Underfunded diplomacy is feature (not a bug) of US foreign policy
The United States is suffering from a diplomacy deficit after decades of underfunding and neglect of one of the most essential tools of statecraft.
Washington has struggled to advance its interests through diplomatic engagement for many reasons, but the main causes have been insufficient resources, lack of political will, and an ingrained hostility in our political culture to negotiated compromises.
This neglect of diplomacy not only leaves the United States at a disadvantage in many parts of the world, but it also conditions policymakers to dismiss diplomatic options and fall back on coercive measures in the form of ineffective sanctions and unnecessary military action. In practice, our government doesn’t place much value in diplomacy and as a result it doesn’t devote many resources to it, which leaves the United States weaker, less well-informed, and ultimately less secure than it should be.
Every administration pays lip service to the importance of diplomacy as a means of securing American interests, but most of them are reluctant to take political risks for the sake of diplomatic success and all of them have failed to provide the funding that U.S. diplomats need to build stronger ties with other states. Then when diplomatic institutions lack sufficient capacity to address a given problem because they have been deprived of resources, policymakers turn to the military and come to rely on militarized “solutions” to the detriment of the affected countries and the military itself.
Elizabeth Shackelford witnessed this firsthand during her time in the Foreign Service and described it in her book, “The Dissent Channel.” “The cycle only reinforces itself,” she wrote. “As our civilian foreign affairs agencies became less and less able to meet growing demands due to diminishing resources, the White House and Congress increasingly look to the military to do more. When troops are all you have to spare, that’s who you send.”
U.S. diplomacy is further impaired by political dysfunction that prevents the full and timely staffing of American embassies around the world. Almost two years into Biden’s term, dozens of ambassadorial posts remain vacant because of stalled nominations in the Senate, and some posts are still waiting for Biden to choose a nominee. The delays in processing nominations usually have nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominees, and these delaying tactics have become an increasingly common way for obstructionists to hamstring the administration out of partisan or ideological spite.
There is little or no price to be paid in Washington for interfering with the practice of diplomacy. In some cases, politicians have strong incentives to grandstand and try to sabotage ongoing negotiations. Hawkish congressional opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran have repeatedly sought to undermine talks under both the Obama and Biden administrations, and their attempts at interference cost them nothing and allow them to portray themselves to their voters as rejecting “appeasement.”
The bias in favor of “action” and performative “toughness” in our foreign policy debates also encourages political actors to devalue diplomacy and to belittle diplomats as appeasers. Engagement with adversaries is routinely derided in Washington as useless or harmful, and advocates of that engagement are frequently vilified with baseless accusations of working in the interests of adversaries. The ongoing propaganda campaign conducted by hardliners to try to force out the administration’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, is just one example of the toxic political atmosphere in which U.S. diplomats have to operate.
Journalist Nahal Toosi recently reported on the deleterious effects of this diplomacy deficit in a long article for Politico. The story frames the problem mainly in terms of competition with China, but this was a serious weakness in U.S. foreign policy long before Washington became preoccupied with “great power competition.” During the so-called unipolar moment, Washington invested relatively little in non-military aspects of its foreign policy, and then during the “war on terror” the domination of our foreign policy by the Pentagon became even worse. Having frittered away the last 30 years on a heavy-handed and increasingly militarized approach to the world, the United States is waking up to the costs of letting its diplomatic muscles atrophy.
The current fixation on rivalry with China is already becoming an impediment to successful diplomatic engagement with many smaller states because their governments are wary of being dragooned into a great power contest. The Biden administration said in its National Security Strategy, “we will avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of strategic competition and will continue to engage countries on their own terms,” but we can see that the recent surge in efforts to cultivate better ties with Pacific and African states has been driven largely by fears of growing Chinese and Russian influence.
Other states can see that the United States is rushing to play catch up because of great power rivalry and not because it is interested in engaging with them “on their own terms.” That often makes them more suspicious of U.S. motives and less inclined to cooperate with an America that couldn’t be bothered to pay much attention to these countries earlier.
Policymakers and political leaders have become used to giving diplomacy short shrift out of habit, and because diplomatic engagement can often be slow and unglamorous there are relatively few members of Congress that actively champion it. It is more viscerally satisfying and politically rewarding for members of Congress and presidents to eschew negotiations and to make maximalist demands backed up by threats instead. To the extent that most policymakers value diplomacy at all, it is usually only in the form of coercive diplomacy through the imposition of broad sanctions.
When there is an effort at negotiations, it is usually paired with unrealistic, far-reaching demands that the other side will never accept. The Trump administration’s attempted engagement with North Korea was doomed before it began because it continued demanding the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs when that was never going to happen. As a result, hardliners could claim that diplomacy had been “tried” and had been unsuccessful, but the reality was that the U.S. position made a negotiated agreement practically impossible.
This failing is not Trump’s alone, as his predecessors and his successor have all stuck with the same unrealistic goal. The Biden administration told us as much in the NSS: “We will seek sustained diplomacy with North Korea to make tangible progress toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula….” Until our government sets a more modest, achievable goal for its policy there will be no progress in negotiations.
Rejecting diplomatic engagement is self-defeating, since it deprives the United States of a valuable tool that might succeed where others have failed. Pursuing engagement but attaching hardline goals to it is not much better, since it leaves no room for constructive compromise. Neglecting engagement out of indifference or carelessness causes Washington to miss out on many opportunities that it could seize for the mutual benefit of our country and that of the other states. The United States should never be afraid to negotiate and refusing to do so will often leave the U.S. and its allies in a worse position than if they had made the effort to engage.