The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2017
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practice of questioning the loyalty of indi-

vidual career public servants because they

worked in the previous administration

are troubling phenomena. And I fear they

reflect dismissiveness about the role of

diplomacy and diplomats that is not only

regrettable, but deeply counterproductive.

What we’re risking—despite the fine

and capable people at the top of this

administration’s national security team

and the truly heroic efforts of our career

colleagues under extremely tough cir-

cumstances—is the hollowing out of the

ideas, initiative and institutions on which

American leadership and international

order rest.

American Leadership and

International Order

The idea of America has been at the

heart of our success in the world for

70 years. For all our imperfections, we

have embodied political and economic

openness, respect for human dignity and

a sense of possibility. The power of our

example has mattered more than the

power of our preaching, and enlightened

self-interest has driven our strategy.

But what we see bubbling to the

surface at this moment of uncer-

tainty is far more focus on “self” than

“enlightened”—a nasty brew of mercan-

tilism, unilateralism and unreconstructed

nationalism. At a moment when interna-

tional order is under severe strain, power

is fragmenting and great-power rivalry

has returned, the values and purpose

at the core of the American idea matter

more than ever.

American initiative—the willingness

and ability to mobilize others to deal

with shared problems—is another crucial

asset at risk. From regional challenges to

wider global dilemmas such as climate

change, U.S. leadership has been critical

to the unprecedented peace and prosper-

ity of the post-World War II era. Of course

… we got a lot wrong and made our share

of serious mistakes. And, of course, we

need to make significant adjustments in

a world in which the United States is no

longer dominant but still pre-eminent.

But too many people in today’s Wash-

ington seem to see the United States

as a hostage to the very international

order it created. Alliances are millstones,

multilateral arrangements such as the

Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA

are constraints rather than opportuni-

ties, and the United Nations and other

international bodies are distractions, if

not irrelevant. We’re Gulliver, in their

view, and it’s time to break the bonds of

the Lilliputians.

That is more than just an attitude, and

more than just a new articulation of a

recurring isolationist instinct in U.S. poli-

tics. It’s already proving corrosive, by cre-

ating a trade vacuum in Asia that China

is eagerly filling; threatening to squander

hard-won gains in our own hemisphere

and Africa; and unnerving European

allies by indulging populist nationalists

and encouraging more Brexits.

At the same time, we risk the decay of

institutions that translate American ideas

and initiative into action. By continuing

to rely so heavily on hard power, we con-

tinue to reinforce a calamitous pattern in

which we have often inverted the roles

of force and diplomacy. Force becomes

our tool of first resort, with diplomacy

its under-resourced enabler, rather than

diplomacy enabled by the vast potential

of the American military, as well as our

rich array of economic, development and

soft-power capabilities.

Of course we have to substantially

reform domestic and international agen-

cies. No one is more familiar with—or

been more frustrated by—the imperfec-

tions and inefficiencies of this depart-

ment than we are. Substantial streamlin-

ing is long overdue. And it’s about time

that we took effective aim at the balloon-

ing of seventh-floor staff, the endless

layering of bureaucracy, the bottomless

clearance pages, and the proliferation of

special envoys and offices. And I haven’t

even mentioned travel orders and other

byzantine administrative processes, a

form of self-flagellation that we are espe-

cially adept at in this department.

But reform ought to be motivated by

an interest in strengthening American

diplomacy, not sidelining it. Long delays

in filling bureau and embassy leadership

posts eviscerate morale and undermine

our capacity to promote our interests,

defend our policies and ensure the safety

and security of American citizens. And

draconian reductions in assistance pro-

grams are penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Our foreign aid barely makes a dent

in the federal budget, but gutting it

guarantees the kind of state failures

and conflicts that often drag in the U.S.

military, at far greater cost in blood and

treasure. That is not just the self-serving

view of the diplomatic community, but

Our foreign aid barely makes a dent in the

federal budget, but gutting it guarantees

the kind of state failures and conflicts

that often drag in the U.S. military, at far

greater cost in blood and treasure.