The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

March 2021, No. 96


Sorry State

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.

Daniel Franklin, diplomatic editor, The Economist


Subscribe to

  March 2021
No. 96