The State Department should “be as fully funded as Congress believes appropriate,” argued Defense Secretary James Mattis in 2013, then near the end of his tenure as Commander of United States Central Command, “because if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
As Mattis explained in his Senate testimony, developing robust and effective diplomacy (a project, needless to say, not simply equivalent to giving money to State) is “a cost-benefit ratio” by which expensive, risky, and perhaps unnecessary military action can often be avoided. The old proverb says if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but Mattis—though equipped with the most powerful hammer in the world—advocated instead a more balanced and restrained approach that makes war a choice of truly last resort.
It’s a perspective much needed in the White House after the last 16 years of bipartisan, counterproductive military interventionism, which is why it is so troubling to see President Trump get off to a rocky start with many top U.S. allies. There was the awkward meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel in which he appeared to refuse to shake her hand. There was the testy phone call with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, abruptly cut short by a frustrated Trump. With Britain’s Theresa May, Trump seems to have developed some simpatico, while in new French President Emmanuel Macron he finds a globalist foil.
Of course, political disagreement need not mean poor diplomatic relations. The United States can maintain useful dialogue with other nations without bending to their every whim. Still, it is high time Washington recognize there is no more dangerous combination in foreign policy than military interventionism and diplomatic isolationism.
[T]here is no more dangerous combination in foreign policy than military interventionism and diplomatic isolationism.
The need to cultivate diplomacy extends beyond relations with the United States’ western allies. In fact, it is arguably most important in the greater Mideast, where U.S. foreign policy suffers from a chronic problem of attempting to solve other countries’ internal political problems with external military intervention.
Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, made this point well in a thoughtful conversation with the New Boston Post last year. Rather than maintaining our 16-year holding pattern of intervention, regime change, and nation-building—typically with destabilizing and counterproductive results—Bacevich argues the United States must “get countries in the region that are most directly threatened by jihadism … to take ownership of the problem.”
Failing to follow this advice for the past decade and a half has, as Mattis put it, resulted in some pretty big ammunition purchases: Counting expenditures to date ($4.8 trillion) as well as interest payments on incurred debt ($7.3 trillion by 2053), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone are estimated to cost Americans at least $12 trillion.
Rather than attempt to maintain this unsustainable and demonstrably ineffective dynamic, Bacevich says, Washington must convince “the Iranians, the Turks, the Saudis, Egyptians, Iraqis … to make common cause to deal with the threat that endangers them far, far, far more than it endangers us.” Fundamentally, he adds, this is “a diplomatic task; it’s not a military task.”
That prospect is only possible if the United States can pivot from an unsuccessful, military-first approach to a robust program in which realist diplomacy and productive economic engagement become our go-to tools of statecraft. In dealing with friend and foe alike, it is now more necessary than ever for Washington to lead by good example and good conversation on shared interests and values.