Too Quick on the Draw: Militarism and the Malpractice of Diplomacy in America.

Author:Freeman, Ambassador Chas W.
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

May 2016

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The late Arthur Goldberg, who served on our Supreme Court and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once said that "diplomats approach every question with an open... mouth." No doubt that's often true at the U.N., where parliamentary posturing and its evil twin, declaratory diplomacy, rule. But the essence of diplomacy is not talking but seeking common ground by listening carefully and with an open mind to what others don't say as well as what they do, and then acting accordingly.

Diplomacy is how a nation advances its interests and resolves problems with foreigners with minimal violence. It is the nonbelligerent champion of domestic tranquility and prosperity. It promotes mutually acceptable varieties of modus vivendi between differing perspectives and cultures.

Diplomacy is the translation of national strategy into tactics to gain political, economic, and military advantages without the use of force. It is the outermost sentry and guardian of national defense. Its lapse or failure can bring war and all its pains to a nation.

But diplomacy is not just an alternative to war. It does not end when war begins. And when war proves necessary to adjust relations with other states or peoples, it is diplomacy that must translate the outcome of the fighting into agreed adjustments in relationships, crafting a better peace that reconciles the vanquished to their defeat and stabilizes a new status quo. By any measure, therefore, excellence in diplomacy is vitally important to the power, wealth, and well-being of the nation.

At its deepest level, diplomacy is a subtle strategic activity. It is about rearranging circumstances, perceptions, and the parameters of international problems so as to realign the self-interest of other nations with one's own in ways that cause them to see that it is in their interest to do what one wants them to do, and that it's possible for them to do it without appearing to capitulate to any foreign power or interest. Diplomacy is about getting others to play our game.

Judging by results in the complex post-Cold War environment, diplomacy is something the United States does not now understand or know how to do. I want to speak with you today about some of the beliefs and practices that account for America's bungling of foreign policy in recent years. I will end by offering a few thoughts about how we might do better.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union liberated Americans from our fear of nuclear Armageddon, the foreign policy of the United States has come to rely almost exclusively on economic sanctions, military deterrence, and the use of force. Such measures are far from the only arrows in the traditional quiver of statecraft. Yet Americans no longer aim at leadership by example or polite persuasion backed by national prestige, patronage, institution building, or incentives for desirable behavior. In Washington, the threat to use force has become the first rather than the last resort in foreign policy. We Americans have embraced coercive measures as our default means of influencing other nations, whether they be allies, friends, adversaries, or enemies.

For most in our political elite, the overwhelming military and economic leverage of the United States justifies abandoning the effort to persuade rather than muscle recalcitrant foreigners into line. We habitually respond to challenges of every kind with military posturing rather than with diplomatic initiatives directed at solving the problems that generate these challenges. This approach has made us less--not more--secure, while burdening future generations of Americans with ruinous debt. It has unsettled our allies without deterring our adversaries. It has destabilized entire regions, multiplied our enemies, and estranged us from our friends.

South America no longer defers to us. Russia is again hostile. Europe questions our judgment, is audibly disturbed by our belligerence, and is distancing itself from our leadership. A disintegrating Middle East seethes with vengeful contempt for the United States. Africa ignores us. Our lust for India remains unrequited. China has come to see us as implacably hostile to its rise and is focused on countering our perceived efforts to hem it in. Japan is reviewing its inner samurai. Some say all these adversities are upon us because we are not sufficiently brutal in our approach to foreign affairs and that, to be taken seriously or to be effective, we must bomb, strafe, or use drones to assassinate those with whom we disagree and let the collateral damage fall where it may. But what we have actually proved is that, if you are sufficiently indifferent to the interests of others and throw your weight around enough, you can turn off practically everybody.

Outside our own country, American military prowess and willingness to administer shock and awe to foreign societies are nowhere in doubt. In Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other places, Americans have provided ample evidence of our politico-military obduracy and willingness to inflict huge casualties on foreigners we judge oppose us. As a nation, we nonetheless seem to doubt our own prowess and to be obsessed with proving it to ourselves and others. But there is no credibility gap about American toughness to be remedied. That is not the issue. The issue is whether our policies are wise and whether military campaign plans dressed up in domestically appealing rhetoric equate to strategies that can yield a world more congruent with our interests and values.

In recent years, the United States has killed untold multitudes in wars and counterterrorist drone warfare in West Asia and North Africa. Our campaigns have spilled the blood, broken the bodies, and taken or blighted the lives of many in our armed forces, while weakening our economy by diverting necessary...

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