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The Beginning of (True) Diplomacy

Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

In some ways it's good that it took me a few weeks to get around to discussing Aaron David Miller's piece in Foreign Policy from earlier this month, titled "The End of Diplomacy," because I found less to dislike about it on second reading. But even though I usually find Miller pretty convincing, I've still got some misgivings about this one. The article essentially casts the by-now familiar trope of the "Rise of the Rest" as the failure of American diplomacy -- surprising, since Miller himself states that he's not a "declinist." Here's the heart of the his argument:

America never ran the world . . . but there were moments(1945-1950, the early 1970s, 1988-1991) when the United States marshaled itsmilitary, political, and economic power toward impressive ends.

For most of the last 16 years, however -- under Bill Clintonand George W. Bush -- America has been in a diplomatic dry patch. In the face ofterrorism, nuclear proliferation, wars of choice, and nasty regional conflicts,conventional diplomacy has either not been tried or not been very successful. . . .

The Obama administration wants to do this kind of stuff. Andit has done pretty well in managing the big relationships with Russia and Europe,though it has had its share of problems with China. But frankly, these are the easyones. It's not from the big that the president's problems come; it's from thesmall.

The problem here, though, is not American diplomacy per se, but that the end of the Cold War returned so many of the world's problems back into the "small" category -- where they rightfully belonged. Once disaggregated from the cataclysmic stakes of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry and the default positions required by bloc allegiances, problems became more regionally contained, and the range of interests and policy options for previously constrained local actors broadened significantly.

So it's not so much that American diplomacy has failed, so much as that it hasn't yet been tried. Put another way, in the absence of nuclear doomsday scenarios, the marketplace of foreign policy ideas became significantly more competitive. And the U.S. is just now getting around to realizing that it needs to advance its arguments on a case-by-case basis, and win on the merits, in order to bring on board previously captive audiences.

Now, some of those "small" problems have begun to re-aggregate into bigger ones with the emergence of transnational threats in an increasingly interconnected world. But in many ways, the "Rising Rest," like the U.S., is still reacting to the opening represented by the post-Cold War and to the subsequent disastrous efforts, under the Bush administration, to close things back up. So naturally, the U.S. is facing obstructionism that is rendered more effective by the shift in global power centers.

But here's the thing (and it's something that I only managed to put into words yesterday during a Skype conversation with the ever-formidable Michael Cohen): If you look at the periods that Miller cites as highpoints of American diplomacy, they all represent moments when circumstances conspired to concentrate the world's attention at the same time that the U.S. was the only global actor capable of leading the required effort.

As I said to Cohen yesterday, there are plenty of possibe scenarios that could concentrate the world's attention in the same way today, and despite the relative decrease in America's visible power these days, we remain the only global actor capable of leading the effort such scenarios require. So in addition to the potential power that remains at America's disposal, there remains what I called a latent power at our disposal that is present in the world's collective unconscious and individual national psyches. (And yes, Cohen duly mocked me for putting it in those terms.)

This is more than just a "They'll miss us when we're gone"-type phenomenon. It's a conditioned reaction that is the product of history, habit and experience, and which could be triggered very easily by any number of contingencies: a Chinese overreach in Asia, a Russian adventure in Central Asia or Eastern Europe, a Venezuelan disaster in South America, or a host of others. Any one of these scenarios would very quickly bring to light the enormous latent reservoir of power and influence that remains at our disposal, even if it isn't visible or even "convertible" at will.

In the meantime, that doesn't change the fact that power has shifted, with the result being that our influence is no longer the default position around the world. But that just means it's time to work toward the beginning of true American diplomacy, not to signal its demise.