I might as well weigh in too…

“Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick. Russia’s status is special: no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

—Feodor Tyuchev, quoted in: Conquest, Robert. “Patriot, Poet and Prophet.” Standpoint September 2008: 34-37.

“the logic of nationalism is implacable”

—Kiesling, John Brady. Diplomacy Lessons. Washington D.C., District of Columbia: Potomac Books, 2006.

For the past year, everybody in US foreign policy circles has offered up their opinions, analysis, outlined foreign policy priorities as they saw it and shared their fantasies, in anticipation of the elections coming up just over a week from now. With the diplomatic debacle of the current administration’s policies plain to see, everyone agrees that some serious changes need to be made, but not everyone agrees on priorities and methods.


It’s useful to begin with Lael Brainard, from Brookings, who devotes a few illuminating chapters in her book, Security By Other Means, (mark the title, more on this later) to detail the byzantine mosaic of initiatives, agencies and programs with which the US faces the rest of the world. This chart, wonderfully illustrates what resulted from the decades of “policy creep” in US international relations. Many agencies have overlapping missions (some of which actually conflict) while the State Department is left largely a policy institute with little oversight of US foreign aid missions. Those are mostly, but not entirely, left to USAID, an independent agency responsible for developing its own budgets and implementing its own programs abroad. There are valid arguments to make that since the two skill sets of diplomacy and delivering foreign assistance are vastly different, and that a fossilized State Department charged with protecting American interests isn’t the best place from which to administer aid programs, that it’s best to leave things be. Indeed, the Peace Corps was founded apart from State just so that it wouldn’t be “tainted” by Cold-War diplomacy. However, the larger point is that foreign policy of any nation is driven by its domestic politics, and Brainard’s chart accurately reflects the conflicting forces operating in American politics. Looming large over this political football is the extent to which Americans are willing to surrender some of their sovereignty in order to achieve active, effective foreign policy in partnership with other nations. Though this is an oversimplification, broadly speaking one can predict how a given person will fall on many foreign policy issues by where they fall in the American nationalism spectrum, and likewise, predict US foreign policy by determining which domestic constituencies are served – with considerable reliability.

“American-firsters” on the right will oppose any multilateral diplomacy, support Pentagon policies and call for any measure promoting a US, pro-business, Christian hegemony in world affairs. The strength of their domestic political clout can be measured by President Bush’s PEPFAR program to battle AIDS/HIV. Bush chose Randall L. Tobias, former chief of pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly as his “AIDS czar”, who in turn, made it a qualification to receive assistance that governments denounce prostitution and promote an “abstinence-only” policy to combat the disease. Unbelievably callous, this move purely to shore up domestic political support perfectly illustrates how our foreign policy is warped by our domestic politics.

Another illustration of the strength of domestic politics in foreign policy is wonderfully described in Gordon Adam’s The Politics of National Security Budgets, published by The Stanley Foundation. In a procedural rather than political analysis, he describes five ways in which, during budget debates, the Pentagon has the upper hand over the entire foreign policy apparatus in determining where budget priorities are set. As we’ve seen above,

  • the Pentagon enjoys institutional coherence over diplomatic and assistance policy agencies,
  • can call on grassroots support in virtually every congressional district as it develops and purchases goods and services domestically,
  • can more easily measure the outputs and outcomes of it’s policies,
  • has a cohesive organizational culture and focus, and finally,
  • the Pentagon has a highly disciplined and motivated planning and procedural process in place to advance its goals in Congress.

The result of which (though I don’t know what goes into this number) Dr. Jeffrey Sachs claims in his book Common Wealth, that the US spends almost as much on it’s military as the rest of the world combined. Indeed, many diplomatic and assistance missions overseas are now being carried out by the military, and one wonders how this could be any other way when, as Nicholas D. Kristof points out:

“The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.”

To a certain extent, Kiesling’s assertion in Diplomacy Lessons that rearranging the various foreign assistance bureaucracies resembles a reshuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic, is accurate. However, the aim to somehow place foreign affairs in the hands of professional diplomats and to give them greater budgetary clout in Congress is theoretically a move I can support. Even in face of the political reality that Congress probably would successfully block any meaningful realignment of foreign policy agencies. We have witnessed how far to the right the democratic leadership in Congress will go to ensure that their slim majority is maintained. We have seen that under no circumstances will the democrats allow themselves to be painted as weak on defense, though there may be a small window in early 2009, assuming Obama is elected, for some real reform. I hope so. The hands of many congressional democrats are as drenched in blood as their neocon counterparts – and they should be periodically reminded of this.

The problems come in two flavors: one of culture, and the other structural. Both Republicans and Democrats sponsor agencies devoted to pursuing US interests: the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, NGO’s with the aim of establishing democratic governments and good governance abroad. In a recent panel discussion about promoting democracy in other countries and the presidents of both IRI and NDI, Lorne Craner and Ken Wollack participated. At one point, representing the republican party view, Lorne Craner expressed his opinion that the primary goal of American foreign policy is, and should continue to be, ensuring that Americans are safe at home – the Bush administration’s rational for its foreign policy. As he was speaking to a roomful of active and former professional diplomats, I expected he would a least make an effort to appear more thoughtful and informative. And indeed, the dozens of articles I’ve read (there are many more) almost uniformly speak of foreign policy reform in terms of enhancing national security objectives, when in fact, the next fifty years will see environmental, overpopulation, health, human rights, commercial and a host of other problems which will require multilateral solutions. Huge, complex problems that will require sustained diplomatic effort, only tangentially affect our national security and for which the resources and the political will do not yet exist. The panel discussion link above points to a link with video of the entire panel. Recently, I was asked for my thoughts on diplomats. Well. If I can except political appointees from the professionals, I mostly come down in favor of diplomats. The panel discussion link I gave above, copied here, shows some professionals expressing the need for sensitivity to local conditions in our dealings with other countries. Right off, Ambassador Barbara Bodine confounded my expectation that US diplomats are bent on fostering American-style democracies abroad. She spoke of diplomacy offering no more than a helping hand in aiding any democratic movement in a host country, of allowing the process to unfold according to the norms of the host culture and its political climate. Not the sort of thing that makes the news. The video is long, but I recommend setting aside a few hours to view it if you can. I can also highly recommend John Brady Kiesling’s Diplomacy Lessons. Kiesling was the former Political Counselor to the US Embassy in Greece who resigned over Bush’s War. In his book, he makes the case that American heavy-handedness in our relations in other countries not only is ineffective, but counterproductive both to immediate and ongoing goals. He also makes a useful distinction between diplomatic diplomats, those sensitive to the host culture and the bureaucratic diplomats, careerists who are more sensitive to what their State Department’s goals and aims are in Washington. Guess who has the upper hand? There’s a term, “clientitis,” used in the State Department to accuse those of placing the host’s interests above America’s, and is the reason why every two or three years diplomats are rotated out of their posts either to Washington or to another post overseas. It’s where corporate culture interferes with process and I can only come to the conclusion that effective diplomacy does in fact suffer as a result.

There’s no domestic political constituency in the United States for any foreign policy other than to protect American interests and promote American values abroad. There are, and they can make themselves heard, various groups of Americans of foreign descent who advocate their particular policy preferences – AIPAC, Latin American immigrants and especially Cuban-Americans in Florida being the most successful. The last eight years have amply demonstrated that a superpower without a thoughtful, consistent and ethical foreign policy focus is in itself a danger to the rest of the world. It is equally apparent that, outside of foreign policy circles, there isn’t even a basis on which domestic American debate can begin to address this fact, never mind the global policy changes that will be needed to address the issues requiring multilateral solutions. So my fantasy is this: that the UN, the EU countries, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Russia, China, India, Brazil, and the African countries (which needs help so badly) get together and with one voice insist that America clean up its act, and that professional diplomats work closely with Congress, to try to give them the political cover needed to undertake foreign policy reform and to get ready for the enormous challenges ahead.

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