America retains great advantages even in the more competitive
geopolitical era ahead. It is still by far the mightiest military
power and the worldís biggest economy.
Who will run the world in 2021? International institutions such as the
United Nations have been weakened by great-power rivalry. Russia will be a
spoiler, not a leader. In Europe, Boris Johnson will have his hands full
with the aftermath of Brexit, Germanyís Angela Merkel will leave the stage
and Franceís Emmanuel Macron has limited means to pursue his grand ideas.
China is the rising superpower, and an increasingly assertive one, but not
yet keen, let alone able, to take on the burdens of world leadership. The
question is whether America, under President Joe Biden, will be prepared to
step back into the role.
For some years now America, weary of its ďendless warsĒ, has been in
retreat. Barack Obama believed it was time to focus on ďnation-building at
homeĒ. Donald Trump took to withdrawal with gusto, pulling the country out
of a long list of international arrangements, including the Paris climate
agreement, the Iran nuclear deal andóin the middle of a pandemicóthe World
Health Organisation. As America has stepped back, emboldened authoritarian
leaders have stepped forward, posing a challenge to democracies everywhere.
Look ahead, however, and further withdrawal is scarcely an attractive
option. Global threats will multiply, from pandemics to climate change to
space weaponry. And in an increasingly multipolar world, America cannot
count on simply getting its way. It will need to rely on the patient pursuit
of its interests through persuasion, building coalitions and working with
allies. In short, it will have to rely on diplomacy.
This is by no means a dismal prospect. America retains great advantages even
in the more competitive geopolitical era ahead. It is still by far the
mightiest military power and the worldís biggest economy. In contrast to
rivals such as China and Russia, it has steady allies who can help amplify
its influence. And at its best it is a champion of human rights and freedoms
that can inspire people everywhere.
Americans are right to want to limit the flexing of their military muscle.
The strength of Americaís armed forces will always be a vital part of its
ability to exert influence. Yet since the terrorist attacks of September
11th 2001 the superpowerís foreign policy has relied too much on force. It
is time to put diplomacy first.
But just as the demand for sustained, sophisticated American diplomacy is
rising, the capacity of the countryís foreign service to supply it is
dwindling. The State Department is demoralised and suffering from a
hollowing-out of talent. That will be hard to remedy soon.
The troubles of the countryís oldest federal agency did not begin with the
Trump administration but they deepened dramatically under it. Mr Trump
openly referred to ďthe Deep State DepartmentĒ, repeatedly (if
unsuccessfully) proposed slashing its budget and publicly attacked
experienced diplomats, such as those involved with policy towards Ukraine,
whose only crime was to do their job. Career diplomats were virtually shut
out of senior policymaking roles, and the share of political appointees to
ambassadorial rolesótheir main qualification often being the size of their
political donationsóreached new heights. American diplomacy is in crisis.
What can be done? Three times in the past centuryóafter the first world war,
after the second world war and during the cold waróCongress passed
legislation to shape a foreign service fit for the future. Yet in recent
decades Congress has focused on the shape of Americaís armed services and on
the organisation of the countryís homeland security, not on diplomacy.
Whether lawmakers are capable of agreeing on a new framework for the State
Department is open to doubt. With or without a new act, however, America
must rethink its diplomacy for a more contested global landscape.
America, rediscover your Excellency
Plenty of people are starting to do just that, including a group, led by
former ambassadors at Harvardís Kennedy School, who have prepared a road
map. Some of their suggestions involve changes to the way the State
Department bureaucracy works. It is notoriously inflexible and risk-averse.
It badly needs to modernise its career structure, including opening up to
entry at all levels, not least to help it improve its dismal record on
diversity: among Americaís ambassadors abroad, only three are
African-American and four Hispanic. But the big idea is simple and urgent. A
great power has let its foreign service slip, to a dangerous degree. For the
sake of its own future, and for the good of the world, in 2021 America needs
to start reinvesting in diplomacy.