21st-Century Diplomacies: The State Department’s Identity Crisis

These should be salad days for the State Department. It is on its fifth in a string of “rock star” secretaries with world-class political skills and major public followings at home and abroad. The U.S. public has just told its representatives as decisively as at any time in the past half-century to pursue diplomatic, not military, solutions to world problems. As Hillary Clinton put it at the end of her tenure as secretary of state, “In today’s world, when we can be anywhere virtually, more than ever, people want us to actually show up.”

But over that same period of rock star leadership, it has become less and less clear whether American diplomacy can “show up” effectively. The downward trend of State’s funding—and its influence in Washington—has been disrupted but not reversed. Assistant secretary positions, the highest-ranking civilian posts dealing with entire continents, sit vacant for months. And on global measures, from global public opinion of the U.S. to progress on solving the toughest international challenges such as climate change and Israel-Palestine, U.S. diplomatic influence is middling at best.

The practice of American diplomacy itself urgently needs modernizing, as developments in the 21st century have not so much outstripped it as taken away its monopolies. But the profound domestic divisions in how Americans regard government, and how we understand our place in the world after more than a decade on a war footing, have erected obstacles that are significant—and may be insurmountable.

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