America Urged to Rediscover Virtues of Diplomacy

The United States increasingly use the threat of force as a first, rather than a last, resort.

Barack Obama Angela Merkel François Hollande Matteo Renzi
American president Barack Obama speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders at the G7 summit in Bavaria, June 11 (Bundesregierung)

Europeans sometimes like to think American foreign policy is conducted by cowboys who wade into centuries-old disputes and wars without properly understanding what they’re about, shoot first and ask questions later and then leave behind a mess for others to clean up. As with all stereotypes, it’s an unfair exaggeration with a kernel of truth in it: American officials do tend to be less cautious and less diplomatic than their European counterparts.

This is damaging to America’s security and its interests abroad.

Charles W. Freeman, a retired diplomat, argues in The American Conservative that the country has forgotten how to do diplomacy and is increasingly using the threat of force as a first rather than a last resort.

We Americans have embraced coercive measures as our default means of influencing other nations, whether they be allies, friends, adversaries or enemies.

Freeman attributes this mentality to the dominant position America found itself in after the Cold War. The overwhelming economic and military leverage the United States enjoy justifies “abandoning the effort to persuade rather than muscle recalcitrant foreigners into line,” he argues.

The National Interest‘s Paul R. Pillar agrees, writing that Americans have developed an odd view of negotiation: as an exchange in which the United states make their demands — sometimes expressed as “red lines” — and the other side relents. If the other side doesn’t go along with the script, America must simply exert more pressure.

This is markedly different from the rest of the world’s conception of negotiation, in which each side begins with positions that neither side will get or expects to get entirely, followed by a process of give-and-take and mutual concession to arrive at a compromise that meets the needs of each side enough that it is better for each than no agreement at all.

The inability to compromise isn’t limited to American foreign policy. Domestic politics is often seen as a zero-sum game as well in which a Democratic victory necessarily means a Republican defeat or vice versa. The two major parties are seldom able to find middle ground anymore.

Except, it seems, when it comes to bullying other countries.

Foreign Policy magazine provides a good example in its profile of Victoria Nuland, the tough-talking assistant secretary of state for European affairs who is best known for being caught on tape saying “fuck the EU” when discussing regime change in Ukraine. European diplomats complain of her abrasive style and willingness to escalate the West’s standoff with Russia — but lawmakers from both parties praise her frankness.

Her defenders say Nuland’s brand of tough love is exactly what’s needed to enforce Washington’s response to Russia following the annexation of Crimea last year.

Which goes to Freeman’s laments about the United States pushing its weight around and being unwilling to listen to the concerns of even its closest allies.

When European countries question the wisdom of arming Ukraine, fearing it will prompt Russia to step up its own support for rebels in the southeast of the country and create an even more dangerous situation on their borders — half a world away from the United States — American lawmakers complain of a “defeatist attitude” and berate their NATO allies for not spending enough on defense.

When Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, broke ranks in March and reached out to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Nuland flew to Rome to lecture him.

According to one diplomatic source, the intensity of Nuland’s scolding left her Italian interlocutors offended and angry.

It doesn’t matter whether Nuland was right to be outraged or not. What matters is if insulating the Italians is more likely to make them toe the Western line. If not, then what is the point of offending an ally?

Similarly, Americans are justified to complain about their European allies’ lackluster efforts to defend themselves. But they are unlikely to shame them into action. If the goal is to get European countries to raise their military spending, embarrassing them is probably not the best strategy.

Expecting that other governments will naturally bow to American demands is not only unreasonable; it is counterproductive. Freeman worries it is actually creating a more dangerous world for the United States.

It has unsettled our allies without deterring our adversaries. It has destabilized entire regions, multiplied our enemies and estranged us from our friends.

Freeman calls on Americans to rediscover the virtues of diplomacy. Even a superpower cannot always have its way.

But diplomacy is not just about accepting setbacks; it entails compromise and begins with trying to understand why other countries behave the way they do.

There is no reason why America should be uniquely incapable of empathizing with other nations. It is too often unwilling. From Iran’s nuclear ambitions to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, this unwillingness has made the world a more dangerous place.

Perhaps Iran would have reached for the bomb even if America hadn’t invaded both its neighbors. Perhaps Russia would still have invaded Ukraine even if America hadn’t supported the overthrow of pro-Russian governments in its periphery. American actions certainly don’t excuse the behavior of either power. But just maybe a more empathetic America could have anticipated how countries like Iran and Russia would react to policies they interpreted as hostile and done something to reassure them — like diplomacy.