Time to Try a Different Approach to Foreign Relations?

Time to Try a Different Approach to Foreign Relations?
Remarks to a CODEPINK Congress Program on Diplomacy

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By Video to Washington, DC  6 December 2022

It’s time to recognize that our country has a statecraft deficit sustained by a diplomacy-free foreign policy. We don’t know how to use measures short of war to solve problems, how to avoid starting wars, how to gain anything but more debt from them, or how to terminate them. We demand professionalism and proven competence from our military but are content with amateurism and mediocrity in our diplomacy. How did this happen?

Well, for the first 120 years of our history we were either content behind the two great oceans that separate us from Asia and Europe or using our military to annex half of Mexico, engineer regime change elsewhere in Latin America, or kill Indians. After a brilliant start as an independent nation, we imagined that unskilled fat cats and political cronies were good enough for diplomatic work.

In 1917, we sent troops to Europe, where they tipped the balance in World War I. Our president, an academic with no diplomatic experience named Woodrow Wilson, had some untested theories about how the world should be run and tried them out in Paris at the peace conference after the war. Our allies cynically indulged him, but our Congress repudiated the new world order he proposed.

We nonetheless decided to professionalize our diplomacy. In 1924, we created the Foreign Service of the United States. But we continued to appoint wealthy dilettantes with few relevant skills to represent us abroad. In Asia and Europe, our foreign policy was isolationist and consisted almost entirely of denunciations of foreigners and other affirmations of our presumed moral superiority. This annoyed the foreigners concerned but had almost no practical effect on them. Outside our sphere of influence in the Americas, we were all talk and no action.

Then, in 1941, we implemented one of Wilson’s most appealing theories – that economic deprivation could be as crippling as military assault – and imposed sanctions on Japan. The Japanese saw this as an act of war – a bullying, existential threat – and responded at Pearl Harbor.

When the dust from World War II settled, our armed forces dominated Asia and all but eastern Europe and the northern half of Korea. In an amazing flash of statecraft, we led the creation of an international system based on an analogue to the rule of law. In theory, this created a universal set of rules for international interactions. In practice, it established American spheres of influence in Asia and Western Europe opposed to the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

Our grand strategy rested on a judgment by George Kennan – a professional diplomat stationed in Moscow – that if the Soviet Union were politically and economically walled off from the West, it would collapse of its own infirmities. It took 42 years to prove Kennan right. By then, we had become habituated to military confrontation with Moscow and developed vested interests in a vast military-industrial-congressional complex. This made it convenient to interpret the Soviet decision to stop competing with us as a military victory rather than the triumph of diplomatic strategy and reason that it was. It was clear to us that the only language foreigners understand is the use of force or, failing that, economic coercion.

Diplomacy is about persuading others to see and do things our way. It requires recognizing that the other side gets a vote in relationships and that what seems self-evident to us may strike others as wrongheaded. It demands an open mind, open ears, and the ability to consider viewpoints other than our own. You won’t find much empathy on our social media or in our diplomacy at present. We treat diplomatic dialogue as little more than the deceptive foreplay that precedes an intended assault.

In fact, our ‘diplomacy’ now is mostly aimed at appeasing domestic opinion rather than persuading foreigners to see their interests as we do. This is diplomacy as transnational con-game.

The only peace process now underway in the Holy Land is that in the minds of the gullible here.

The Biden administration’s opening move with the Chinese pandered to domestic Sinophobia by publicly informing them that we would deal with China from a position of strength in order to keep it down. Then we added that there were a few things we needed China to do for us and suggested it get about doing them.

Rather than restoring the nuclear deal with Tehran, the administration placated the Zionist lobby by doubling down on its predecessor’s failed policy of maximum pressure on Iran.

NATO was and is an alliance hostile to Russia. The administration refused to hear Moscow’s objections to the deployment of NATO and U.S. weaponry to Russia’s borders. Our rejection of any effort to negotiate a peaceful modus vivendi between Russia and the U.S. military sphere of influence in Europe helped to bring on a war. Our response to Russian aggression relied on sanctions that produced a global energy and food crisis, crippled European economies, and pushed Russia closer to China, while enriching our defense industry. We are not talking to Russia and have no strategy for ending the war in Ukraine or preventing it from escalating to the nuclear level.

This administration has no idea how to deprive north Korea of reasons or means to strike our country with nuclear-armed ICBMs. In Korea, we seem content to allow might to continue to make right.

The result of all this is a deepening tragedy in Palestine, a rising danger of war with China, uninterrupted Iranian progress toward nuclear latency, a war in Ukraine likely to last until there are no Ukrainians left to oppose Russia’s dismemberment of their country, and an ever more belligerent north Korea. Our role in these outcomes does not encourage our allies and partners to follow us.

Now that we’ve convincingly demonstrated the ineptitude of military-based foreign policy, perhaps it’s time to try diplomacy.

  • The Constitution gave Congress the sole power to authorize wars of choice. It must reclaim its authority rather than continue to rubberstamp wars launched by the Executive.
  • We need to recognize that the number of problems with military solutions is limited, consider non-military solutions to them, and stop fomenting ‘forever wars.’
  • Our diplomatic service needs professionalization. The Cold War taught our diplomats how to act as imperial administrators. They must now rediscover the forgotten arts of friendly persuasion, give-and-take, and war prevention.
  • Diplomacy is the software of foreign policy. Without it, military hardware is likely to have a head crash. We need to fund non-military instruments of statecraft and to demand that the Senate disapprove nominees who are manifestly less qualified by experience or training to conduct diplomacy than our military is at the conduct of warfare.

Our country’s margin for error is shrinking. We need a peaceful international environment to fix the many problems we face at home. To enable that, we’ve got to get our diplomatic act together.