Skip to content
maria-stewart-r7v5YUN1zKI-unsplash (1)

US Diplomacy Is Weakening 

Policymakers and the American public are overlooking a significant foreign policy tool available to the United States. 

Words: Andrew Hyde, Richard LeBaron, Aude Darnal
Pictures: Maria Stewart

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. It aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

The great international problems of the day all require diplomacy. Whether it is finding a way to end the war in Ukraine, address climate change, prevent a war between the United States and China, or develop shared rules for how artificial intelligence should be managed, the process of countries talking to one another to find agreements is paramount. Yet, the ability of the United States to conduct diplomacy has atrophied. While diplomats fled the State Department during the Trump administration, deeply undermining the ability of the United States to conduct diplomacy, budgetary stagnation, and political attacks on the department before and after the Trump era have led to a weakened diplomatic structure unable to lead on major international agreements.

Yet, the decline of US diplomacy is not simply due to budgets or partisan attacks. There is an overarching cultural force that privileges military might over diplomatic efforts. Proposals for negotiation and compromise are rarely well received by the American public, while threats to use force when other countries fail to comply with US demands receive more attention and praise. The result is that the ability of the United States to conduct diplomacy, even when it seeks to lead diplomatic efforts, is severely limited at a time when diplomacy is desperately needed.

This month’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy roundtable focused on the structural factors that have undermined US diplomacy. Participants highlighted several issues, from the tight restrictions put on embassy staff traveling around the countries they are stationed in to the domestic cultural impediments to support extensive diplomatic efforts. There was widespread agreement that the United States was caught in a negative feedback loop wherein failed diplomatic efforts continuously undermined the belief of Americans that diplomacy could advance US interests. Three participants shared their views on what needs to change to help address the diplomatic deficit in US foreign policy.

Andrew Hyde, Director and Senior Fellow, Stimson Center

Discussing the structural factors impeding US diplomacy and what might be done to address them are both essential and timeless. There are a number of directions to consider, but a closer look at the softer side of diplomacy is important. Don’t get me wrong, hard skills and precise metrics to know whether US national interests are being advanced effectively are necessary but are not sufficient to understand what needs to change.

Truly successful diplomacy must involve imagination and innovation, being open and ready to envision the unexpected and what might be possible in foreign policy and relations among states. A known and comfortable space is easier and more familiar for many diplomats, but some of the most creative diplomacy I have witnessed has involved identifying the unseen and unforeseen and seizing opportunities. In this, the US has demonstrated some real strengths and excellent examples, such as with the high-profile Dayton Accords in 1995 and the hands-off support to Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC while continuing to fall short in terms of understanding, assessing and institutionalizing it.

Diplomats, both abroad and at State, should be incentivized to take risks and try new approaches. A failed approach should not be a negative but a recognition that they tried something different. Sure, there need to be safeguards to account for possible failure, but success can also be redefined. The US enjoys a lot of goodwill around the world, and policymakers and practitioners should see that as a substantial basis from which to lead and innovate. It doesn’t always mean they will win others over, but most times, at least they will get a hearing.

There is also something to be said for realizing diplomacy is too important to just be left in the hands of professional diplomats. Impactful US diplomacy can cut across many sectors. Other government agencies, subnational governments (such as state and local) officials, and business and cultural leaders are powerful advocates and examples of US values in all its messiness.

Striving to continue improving diplomacy should be the hallmark of our country’s foreign policy leadership.

Amb. (ret.) Richard LeBaron, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

As we consider grand strategy for US engagement with the world, save us from “soft power,” a term coined by Professor Joe Nye in the 1980s to describe attaining outcomes in international relations through persuasion rather than coercion. While the concept is eminently sound, the term “soft power” has very likely been one of the reasons that instruments of projecting non-military power have been undervalued, overlooked, and sometimes scorned by US policymakers.

The foreign policy establishment, Congress, and the public have long considered military capability extremely important, as witnessed by the steady growth of defense budgets in recent decades. Meanwhile, diplomacy, outreach to foreign publics, support for international education, and other means of exerting influence through non-military channels have atrophied since the end of the Cold War and represent an ever more minuscule percentage of US spending on instruments of national power. After all, who would consider something labeled “soft power” to be “serious power?”

It is time to dispense with both the term “soft power” and the stepchild status that this aspect of national power has been relegated to in our national security strategies and in our foreign affairs budgets. The future of foreign policy is engagement at all levels, everywhere, with everybody, all the time. The arsenal of engagement includes upgrading traditional State Department diplomacy, where the paltry level of funding for the International Affairs budget, compared with the Defense Budget, does not even allow for proper training of Foreign Service personnel. It should include vastly more support for international exchanges and education, proven instruments of creating long-term relationships that bring together foreign participants with a broad range of Americans who want to be and need to be engaged more in foreign affairs. Strategic engagement also includes support for the expansion of international business ties as well as the encouragement of exchanges between all sorts of non-governmental organizations.

There’s nothing “soft” about diplomacy. It is a form of power projection — and vital if the US wishes to maintain its leadership in the world.

Aude Darnal, Research Associate, Stimson Center 

US embassies around the world are a formidable tool for the US government to spur its diplomatic strategy with foreign countries. With a total of 179 embassies and thousands of US and host countries’ national employees around the world, these institutions are a direct bridge between foreign populations, civil society, private, public, and political sectors, and the United States.

The relationships enabled by Department of State-run facilities include joint cultural and political events, program funding and monitoring, and business activities, among other enterprises aiming to deepen cooperation between the United States and its partners. Yet, embassies in countries where US decision-makers would gain the most from deepened interactions and mutual understanding often suffer from inadequate security protocols, in particular in relatively safe environments.

The highly restrictive security protocols that the US government applies to US employees abroad are a challenge that hinders deeper connections between the United States and its host countries. Though security protocols are necessary to ensure the safety of US employees overseas, too often, the limitations imposed on US staff ― from no-go areas to the interdiction to move around outside their own car, for instance ― are dissonant with the actual environment, particularly in lower insecurity contexts in the Global South.

Burdensome restrictions in relatively low-risk locations prevent embassies’ US officers from benefiting from tremendous opportunities to interact with their host countries’ citizens in their daily life. Discussing with a taxi driver, or simply mingling in different communities and partaking in quotidian local activities are a central means to fully experience life overseas and gain knowledge to produce accurate analysis. These types of simple interactions are perhaps the best and most straightforward way ― compared with the more official relations with government officials and US-funded civil society groups ― to gather empirical data, which is critical to understand local contexts and to better inform US foreign policy and programs. More direct and natural connections with their surroundings could further enable US staff abroad to deconstruct false assumptions and reduce the gap between US leaders in Washington and the programs it funds in foreign countries. Beyond that, overly restrictive security policies may also challenge US-funded programs’ monitoring and evaluation by restraining interactions with communities or making travels within a territory more difficult, thus reducing opportunities for learning and rendering US programming less effective.

The discordance between strict restrictions on movement and the actual security environment is not limited to security protocols applied to US employees abroad. It is also an issue plaguing the Department of States’ travel advisories that demonstrates an overall aversion to risk and a culture of risk amplification with regard to the safety of US citizens traveling abroad, and in particular to certain Global South countries. This policy can ultimately put Americans at odds with these states’ populations, in addition to hindering people-to-people connections, which ultimately could support US diplomacy efforts. At the Department of State staff level, by impeding greater informal interactions between US staff and host countries’ various actors, including the common people on the street, the US government also misses on one of the greatest strengths its diplomacy could have.

Andrew Hyde, Richard LeBaron, Aude Darnal

Andrew Hyde is a Director and Senior Fellow of the Multilateral Financial Diplomacy and Powering Peace programs at the Stimson Center. Ambassador Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. Aude Darnal is a Research Associate in the Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program.

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.