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After two decades of war, it’s time to shift our focus on diplomacy

We continue to live with two unfinished wars. What are the lessons and how do we absorb and use them?

Analysis | Global Crises

For two decades we have both decided on and then lived with the vision that with the world’s most powerful military, we could use it to solve political and security problems far faster and far more effectively than our past resorts to negotiation. The idea was seductive beyond attractive. It built on the experience of World War II and unconditional surrender. According to Colin Powell, when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration, then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright once asked, “What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?”

The reasons for our fascination with the wider use of force remain many and complex. Answers to some questions might help see their broad outlines and impact. Does force speed the time to solve the problem? Not after two decades of such engagement without conclusion. Does it help to save lives and treasure? No, for the same reason. Does it provide in its use the answers to the problem to be solved? Not if at the end, negotiation is required to terminate the conflict on terms favorable to us and avoid the now highly questionable idea that force always produces unconditional surrender of our opponents.

Does force respond to issues vital to American interests? Harry Truman was once asked, “what are our vital interests?” He replied succinctly, “survival and prosperity.” Afghanistan and Iraq may be highly important but do not meet that test. Should force be used before we exhaust other measures? No, especially where the purpose is not a vital interest, even if it is seen at the time as of a high order, but of secondary importance to the United States and its leadership — and certainly not without first exhausting all other methods including diplomacy.

What other lessons can we draw? The current wars are complex. Conventional battlefield victory does not easily yield war termination even after five years of all-out global war as it appeared to do in 1945. This is especially true as conflict moves off set-piece conventional engagements into the popularly supported, asymmetrical, guerrilla inspired, cyber assisted, and information backed reactions to the U.S. military. 

We have rightly come to see as dominant and prevalent new forms of conflict not easily overcome. One answer has been counter insurgency, war for public support, or “hearts and minds.” The centerpiece of such struggles is the people. But we have learned that military occupation has its own negative impact and, even as most benevolently conceived, is not welcomed warmly and eternally by its subjects. Hearts and minds begin to flow quickly in nationalist directions. True economic support and nation building have been posited as answers. Like winning battles but not yet wars, they have in our last two unfinished conflicts shown success in making change, brought women out of servitude, increased health and rebuilt economic activity. But they have not ended the new form of conflict even if they have abetted that goal economically, socially, and politically.

Others have seen the essence of positive outcome as the local capacity on the part of those we support to control violence and close off the battlespace to our opponents and in doing so secure the population’s support and backing. Providing security on an abiding basis is essential. If we cannot produce it, and our local supporters assure it, the conflict is not won and the conditions for winning hearts and minds not met. Not winning conflicts and providing for local forces to be able to sustain security is not serving U.S. interests. This is especially true if the objective is an exit from an engagement on terms acceptable to us and the locally supported people and leadership. Any undermining of our military strength by failing to produce results, leaves our leadership in the world more problematic.

Xenophobia and nationalist populism challenge support for the local governments. Religious divisions and historical ethnic differences can and are exploited just as occupation tends to promote them against the occupier. The equation — the longer the occupation, the harder the resolution — is not too far wrong.

Our military called in those whose experience in foreign lands and languages was greatest. But a diplomatic team is not a colonial governance team in size or capability, even as we have seen colonialism pass from the scene to be replaced with local independence. And trying to make it so with the best of help from military civil affairs and related officers has since 1945 not been a successful American experiment. In 1945, it was under positive security conditions quite rapidly replaced with local leadership and governance. Development and growth rarely co-exist well alongside a conflict still dominated widely by dedicated opponents. Corruption and peculation in “kept” governments rarely rallies a people or assures a success.

If wars of choice are risky crap shoots, especially in large and complex environments, what is a way forward?

Diplomacy, development and whole of government.

The field of work against the challenges we face globally is a permanent growth industry. Like domestic policing, some application of military strength beyond the overwhelming imperative of defending our people and territory, is real and important. It can strengthen our diplomacy in many ways. Diplomacy has, can, and should play a significant role in dealing with the nasty issues of internal conflict and failing states that come in over the transom of the White House and the State Department in an unrelenting cascade. It should also be employed to develop new and innovative answers to problems ahead — foreseeable, important, ripening, and demanding — which require resolution. Getting a leg up early is always an advantage.

U.S. global leadership has declined in a chaotic and troubled world. Part of that is because change has shifted the ground against us before we could shift to the solutions. Aggravating the loss has been a disinterest in exerting that leadership and supporting the alliances and coalitions we have built. The growth of China and the increased spoiler role of Russia have created a multipolar political and economic challenge. The new trifecta of COVID-19, resultant economic collapse, and the prevalence of intolerance and discrimination have generated a new economic and social negative trifecta at home and abroad. Diplomacy and development are at the top of the toolbox to deal with them.

Strategy is essential and we don’t do it very well. The “strategy” documents produced since Henry Kissinger started them have declined in reality and salience. Those documents prepared for publication fail in key respects. They do not assign priority to goals or tasks — all efforts rank the same. They do not consider budgetary or personnel costs. They rarely discuss risks. In the end, strategy in a democracy depends heavily on the president’s instincts and goals. He or she should share these generally as Franklin Roosevelt did in his fireside chats. That may signal to adversaries that some objectives are less important. However, item by item consideration and care can avoid Dean Acheson’s now famous blunder of putting Korea beyond our interest in public, without the most careful qualification.

So too is the assumption of a not too hidden posture of diktat based on the fiction of a unilateral moment when we could do anything we wanted without the support of allies and alliances. It has not too ironically meant a loss of our friends, allies, and coalition partners. They no longer trust us because we no longer share with them a vision of cooperation and compromise or welcome their ideas on how to deal with issues. Other parts of the world no longer trust us because we treat agreements as freely discardable, whether with Iran (the JCPOA) or in North America (NAFTA).

Diplomacy should be the guard, along with intelligence, against the constant resort to military power. Diplomacy’s first service to the country is to resolve problems early before they reach the level of violent conflict. In wars of defense, diplomacy helps to build coalitions and partnerships. At the end of conflict, where rarely have we shown in war termination the brilliance exhibited in battlefield victories, war termination is a diplomatic task to be shared with our military leadership.

Preserving peace is largely a diplomatic task — too important to be left to the generals and too significant to carry out without them.

The long-term cooperation of the U.S. military and our diplomats has been a challenge we have not yet fully met. Neither side knows enough of the work of the other. Their cooperation is not a ‘natural’ feature of the landscape. Training and experience have kept them separate. Diplomats win and preserve the peace before conflict or after it. The military win wars with the same intention. Their immediate goals are different — one to promote U.S. interests in negotiation, the other to assure them by overcoming the enemy. Wins on the battlefield are not automatically turned into a political outcome, especially if conflict continues by other means or war termination actions are ignored or poorly handled.

Who is in charge is always a challenge in a situation requiring civil-military cooperation. The military doctrine of unity of command does not easily bridge the gap. The best we have been able to do is to rely on a common interest in cooperation and mutual respect of an ambassador and a combat commander to get the job done. Turf building and hubris are the enemies here. Jointness among the military needs to be supplemented with a more closely defined and useful ‘combined’ vision, both in our country and also with allies and friends — military and civilians. The ambassador and military commander and their leadership is the basis for success or their failure to do so a cause of losses and setbacks.

Diplomacy works in many ways. It relies heavily on persuasion and negotiation for achievement of its goals. It respects leadership and seeks ideas that bridge across interests. Diplomacy relies on many rules, the central of which is — pacta sunt servanda — agreements must be kept. Without that, and other elements of international law, we would live in a chaotic word. Just to survive and prosper we would have to create that rule anew. That is why unlawfully breaking out of an international deal with Iran has not only allowed Iran to go back to resume once banned nuclear activity, but it also undermines the central binding power of agreements — a rule by which we live and prosper.

Leverage in diplomacy at the bargaining table in particular is important. It was Teddy Roosevelt who told us to, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” While in the end, dictated agreements rarely survive, careful leverage helps build favorable outcomes. As in war, no diplomatic agreement achieves all the goals each party originally establishes. The wisdom is finding a deal that is equally dissatisfying based on the use of the best mutually agreeable alternative. In other words, the real test of success is often equal dissatisfaction with the outcome.

The military and diplomats have training and experience which does not make for easy harmony. One reason is the military views war as another means of politics to which full victory is the answer. Diplomats are employed to settle conflicts with acceptable compromise. Mixing war and diplomacy often unhinges military trust in diplomacy. Compromise is seen as potentially trading away what they have won with blood on the battlefield. No American diplomat would admit that they were not grateful for being able to persuade and negotiate for a country with the world’s greatest military power. That fact alone is an assist. But are there more active ways to leverage diplomacy?

Personal diplomacy is a significant factor in achieving success. Listening is the diplomat’s greatest tool, both in hearing and in discovering what the words really mean, often something that both sides exchanging talking points prepared in capitals do not find easily. Amateurs frequently approach diplomacy as 80 percent talking and 20 percent listening when a productive posture is closer to 50/50. In some cases, such as Paul Nitze’s disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union, an epiphany is reached when each side uses very private side conversations to explore new ideas — a “Walk in the Woods.” Over time, a developing common commitment of negotiators to find an answer is a major factor in success.

A diplomat has to fight for every gain and to consider carefully what might be needed to pay for it. In that search, often the hardest part of an international negotiation is to deal with Washington. Washington is most concerned by electoral and reputational risks to the presidency. Transparency is a way to deal with those risks and also at the wrong time constitutes a threat to make them worse. Leaks are always a factor in Washington. Diplomacy often goes south when the central concern is the need to remain confidential abroad and open at home.

Leverage in diplomacy includes both positive and negative steps. Most prevalent have been sanctions whose positive use, lifting in return for concessions, is much harder than imposing them. Economic sanctions have a long and checkered history. Disputes abound over their effectiveness in South Africa and Iran. They are the current weapon of choice to exert “maximum pressure.” They have morphed from broad barriers to trade and investment to now include selected, targeted restrictions on individuals associated with objectionable actions in states often deemed “rogue.” Economic sanctions have birthed the use of secondary sanctions by the United States to ensure that other states enforce U.N. and other sanctions based on the principle that if you do business with a sanctioned country you cannot do business in the United States.

For years the U.S. Treasury had strong reservations about secondary sanctions because they threatened potentially the use of the dollar as the world reserve currency. So far, the reaction has been more one of growing political separation from the United States as a world leader. Leverage is not without its limitations. We need to be cautious that if every problem is political not always is every remedy economic sanctions. And sanctions whether military, economic, or political make the most sense when there is in place a diplomatic process for addressing a solution to the dispute. This is something that eluded the Trump administration in the early effort against Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and currently against Iran. “Maximum pressure” has been met with “maximum resistance” and that in turn has led to escalating military exchanges at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. These have been currently stilled by the impact both of the pandemic and the sensitive U.S. election campaign.

Political isolation of an opponent is often as helpful as military presence, deployment, and build up. What is to be avoided is putting yourself in a position of having to back down or go to war when you are not prepared for either. The use concurrently of diplomatic channels helps to avoid that conundrum by providing a third route forward.

It also requires, more than ever, the full cooperation of a large, defuse, and often poorly coordinated and connected government. Something called ‘whole of government’ is increasingly the answer. In the field, U.S. embassies provide for, perhaps uniquely, 24/7/365 whole of government operations.

At the center, we have had since 1947, a National Security Council, a unified Defense Department, and an Intelligence Community of many members recently led by a Director. Some presidents have looked to the secretary of state for policy and ideas built on a close personal relationship between them. The National Security Council has often been stretched into having its staff engaging in overseeing or actually trying to participate in policy implementation through direct contacts with combatant commanders and ambassadors, by passing the chain of command and the leaders of the departments concerned. Nothing in big government moves as fast as an energized president expects and wants. The result is that a president then unfortunately seeks to use his own staff to run operations rather than monitor them as the departments and agencies with the funds, experience, and people implement policies.

I can recall an occasion when at the four-star level, I was told that negotiations for a war’s end must wait until we did better on the battlefield. That ignored that negotiations are a long process, not a slot machine that gives instant gratification. Using most or all of your leverage to get to the table ignores the additional leverage you need to get to agreement. Increasing our military progress is not a guarantee but is a solid and valuable achievement. Delay getting to the table as the situation is moving in your favor is not a formula for success, it is a doctrinal assumption which ignores the hard realities of protracted negotiation. 

Good intelligence is also a leveraging function. Knowing well opponents should help to find answers. Henry Stimson said in the early 1930s about communications intelligence: “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Today the answer might be: “Letting your mail be read is not the act of a leader,” unless of course you want it to be read. Increasingly, the intelligence community has picked up the burden of supporting negotiations alongside the highest priority it assigns to supporting the warrior. Dedicated teams and all-source collection linked directly to negotiations have shown how this aspect of whole of government can help at the table as well as on the battlefield.

Distrust in the military and others in diplomacy can be overcome by its successful use. Much of the nuclear stability in the Cold War was achieved by diplomatic agreements enhancing strategic stability negotiated after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Success is rarely good news for the media, leaving many unaware of it in Congress and the public. The cost of bringing senators and House members into our diplomacy has often been resolved by not doing it at all. But we should not undermine our diplomacy in Congress by not treating them as partners.


We have much work to do. Military action should be devoted to meeting aggression against us and our allies and to build our capacity to gain our interests at the lowest cost.

Wars of choice are not effective solutions, especially with large and complicated countries.

With diplomacy to resolve problems, the advantages of being cheaper and effective can be exploited. 

With the full cooperation of the executive branch, diplomacy can be made more effective, can be part of long-term strategy to avoid a totally reactive posture and offer opportunities to revive U.S. world leadership.

Those devoted to responsible statesmanship should be as strongly supportive of the use of diplomacy as they are opposed to the misuse of the military.

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