Reimagining U.S. Diplomacy for a Changing World

Reimagining U.S. Diplomacy for a Changing World
U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G-7 summit, Charlevoix, June 8, 2018 (AP photo by Evan Vucci).

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In recent years, many American officials have regarded withholding diplomatic relations as a way to punish countries for actions ranging from human rights abuses, to failure to abide by international law, to specific treaty violations and acts of war. But withholding diplomatic relations usually doesn’t work, and can seriously handicap America’s ability to achieve major foreign policy and national security goals.

What’s more, re-establishing diplomatic relations with a country after they have been severed is no simple matter for the Department of State. U.S. administrations have a great track record of painting themselves into a corner by curtailing relations with considerable brio, with the result that the path is blocked when it is in the national interest to resume normal relations.

Members of Congress or special interest groups have little difficulty finding reasons to insist that the culprit country first earn back recognition by renouncing past positions and unfriendly posturing. According to this view, if the subject country does not share American positions, and is unwilling to abandon hostile attitudes toward U.S. policies, then clearly it is not a country worthy of diplomatic relations with the United States.

But countries don’t have to agree on everything or admire each other’s forms of government to have diplomatic relations. The United States certainly did not respect the Vichy French government in unoccupied France in 1940, for example. But maintaining an ambassador allowed American consular officers to assess the loyalty of the French army to the puppet government, resulting in the largely unopposed U.S.-British landing of 100,000 troops in North Africa in November 1942.

To learn more about the U.S. history of addressing diplomatic relations, read The Importance of Maintaining Diplomatic Relations for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


A Revolution in Diplomatic Relations

In the years after 9/11, America’s unilateral exercise of hard, which is to say mainly military, power, supported by controversial doctrines such as pre-emptive defense, not only exacted a great human and financial toll, but came at considerable expense in terms of Brand USA’s global appeal. In part as a result, American soft power, which is nourished by the country’s national image, has been damaged. But what can be done? Smart power — the putative blend of hard and soft power advocated by Harvard professor Joseph Nye — has been mentioned as one possible solution. At first blush, it looks not just eminently sensible, but in fact an overdue restyling of something that major players on the international stage have long engaged in: a combination of dangling carrots and brandishing sticks. But it’s worth considering more radical approaches to upgrading diplomacy for the modern age, by broadening our definition of what actually constitutes diplomacy—and who qualifies to be a diplomat.

To learn more, read Guerrilla Diplomacy: The Revolution in Diplomatic Affairs for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Reconsidering Aid as an Instrument of U.S. Diplomacy

As American power wanes in absolute and relative terms, the earnest officials who have designed and led U.S. foreign assistance programs are working hard to sustain and even strengthen this key component of America’s international engagement. It’s a daunting task, given the pressures to reduce funding, stop nation-building and comply with a commander-in-chief who devalues their work and has cut across the bow to eliminate categories of countries where needs and U.S. interests may be greatest. Congress and the American public do not take as harsh a view on foreign aid as the president, so any adjustments to aid levels and country criteria will probably not be as draconian as feared. Yet whether it’s stability assistance or long-term development aid, truly successful and sustained outcomes are rare. For years, aid was an acceptable price for American leadership and international engagement. Now, despite sincere efforts by the career diplomats and public servants who Trump considers the “deep state,” aid risks becoming another casualty of America’s retrenchment.

To learn more, read Foreign Aid Is the Latest Casualty of American Retrenchment Under Trump for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


Multilateralism, Sovereignty and U.S. Diplomacy

Multilateralism is another instrument of U.S. diplomacy targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump. Whether as a cause or result of Trump’s hostility to international organizations, Americans also seem increasingly divided over whether multilateral cooperation is consistent with national sovereignty. Until recently, this question seemed resolved. From Franklin D. Roosevelt through Barack Obama, 13 successive U.S. presidents embraced global leadership, upheld international institutions and managed an open, liberal world order. Trump has repudiated this legacy. His “America First” agenda resurrects the slogan of interwar isolationists who believed that the nation could and should insulate itself from global troubles. To understand this attitude, it helps to look to the past, particularly the period immediately following World War I, when Americans were debating then-President Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist vision.

To learn more, read Trump Is Repeating the Mistakes of America’s Interwar Isolationists for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in July 2018 and is regularly updated.