier, stronger, and more competitive.  The continued military strength of the United States does not offset the deterioration  of our international politico-economic leadership capacity and diplomatic agility.

Meanwhile, the attractiveness of the United States — our reputation as both a reliable international actor and good society — is corroding.  American foreign policy is increasingly disparaged abroad as perfidious, indifferent to the interests of allies, and incompetent at countering adversaries.  American exceptionalism no longer has the credibility and appeal that it once did.

More than two millennia ago, Confucian moralism asserted that the key to influence outside one’s own state was not military power projection but domestic virtue that would cause others to see one’s nation as a society they should emulate.  John Winthrop’s notion of the power of American rectitude to inspire other societies to match our moral excellence paralleled this insight.  The traditional idealism of Americans, the oft-stated aspiration of our country to apply higher than usual standards to itself, and the demonstrated capacity of American society to embrace change long gave Washington a uniquely persuasive voice in world affairs.  Worldwide admiration for the wisdom of the American statesmen who created the post-World War II order legitimized Washington’s international stature as the natural leader of global governance.  It turns out that the appearance of virtue can add importantly to a society’s power by associating it with justice,  probity, compassion, and wisdom.

The image the United States now presents to the world is not helpful in this regard.  It is of a society in denial, where government is gridlocked, intermittent riots expose endemic racism, equality of opportunity is being replaced by socioeconomic sclerosis and plutocracy, politics are venal, homelessness is rife, gun massacres are frequent, the elite is increasingly indifferent to the plight of the poor or unfortunate, and religious prejudice and xenophobia are on the rise.  Propaganda, useful as it can be in enhancing or defending national reputations, cannot overcome these perceptions.  They represent real American problems that require American solutions.

Quite aside from the effects they have on foreign views of our country, we Americans need to get our act back together.  But how to fix our politics is a topic that it would take at least another forty-five minutes to address and is best left for another day

We live in a world in which what happens anywhere is soon known everywhere.  Diplomacy is an important element in our intercourse with other nations and peoples.  It is based on understanding their perspectives on issues as well as our own and using that understanding to protect and advance our interests.  The power of others relative to our own is increasing.  Whether as strategy, tactics, or simply risk management, diplomacy is something in which, in our own interest, we ought to seek to excel.  Without competent diplomacy near the center of our statecraft, the United States is unlikely to fare well.






[1]The process by which linkage was conceived and imposed is described in Crocker, Chester A. (1993). High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood. New York: W. W. Norton.

[2]União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola

[3]Notably, Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom.

[4]Joint Communiqué of the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America Issued in Shanghai, February 28, 1972