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The Past and Future of American Diplomacy

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The Past and Future of American Diplomacy

Americans have a very mixed record as diplomats. At crucial moments of international transition (after the Second World War, during the era of detente, and in the last months of the Cold War) American leaders used carrots, sticks, promises, and threats to secure broad interests without military force. Figures like George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker nurtured relationships with foreign counterparts that provided the United States with political and economic capital that far exceeded the nation’s military reach. They used diplomacy effectively to enhance American (and non-American) purposes.

During other periods (the years after the First World War, the 1960s, and the post-Cold War decades), American diplomacy has been disastrous. In each of these eras Americans acted alone, they demanded too much, and they substituted force for negotiations. Americans were impatient, impetuous, and ineffective at leading through persuasion.

That is, sadly, the story of the years since September 11, 2001. American international diplomacy has reached a low point, and the United States has become much too dependent on the use of military force. Our soldiers are committed on every continent. Without better diplomacy they seem unable to change the political environment for better, especially in places like Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula. We are an over-muscled giant with a pea-brain for partnerships, negotiations, and consensus-building. The WikiLeaks revelations only reinforce the point.

This is where the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s career should serve as an inspiration. Since his sudden death on December 13, many journalists have recounted Holbrooke’s long experience with diplomacy (from Vietnam to Yugoslavia to Afghanistan) and his many successes in negotiating with tough customers, especially Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. He was a rare recent “giant” of American diplomacy, as President Barack Obama said.

Holbrook was, however, much more than an effective operator. His career displayed the rare combination of idealism and pragmatism that makes sustained diplomacy possible. This is where most Americans go wrong, choosing one approach or the other. For Holbrooke, there was no distinction between humanitarianism and deal-making. They went hand-in-hand. He followed a consistent creed that emphasized the positive role the United States could, and in his terms must, play in the world as a promotor of independent, sustainable, and democratizing nation-states. At the same time, he always recognized that these goals required difficult and painful sacrifices along the way.

Holbrooke’s diplomacy was the diplomacy of shared sacrifice for common goals. It was the diplomacy of American leadership through vision and example, words and deeds. Holbrooke held enormous influence for more than three decades because he persuaded and he delivered. People believed him and they wanted to work with him, even if they did not always like him.

American society has few Richard Holbrookes today. His long experience is difficult to replicate in a partisan and impatient era. His combination of idealism and pragmatism is difficult to defend as people search for easy answers. Most of all, his instinct for compromise and sacrifice is lost on an American electorate (especially the aging baby boomers) who have generally gotten what they want at little personal cost. Why should they compromise? Why should they sacrifice? Their urge is to isolate or blow-up anyone who challenges their self-righteous claims. Holbrooke’s calibration of vision and deed is lost on citizens who continue to believe that they can get more for less. That is a profoundly anti-diplomatic attitude. It is an all-too-common attitude across America.

What, then, can we learn from Holbrooke’s career. Three things:

1. We need to recognize that our goals require sacrifice shared across society.

2. We need to train a new crop of talented men and women to manage compromise and negotiation for our international goals. Diplomatic skills are more important than moralistic rhetoric.

3. We need to make diplomacy, not war, the foundation for our global relationships.

Inspired by Richard Holbrooke, the time has come for a new American diplomatic surge. We should become the global relationship-builders par excellence. We should train the best, promote the most effective, and put our money where our mouths are. Why don’t we have the best diplomats in the world? Why aren’t our diplomats as valued as our soldiers? Why aren’t we acting to change that? The time has come.

Where are the new Richard Holbrookes, Dean Achesons, and James Bakers? Let’s find them and nurture them, especially in this era of constrained resources. They are less expensive and more effective than any weapons system. They are the future of American power, just as Richard Holbrooke was its recent past.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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