America has seen a long-term decline in the art of diplomacy in American foreign policy -- and that art has been fading faster recently.
With his tweets, provocations, disregard for the truth and facts, and disinterest in serious talks with allies and adversaries, President Donald Trump is giving us a classic illustration of how not to conduct American diplomacy.
The Trump administration has proposed sharp cuts in the State Department’s budget, failed to fill important vacancies and dismantled international agreements. Its leaders talk about reorganizing the department, but the implementation of it is dragging. Morale in the foreign service has worsened. Senior officers are leaving, and key ambassador positions are not promptly filled.
At the same time, the power of policymaking and its execution is shifting to the Pentagon, where activity and funding are increasing sharply. The trend suggests that military responses to the world’s problems dominate over diplomatic approaches.
These developments are taking place at a time when diplomacy of the highest order is required to deal with numerous and growing global crises, including North Korea’s nuclear threats, the rising power of China, and Russian meddling in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere. American diplomatic leadership in the world is diminishing; we are no longer seen as leading the world toward justice and democracy.
In a complex and confusing world, the general direction toward a decline of diplomacy is worrisome. Like most Americans, I'd like to see strong and effective diplomacy in which the U.S. exerts leadership, advances American interests, solves problems without violence, builds international support for our policies and works cooperatively with our allies.
Obviously, diplomacy must be integrated with other tools of American power. Diplomacy and military power must work hand in hand in enforcing peace agreements, training police, reducing conflict, ensuring border security and many other tasks. But the solutions to most of our international problems are political. Building trust is essential for the achievement of our lofty goals, and we build trust through skillful diplomacy.
Through endless discussions and negotiations with friendly and adversarial governments across the world, diplomacy plays a huge role in making the world a more peaceful place. It involves working with other entities – organizations like the U.N., the European Union, ASEAN and NATO as well as nongovernmental organizations, businesses and individuals – all of which can make significant contributions.
The United States must ensure our diplomats have the tools, training, resources and opportunity to do their jobs. This includes the skills to understand other languages and cultures and the knowledge and confidence to explain and promote U.S. policies.
Diplomacy is not a panacea, but if we are going to reduce conflicts, prevent civil wars and make progress on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation, our diplomacy is a critically essential tool.
Aside from reducing conflict, there are many benefits to engaging in diplomacy. It can be used to explain our policies, to better understand the views of others and to dispel misunderstanding. The objective is not just to avert war but to find and pursue paths to peace and prosperity.
Diplomacy requires working with persistence and patience over the long haul. Rules have to be set, borders drawn, ground rules agreed to, development plans implemented – the list goes on. In some situations, military forces must be restrained and refugees accommodated. All these actions constitute the hard work of peace.
The most difficult situations are often the ones most in need of diplomacy, and that requires sustained communication with all the parties. I’ve never been of the school that says, when you have differences with a country, you shut down the embassy and pull out the ambassador. That approach is a formula for stalemate, if not confrontation.
Decades ago, when I was a member of Congress, I began meeting with representatives of the Soviet Union. The meetings were formal and structured. They would read a speech. I would read a speech. We would agree to work for peace, and we would go home with little accomplished.
We did that year after year, and then something began to happen. Eventually we put away the set speeches and began talking with one another. We got to know one another better, and we gradually started to gain a better understanding of each other’s countries and concerns and how to address them.
That was the beginning of the thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations. And throughout the time we were talking, despite our deep differences with one another, no shots were fired.
Diplomacy can be frustrating. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance. And it doesn’t always work. But we simply cannot resolve problems around the world without talking to others. Failing to talk is a near guarantee that problems will fester, tensions will rise, and opportunities for progress will be missed.