Diplomacy and Empire (Part I)
How has the nature of U.S. world leadership fundamentally changed in the 21st century?
February 27, 2007
In 1941, as the United States sat out the wars then raging in both the Atlantic and Pacific, Henry Luce penned a famous attack on isolationism in Life Magazine. “We Americans are unhappy,” he began. “We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous or gloomy or apathetic.”
Luce argued that the destiny of the United States demanded that “the most powerful and vital nation in the world” step up to the international stage and assume the position of global leader. “The 20th Century must be to a significant degree an American Century,” he declared.
And so it proved to be, as the United States led the world to victory over fascism, created a new world order mimicking the rule of law and parliamentary institutions internationally, altered the human condition with a dazzling array of new technologies, fostered global opening and reform, contained and outlasted communism and saw the apparent triumph of democratic ideals over their alternatives.
But that 20th Century came to an end in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War — and the emergence of the United States as a great power without a peer.
There followed a dozen intercalary years of narcissistic confusion. We Americans celebrated our unrivaled military power and proclaimed ourselves “the indispensable nation,” but failed to define a coherent vision of a post-Cold War order — or an inspiring role for the United States within it.
These essential tasks were deferred to the 21st century, which — in American eyes — finally began in late 2001, with the shock and awe of 9/11. Then, in the panic and rage of that moment, we made the choices about our world role we had earlier declined to make.
Since 9/11, we Americans have chosen to stake our domestic tranquility and the preservation of our liberties on our ability under our commander-in-chief to rule the world by force of arms — rather than to lead, as we had in the past, by the force of our example or our arguments.
And we appear to have decided that it is necessary to destroy our constitutional practices and civil liberties in order to save them. This is a trade-off we had resolutely refused to make during our far more perilous half-century confrontation with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union.
The ultimate effects on our republic of our own slide away from long-standing constitutional norms remain a matter of speculation. But clearly, our departure from our previous dedication to the principles of comity and the rule of law has made us once again unhappy about ourselves in relation to America and the world.
It has also cost us the esteem that once led foreigners to look up to us and to wish to emulate and follow us. Our ability to recover from the damage we have done to ourselves and our leadership is further impeded by the extent to which we now cower behind barricades at home and in our embassies abroad.
The current wave of anti-foreign and anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States also compounds the problem. A recent poll of foreign travelers showed that two-thirds considered the United States the most disagreeably unwelcoming country to visit. There is surely no security to be found in surly discourtesy.
By failing to welcome the world’s peoples to our shores is not simply to lose the economic benefits of their presence here. It also greatly diminishes both the vigor of our universities and the extent of our influence abroad. To lose the favor of a generation of students is to forfeit the goodwill of their children and grandchildren as well.
And to fail to show respect to allies and friends is not simply to diminish our influence but to predispose growing numbers abroad to disapprove or even oppose anything we advocate. By all this, we give aid and comfort to our enemies and undercut the efficacy in dispute resolution and problem solving of measures short of war.
There has been little room for diplomacy in the coercive and militaristic approach we have recently applied to our foreign relations. Much of the world now sees us as its greatest bully, not its greatest hope. Self-righteous lawlessness by the world’s most powerful nation inspires illegality and amorality on the part of the less powerful as well.
The result of aggressive unilateralism has been to separate us from our allies, to alienate us from our friends, to embolden our detractors, to create irresistible opportunities for our adversaries and competitors, to inflate the ranks of our enemies — and to resurrect the notion at the expense of international law and order that might makes right.
Thus, the neglect of both common courtesy and diplomacy fosters violent opposition to our global preeminence in the form of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and war.
With the numbers of our enemies mounting, it is fortunate that our military power remains without match. The United States’ armed forces are the most competent and lethal in history. And so they are likely to remain for decades to come.
Our humbling on the battlegrounds of the Middle East does not reflect military inadequacy. It is rather the result of the absence of strategy and its political handmaiden, diplomacy.
We are learning the hard way that old allies will not aid us and new allies will not stick with us if we ignore their interests, deride their advice, impugn their motives and denigrate their capabilities. Friends will not walk with us into either danger or opportunity if we injure their interests and brush aside their objections to our doing so.
Those with whom we have professed friendship in the past cannot sustain their receptivity to our counsel if we demand that they adopt secular norms of the European Enlightenment that we no longer exemplify, while loudly disparaging their religious beliefs and traditions. Diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work any better than strategy-free warfare.
When war is not the extension of policy, but the entrenchment of policy failure by other means, it easily degenerates into mindless belligerence and death without meaning. Appealing as explosions and the havoc of war may be to those who have experienced them only vicariously, rather than in person, military success is not measured in battle damage but in political results. These must be secured by diplomacy.
The common view in the United States that diplomacy halts when war begins is thus worse than wrong. It is catastrophically misguided. Diplomacy and war are not alternatives. They are essential partners. Diplomacy unbacked by force can be ineffectual, but force unassisted by diplomacy is almost invariably unproductive.
There is a reason that diplomacy precedes war and that the use of force is a last resort. If diplomacy fails to produce results, war can sometimes lay a basis for diplomats to achieve them. When force fails to attain its intended results, diplomacy and other measures short of war can seldom accomplish them.
We properly demand that our soldiers prepare for the worst. As they do so, the leaders of the United States should work to ensure that the worst does not happen. They must build and sustain international relationships and approaches that can solve problems without loss of life — and pave the way for a better future.
If we must go to war, the brave men and women who engage in combat on our behalf have the right to expect that their leaders will direct diplomats to consolidate the victories they achieve, mitigate the defeats they suffer, and contrive a better peace to follow their fighting.
Our military personnel deserve, in short, to be treated as something more than the disposable instruments of unilateral belligerence. And U.S. diplomats deserve to be treated as something more than the clean-up squad in fancy dress.
Every death or crippling of an American on the battlefields of the Middle East is a poignant reminder that, in the absence of diplomacy, the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, however heroic, can neither yield victory nor sustain hegemony for the United States.
A diplomatic strategy is needed to give our military operations persuasive political purposes, to aggregate the power of allies to our cause, to transform our battlefield successes into peace — and to reconcile the defeated to their humiliation.
Sadly, our neglect of these tasks, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has served to demonstrate the limits of our military power, not its deterrent value. This is, however, far from the greatest irony of our current predicaments.
In the competition with other nations for influence, the United States’ comparative advantages have been, and remain, our unmatched military capabilities, our economy and our leading role in scientific and technological innovation.
We spend much, much more on our military — about 5.7% of our economy, or $720 billion at present — than the rest of the world’s other 192 nations combined. With less than one-twentieth of the world’s population, we account for more than a fourth of its economic activity.
Almost two-thirds of central bank reserves are held in our currency which, much to our advantage, has dominated international financial markets for 60 years. The openness of our society to new people and ideas has made our country the greatest crucible of global technological innovation.