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America Can’t Put “Diplomacy First” Without Diplomats
Partisan squabbling, resource imbalances, and strategic planning gaps hold America back in the world
Nearly a year into the Biden administration, and the U.S. Senate has confirmed only about a dozen of the 80 ambassadorial nominees President Joseph Biden has put forward, a situation that undercuts the administration’s oft-repeated slogan of “putting diplomacy first” and casts doubt about America’s strategic posture around the world.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix solution to this without a major shift in the broader policy and political environment shaping America’s foreign policy debate.
The Biden administration finds itself in this circumstance for four main reasons:
1. Using national security as a partisan wedge issue has become a chronic problem, including in nominations.
This circumstance is mostly the result of partisan squabbling and the continued efforts in elite-driven debates to make national security a wedge issue between and within the two parties.
Senate rules allow any senator to put an unofficial hold on any executive branch nominee, whether it’s a judge, ambassador or proposed Cabinet member, and senators sometimes use this power as leverage in efforts to influence policy.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has blocked dozens of diplomatic appointments in an effort to get the administration to sanction countries over Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline project of Russia and Germany that would deliver gas to Russia and Western Europe. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, also a Republican, has issued holds on several national security nominations and demanded that top Biden officials lose their jobs because of the botched Afghanistan troop withdrawal, a demand that seems unlikely to be met.
It’s probably no coincidence that these two senators are rumored to be thinking about running for president in 2024, and it’s not the first time in recent history that senators with possible aspirations for higher office have tried to use foreign policy issues that don’t really resonate with most voters.
The main problem with this practice is that it effectively hollows out America’s power in the world and ability to get things done. The other issue is that it’s actually bad or mostly irrelevant politics – most voters don’t care about these issues, and it’s hard to see how holds on ambassadors help build voter support.
This is a form of U.S. foreign policy tribalism that confuses most voters and creates openings for America’s competitors and adversaries in the world.
2. No administration in recent years has figured out how to make the most effective use of career diplomatic talent.
The nominations debate is in many ways a reflection of a favorite inside-the-Beltway parlor game fixated on issues that don’t really matter in the big picture. I was recently at a holiday party where someone said, “did you hear that so-and-so became the deputy assistant secretary of this issue.” My first reaction was – so what? I understand personnel is policy, but too often the elite debate puts too much importance on the impact of particular appointments, especially the mid-level types who usually come and go in policy positions in a few years.
A deeper challenge beyond these nominations and appointments is the fact that no U.S. administration has made the most effective use of the career talent in America’s diplomatic corps. At Foggy Bottom in the Biden administration’s first year, there was mostly a collective sigh of relief that the “swagger” of Secretary of Mike Pompeo’s crew was gone from the scene. But this has been replaced with the perennial worries that the current Secretary of State Antony Blinken isn’t managing the building closely enough and connecting with the career diplomats and instead is having to spend a lot of time with President Biden, as his former top staffer.
There’s nothing new in this dynamic. Even when administrations embark on campaigns to elevate and shift the importance of diplomacy including career diplomats in U.S. foreign policy, it has often fallen flat. Does anyone remember former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” effort, or the “smart power” campaign during the Obama years? Two policy reviews, awkwardly named the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, were held during the Obama years, with reports released in 2010 and 2015. These all surfaced important questions and led to tactical reforms in America’s civilian agencies of foreign policy, but it did not fundamentally address some of the major operational and management challenges facing the State Department and other civilian agencies.
3. A major resource imbalance still exists between diplomats, soldiers, and spies.
Money matters – to an extent – and the funding for the Pentagon (more than $700 billion) and intelligence agencies (about $60 billion a year) far outpaces the diplomatic and development institutions (about $59 billion).
Of course, the State Department doesn’t buy the expensive military equipment and weapons the Pentagon has, but the basic imbalance that has existed for years grew with the increased militarization and use of intelligence agencies in the 20 years after 9/11.
This imbalance has been noted by many groups for several years, but the military funding levels have largely stayed stable. The stability of defense spending also shows that funders and foundations from the right and the left supporting so-called “restraint” national security approaches might want to ask for their money back. These campaigns have largely failed to make a dent – in part because they spend more time arguing what they are against rather than what they support and how it would make America more effective in the world.
4. National security strategy hasn’t fully integrated diplomacy, despite repeated attempts.
Another challenge impeding a “diplomacy first” approach connected to the lack of diplomats is the absence of an effective overall national security strategy deploying diplomats as a key part of the toolbox, despite noble attempts. Some of this is related to the fuzzy and imprecise thinking behind slogans like “there are no military solutions” and the empty rhetoric of “ending endless wars,” as Peter Juul as noted.
But there’s a deeper problem with actually coming up with a truly integrated strategy that brings together the military and economic resources in an approach that leads with diplomacy, resulting in “not so smart power” and pointing to a need for a deeper examination of why so many of the diplomatic efforts didn’t produce the intended results, just as many of the post 9/11 wars have not.
In sum, the current logjam on ambassadorial nominations is just the tip of the iceberg of some bigger challenges for an effort to put diplomacy first in U.S. foreign policy. The political maneuvers in Congress to break the logjam on nominees are important, as are letters written by prominent former officials from both sides of the political aisle. But sometimes it’s easier to home in on specific problems created in the short-term than to recognize and admit that there’s something bigger happening.