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The State Department Needs Rehab

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05.03.2018

When a U.S. president thinks most positions at the State Department are “unnecessary” and insists “I’m the only one that matters,” it’s a safe bet that serious, professional diplomacy will get short shrift. And that has clearly been the case in the Trump administration. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have done serious damage to American diplomacy. And it’s time to consider how that damage can be repaired.

It’s important to understand the State Department was falling on hard times even before the Trump administration accelerated the trend. The United States has had a rather casual attitude about diplomacy for much of its history, even though some of its greatest foreign-policy successes were achieved by diplomacy rather than by force of arms. As I’ve observed elsewhere, initiatives such as the Louisiana Purchase, the Marshall Plan, the Camp David Accords, and the negotiated end of the Cold War were remarkable foreign-policy achievements won not on the battlefield but across the negotiating table. And you could add to that countless other agreements and arrangements that advanced U.S. interests at remarkably little cost, because skilled diplomats were able to discern other parties’ interests, resolve, and sensitivities and fashion accords that their foreign counterparts accepted, implemented, and preserved.

Yet even as the benefits of effective diplomacy are manifest, Americans have long viewed it with a certain suspicion and disdain. Instead of thinking of foreign policy as primarily the art of pursuing arrangements of mutual benefit and adjustment — where we get most of what we want while others get some of what they want as well — Americans prefer the moral clarity of unconditional surrender. That approach is usually short-sighted, however, because it encourages others to fight harder and longer and because losers who are not reconciled to their defeat (such as Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War or the Confederate states after the Civil War and Reconstruction) will try to renege on whatever the United States forced them to accept.

Diplomacy is also devalued because Americans (falsely) associate it with secrecy, deception, and double-dealing. Americans like to think of themselves as honest, plain-speaking truth-tellers, in contrast to those wily and unscrupulous emissaries whom foreign powers send abroad. The American satirist Ambrose Bierce famously described diplomacy as the “patriotic art of lying for one’s country,” and that same innate suspicion was apparent in President Woodrow Wilson’s naive insistence that the affairs of nations should be managed via “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” A similar belief that diplomacy requires no special training or skill is evident in the U.S. policy of reserving more than 30 percent of its ambassadorial appointments for untrained amateurs (read: big campaign donors), a practice no other great power........

© Foreign Policy