Mr. President, You Have Partners at State to Help Navigate the World’s Shoals

The new administration’s challenge is to sustain U.S. leadership in an increasingly unhinged world.


For the past two years, we have engaged in a raucous national debate on the state of the world and America’s place in it, all against a dramatic backdrop that includes the rise of radical Islamism, the collapse of nations, a resurgent Russia, unprecedented refugee flows and a more assertive China. History, it would seem, has returned with a vengeance.

Your challenge boils down to engaging an ambivalent U.S. public to take on the task of sustaining American leadership in an increasingly unhinged world. I offer the following assessment of that challenge, and some thoughts on how your partners at the State Department can help.

Shoring Up the Home Front

Before getting too far along, you will need to have a conversation with the American people about our place in the world. The election showed that Americans are skeptical of our engagement abroad and unclear about our interests. As Robert Kagan recently put it, “They favor the liberal order in so far as they can see how it touches them. But they are no longer prepared to sacrifice much to uphold it.”

This shows up most clearly in the debate over globalization, of which The Economist has written: “There is a widespread sense that an open economy is good for a small elite but does nothing for the broad mass of people. ... The storms inflicted by a more integrated economy were underestimated, and too little effort went into helping those who lost out.” The editors also remind us, however, that “half of America’s exports go to countries with which it has a free-trade deal, even though these countries account for less than a tenth of global Gross Domestic Product.” You’ll need to implement domestic programs to help globalization’s losers and enable all Americans to compete more successfully, all the while expanding access to the global markets that will be at the heart of export-led economic growth.

In the security arena, the American people feel similarly betrayed, primarily by the uneven progress in Iraq and Afghanistan where we have invested so heavily. You will need to earn back their trust, again with some early wins, a lot of open and frank discussion, and the development of a strategy and framework that is comprehensible to the average citizen. It will be more FDR in 1939, cajoling a reluctant America, than Bush in 2002, channeling the unbounded energy of an America seized with a global mission.

Seized or not, that global mission remains. There is simply no one else positioned, resourced and able to lead the free world. As Australian Prime Minister John Howard told the Canadian Parliament in 2006, at a time when many were tempted to seek a world without American leadership: “Be careful in what you wish for, because a retreating America will leave a more vulnerable world. It will leave a world more exposed to terrorism and it will leave a more fragile and, indeed, dangerous world.” The American people must be convinced that a world without America will not just be poorer and more conflicted for others, but for them.

Toward a Post-Cold War Doctrine

One thing that would help is a strategic framework for dealing with the world, something we have not had since the end of the Cold War. Your last three predecessors had an aversion to post–Cold War doctrine, fearful it would miss something in an increasingly complex world, while limiting their operating space. This aversion has probably run its course.

One such framework would divide the world into Westphalian and post-Westphalian spheres. The Westphalian world, enshrined in 1648 to end the horrific violence of a Europe that had completely unraveled, is one in which the state has a monopoly on the use of force within its borders, and each state’s sovereignty is respected by other states. This now defines most of the world, and the global systems for trade, travel, diplomacy, conflict resolution and deterrence are all dependent on the core ability of states to function effectively.

With the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, U.S. and world attention focused increasingly on the many countries and regions that had entered a kind of post-Westphalian existence in which governance broke down, or was so weak as to be irrelevant. Somalia collapsed into a non-state haze of anarchy in 1991. It was for a time the anomaly, but then Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Central African Republic and a dozen other states joined the club to varying degrees and in differing conditions. Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria are the most recent additions.

But the post-Westphalian world is more than just the collapse or weakening of states. Adding fuel to the fire are the forces of modern technology, globalization and religiosity. Today criminal groups can amass capital on par with Fortune 500 companies, who themselves are as wealthy as some nations; insurgents and drug traffickers can outfight their state counterparts; and religious fanaticism can electronically jump borders to inspire violence with an image or an appeal.

Larger threats loom, too: cross-border pandemics that can kill thousands, terrorists with advanced weaponry. Managing the challenges within the nation-state system while working to return failed and fragile states to that system is an operating concept around which a robust new strategy could be built.

Managing the Westphalian World

The orderly part of the world will require undistracted focus, new resources, a shared vision and assertive U.S. leadership to maintain course. Here are some things to consider as you look at the globe:

There is simply no one else positioned, resourced and able to lead the free world.

Europe remains the primary champion of international order and the postwar liberal order, and our most stalwart ally on most issues. But it has rising demons and fundamental challenges. The Balkans will deserve special attention, as will the steady flow of forced migration, which is testing European solidarity as the continent faces its worst migration crisis since the Second World War. Europeans need to know we are in this together.

Brexit will continue to reverberate—the European Union was the mechanism by which the continent ended its long civil war and became a major force for good in the world. It is in our interest to keep the project of European integration alive and healthy.

Fear of Russia continues to be a big part of Europe’s equation, and the Atlantic Alliance has never been more important in the post–Cold War era. Containing and reversing Russia’s expansion and unhelpful meddling, while keeping the door open to collective work with Moscow on shared interests, will be key to regional stability. We need to constantly update and expand NATO’s capacity, and take seriously our longstanding issue of burden-sharing, while recognizing the burden NATO members have continued to shoulder alongside us in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the Sahel.

The Asia-Pacific region contains a challenging mix of threats and opportunities. A more domestically palatable Trans-Pacific Partnership with a safety net for its losers would help maintain momentum in a region with tremendous potential for American exporters. China’s increasingly assertive presence in the region will grow our list of potential partners, and North Korea will require special attention. As with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is likely that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea President Kim Jong-un will test you early; the best way to avoid getting to the worst-case scenario is being visibly prepared for it. Asia also has tremendous potential for the emergence of a moderate version of Islam that we should continue to engage.

In this hemisphere, you will have some digging out to do after some toxic campaign comments. After shoring up our popular image and reassuring trading partners, there will be a temptation to leave the region on autopilot as you turn your attention to the more dramatic parts of the planet. This would be a mistake, however, given the tremendous untapped economic potential so close to home—starting with a reform-minded Mexico and a Canada with whom we already have the largest trading relationship of any two nations in the world. A rational immigration policy also starts with good relations with the rest of the hemisphere.

South Asia remains one of the few parts of the world where a nuclear conflagration could ignite, and is also one of the most likely regions to spread nuclear technology and know-how. But India, in particular, has immense trading potential. Indeed, as foreign policy commentators Kim R. Holmes of the Heritage Foundation and Will Inboden of the University of Texas, Austin, put it: “Our burgeoning strategic partnership with India has the potential to fundamentally transform the international order of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Africa meanwhile has come alive, and we deserve some small credit for its “renaissance” (if not too premature a label), given our partnerships with its many struggling states. But progress is fragile and incomplete and, like Latin America, it is an easy place to neglect. There are more opportunities than risks in Africa, especially for commerce, and there are 50 states in the African Union whose collective diplomatic clout is not insignificant. But many parts of the continent suffer from terrorism and violent extremism, as well as civil wars and ethnic conflicts that cry out for the stronger institutions that America has become better at nurturing.

Finally, the Middle East is either in collapse or skittish, and badly in need of attention and reassurance. Whether fair or not, old allies feel abandoned, and the region believes our attention has gone elsewhere (the danger with pivoting somewhere is that it implies pivoting away from somewhere else). This is not the time for a major push on the Middle East peace process, but it is a time for putting American influence behind measures to ensure the two-state option remains viable.

With Iran, we have a good-enough agreement in the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), but it requires assertive management of Tehran’s regional meddling. The biggest challenge in the Middle East, however, is getting states to an orderly place individually, and building a stable regional order among those states. Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq are the tests of our ability to successfully shepherd failed states to stability; the key in each of them is reaching an agreement on an inclusive national political system, however imperfect and compromised—a daunting task we have avoided fully getting behind.

To manage all of this, we will need to strengthen relationships broadly, moving away from the transactional arrangements we have fallen into since 9/11 and back to the more fundamental alliances and regional arrangements of a previous era. We also need to do more to develop with other global leaders a clear vision and action agenda for global order, because—as former U.S. ambassador and strategic thinker Carlos Pascual puts it—“This is simply too big for one country.”

You should consider ways to formalize all this in a new global architecture, such as the “Group of 16” idea the Brookings Institution has proposed. With the United Nations’ architecture impossible to quickly enhance, the G-8 out of date and the G-20 never really taking off, a G-8 plus Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and Nigeria might be the way to broaden participation and commitment on a full range of global issues.

The Larger Challenges in the Post-Westphalian World

Getting the Westphalian part of the globe back on track is a tall order. But the work will only be complete if you are able to restore some order to the failed and fragile states that make up the post-Westphalian world. We need a return address for threats, and we need partners.

Americans have developed a love-hate relationship with nation-building, with the result that we have never developed the tools to address the “fragile state” phenomenon adequately.

Americans have developed a love-hate relationship with nation-building, with the result that we have never developed the tools to address the “fragile state” phenomenon adequately. In reality, there have been more successes than most Americans are aware of—some a result of United Nations action (Mozambique, El Salvador, South Africa), some from regional actors (Australia in East Timor), some bilateral (the United States in Colombia or the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone) and some hybrid (the United States, U.N. and E.U. in the Balkans).

What they all have in common is a focus on the political structure that makes up a nation and the institution-building that strengthens the supporting state. Both are essential. The U.S. government has little to offer either in terms of developing political structure or building institutions that is not simply an ad hoc application of people and resources pulled from various institutions.

You might consider developing the means to more actively influence political transitions and democratic consolidations, and a more systematic means of delivering civilian security assistance and institution-building (e.g., police, courts, ministries and anti-corruption measures). Some of this would come from fully implementing and further evolving the recommendations of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense and Development Review (Leading Through Civilian Power), while drawing from the many other ideas out there. You could start with the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Center for a New American Security and the Carnegie Institute’s U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility. (The work of Rufus Phillips at the National Strategy Information Center, Fostering Positive Political Change, is also worth your time.)

There may be states that are destined to fail, but there are a host of others that can avoid failure. And there are some failed states that can undoubtedly be brought back to health.

Your Partners at State

Through all of this, your Department of State employees will remain on the front lines. Here are some of the places where we can actively support your work on this daunting agenda:

Calling Mr./Ms. X: The originator of the containment doctrine, Foreign Service Officer George Kennan, had an unusual ability to distill his decades of work in Russia into a new doctrine that guided the country through the Cold War. There are similarly talented individuals in State today whose deep experience abroad is matched by analytical capacity and who could be uniquely qualified to help develop your new strategy.

Eyes and Ears on the Ground: State Department reporting provides the broader context to round out the more targeted reporting you will get from the intelligence community and the military. It is often the most complete and clearest reporting you will receive on a situation. This reporting can especially provide warning signs when things are about to go sideways. The Foreign Service will need top-level cover to take the inherent risks to achieve this.

Your Personal Representatives: Ambassadors abroad are your personal representatives, and their credibility becomes your credibility. You can enhance their effectiveness by choosing those with a clear capacity for complex interagency leadership, appropriate language and cross-cultural skills, and the ability to clearly convey our values and positions to a foreign audience. These traits are found across the career Foreign Service, and on limited occasions outside of the Foreign Service.

Getting to Yes: While there is a temptation to bring in the big names for negotiations, don’t forget that Foreign Service officers have conducted foreign negotiations for their entire careers. It is second nature to them, and they are very good at it.

Experts for Niche Issues: Today’s State Department is very different from what it was 30 years ago, with experts on health, energy, arms control, oceans, biotech and a host of other issues. It can deliver the expertise to manage the increasing complexity of your global agenda.

Connecting with the Heartland: Your diplomats know their overseas beats well, but they also all come from all over the United States. They can help build grassroots U.S. support for your international agenda through speaking tours and op-eds in local media.

We are here for you, Mr. President, and we are in this together. We will often be the first ones to see the opportunities and help you avert the risks as we re-hinge the world, and re-establish our nation’s place in it.

Keith W. Mines is a Senior Foreign Service officer currently serving as an Interagency Professional in Residence at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a U.S. Army Special Forces officer. He has served throughout the Western Hemisphere, as well as in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa and Europe, in diplomatic, United Nations and military assignments. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.