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Beyond Diplomacy and Development
Why America needs to think more expansively about how we define foreign policy
In Washington policy circles, foreign policy often gets broken down to three main pillars: defense, diplomacy, and development. As far as government agencies and institutions go, this triad translates into the Pentagon, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development—with the Treasury Department and its sanctions apparatus occasionally involved. But this formulation merely reveals the rather narrow way we tend to think and talk about foreign policy and national security, especially among those critics who frequently charge that America relies too much on its admittedly powerful military and capable intelligence community.
As we’ve seen over the past few years, however, there’s more to foreign policy than defense, diplomacy, and development—a lot more. Indeed, the Biden administration’s aggressive semiconductor policy has given us our best glimpse at this wider reality in living memory. At the heart of policy has been the Department of Commerce, a quietly influential federal agency whose importance to American foreign policy has skyrocketed over the past two years. The department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, for instance, imposed strict curbson semiconductor exports to China last October in keeping with its role as America’s main export control agency. Commerce likewise finds itself responsible for spending the tens of billions of dollars appropriated by Congress to rebuild America’s own semiconductor industry under the CHIPS and Science Act—a law with important foreign policy ramifications.
It's time we started giving these neglected foreign policy tools their due. Until semiconductor manufacturing became the hot issue, debates on how America might rely less on its military power to achieve its foreign policy goals focused almost exclusively on the presumed need to give diplomacy and development a higher priority. Important as these two aspects of foreign policy are, however, they won’t get the job done on their own—and an overwhelming emphasis on diplomacy and development as the main if not only alternatives to military power leaves us blind to the abundance of other ways America can exercise influence overseas beyond this narrow intellectual framework.
In other words, we’ve got to broaden our horizons and expand our imaginations when it comes to how we define foreign policy and national security. We’ve got to pay much more attention to agencies, policies, and programs that can advance America’s interests and values overseas but don’t clearly fall into the defense, diplomacy, and development rubric, and start using these tools in a much more concerted and coherent way.
In foreign policy as in life, showing up is 90 percent of success
A brief look at the recent history of America’s human spaceflight program demonstrates that possession of certain capabilities matters a lot for U.S. foreign policy. After all, it was downright embarrassing when the United States had to rely on Russia for transportation to and from the ISS after the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. But because America sees its aerospace industry as a sector to be nurtured and supported, American companies and NASA have been able to work together to bring human spaceflight back to American soil following a nine-year hiatus.
Other industries have been less fortunate, however, as policymakers have let American competitive advantages slip away—or indeed failed to develop them in the first place.
Take telecommunications networks: before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the race for 5G was all the rage in Washington policy circles. China’s state-supported Huawei looked set to dominate the next generation of wireless technology, while America had no viable competitor to offer other nations as an alternative. Telecommunications companies like Ericsson, Samsung, and Nokia headquartered in nations allied to the United States remained in the wireless network business, but their status as foreign companies made it difficult if not impossible to justify American taxpayer support for them. Only now, in 2023, has the United States government outlined plans to invest $1.5 billion to create a U.S.-based 5G alternative that runs on open software standards rather than proprietary hardware used by European and Asian telecommunications companies.
Same goes for nuclear power: in 2009, for instance, the United States and United Arab Emirates signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement considered “gold standard” of such deals. But when it came time to buy actual nuclear reactors, the UAE chose a South Korean company to build its nuclear plants. American companies have been at a competitive disadvantage since for all practical purposes they have not been able to build new reactors in the United States due to onerous Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules; indeed, the first new nuclear reactor built in nearly three decades just came online in Georgia. Worse, the NRC’s absurd new rules for advanced nuclear reactors threaten to strangle not just potential American leadership in this new field but also new foreign policy initiatives that work with allies like Japan to build these power plants in developing countries like Ghana.
Then there’s semiconductors. As President Biden himself never ceases to remind us, the United States accounted for 40 percent of global semiconductor production in the 1990s but just 10 percent now. With the CHIPS and Science Act, America is now making a serious effort to get back into the semiconductor business—but we’re doing too late in the day for comfort. It remains unclear what effect controls on semiconductor exports to China will ultimately have, but if Beijing corners the market on advanced microchips it won’t be because America and its allies handed over the keys to the industry.
In certain areas like 5G networks and semiconductors, then, America’s political leaders and policymakers have come to realize that industrial policy and support for scientific research have profound foreign policy ramifications. Properly supported, moreover, these industries and projects also have the potential to support tens if not hundreds of thousands of American jobs. An October 2022 report produced for NASA, for instance, found the agency’s lunar and Mars exploration campaigns created over 93,000 jobs across the country—or 37 jobs for every one NASA job. Likewise, a 2022 analysis by the Breakthrough Institute estimated that the advanced nuclear power industry could support as many as 223,000 permanent jobs by 2050.
But despite these flickers of understanding, the fundamental insight that foreign policy goes well beyond the trinity of defense, diplomacy, and development has yet to truly penetrate our thinking on the subject. We’ve got to expand our imaginations accordingly and see foreign policy as a more coherent, interconnected whole that involves much more than just the Pentagon or State Department.
Consider the International Space Station
Despite its name, the International Space Station isn’t generally seen as a foreign policy instrument—even though the station exists as it does today because the Clinton administration saw it as a way to engage Russia after the end of the Cold War. But as the current flight of an Emirati astronaut aboard the ISS and the planned launch of two Saudi astronauts in May illustrate, the station remains an important avenue of American influence as well as a potent symbol of American scientific and technological prowess.
Indeed, the station is quite literally a node into which other nations—especially allies like Europe, Canada, and Japan—can plug into, one NASA aims to replicate with its Gateway space station and lunar base camp plans for the Artemis Program. These efforts aren’t perfect, of course, and NASA has a ways to go to make international cooperation work as well on Artemis as it has on the International Space Station. But because they don’t slot neatly into defense, diplomacy, or development, pundits and policymakers alike don’t consider the ISS, Artemis, or space exploration leadership in general foreign policy assets to be cultivated or used to advance American interests and influence.
Much the same could be said for other sizeable science and engineering projects carried out by a number of federal agencies, from the U.S. Antarctic Program run by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth observation satellites to the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories and the Smithsonian’s research centers and institutes. These agencies routinely collaborate across borders and work overseas— the Smithsonian, for instance, has projects underway to help preserve cultural heritage in war zones like Iraq and Ukraine, while the U.S. Antarctic Program routinely cooperates with other national Antarctic programs.
But as with NASA and the International Space Station, few if any of these projects and programs are seen as relevant to America’s foreign policy and national security.
In short, America has to make itself available for collaboration and cooperation with other nations if we hope to win influence overseas and shore up our own standing in the world. To do that, though, we’ve got to have something to offer beyond military hardware and easy finance—the two main levers many policymakers believe they have to pursue America’s interests and values worldwide. We may have let our other tools fall into disrepair over the decades, but many—like America’s aerospace industry and scientific research capacity—remain relatively strong. Others can be rebuilt or invented wholesale.
That will require America to ramp up its support for these projects and policies, both at home and aboard. Not every industry will or should receive public promotion, but the U.S. government should make a conscious effort to identify and foster certain industries of national strategic importance—we’ve made a semi-conscious effort to do so over the decades with the aerospace industry and have chosen to do so with semiconductors in the CHIPS and Science Act. Even then, the implications need to be better anticipated: the massive investment in electric vehicles made by the Inflation Reduction Act has consequences in terms of access critical minerals and battery manufacturing that have only been partly thought through, for instance, to say nothing of the diplomatic kerfuffle it’s created in relations with allies in Europe and Asia.
It's a question of American leadership as much as anything else—if we show up and do so in a big way, America will have an outsized say in these endeavors. We can bring others along with us as well, serving as a plug-and-play node for those nations who wish to cooperate with us. But we’ve got to show up and have something significant to offer.
But there’s something more important at stake here than just foreign policy: it’s about America’s national ambitions, our ability to do big things and lead the world in pushing the frontiers of human discovery and possibility. For all the ways the country has improved and progressed, for every impressive achievement we’ve made in science or engineering in the decades since the end of the Cold War, we’ve also seen our horizons narrow and atrophy. More than anything else, it’s that spirit of optimism and industry America and our foreign policy need today.