Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

The Power of a Strong State Department

| May 12, 2017

President Trump clearly admires America's military. He has put generals in charge of the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security, and he has called for a big increase in military spending. He was quick to order missile strikes after chemical weapons were used in Syria, and he plans to send more troops to Afghanistan.

At the same time, Mr. Trump appears to have little regard for traditional diplomacy. He made Rex Tillerson, a foreign policy neophyte, his secretary of state. He has left key diplomatic posts unfilled and proposed slashing the State Department's budget by some 30 percent. Mr. Tillerson, who also wants to shake up the department, has already suggested eliminating 2,300 jobs there. Morale has plummeted, so Mr. Tillerson gave an in-house speech on May 3 that sought to convince his employees that their work was still important. But a pep talk is unlikely to restore the State Department's sense of diminished status.

America's armed forces are undeniably impressive, but Mr. Trump's veneration of military power and disregard for diplomacy is mistaken. Many of America's greatest foreign policy successes were won at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield: Think of the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country in 1803, or the formation of NATO and the Bretton Woods economic institutions, equally farsighted acts that enhanced American influence. Similarly, the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty slowed the spread of nuclear weapons and made it easier to monitor states with nuclear ambitions.

The list goes on: Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1972 tilted the balance of power in our favor and helped smooth the United States'exit from Vietnam; Jimmy Carter's stewardship of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty ended a conflict that had produced four wars since 1948. Adroit diplomacy managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. More recently, patient negotiations led to an agreement with Iran that reversed its progress toward a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Trump's deference to the military, meanwhile, is hard to square with its track record. The United States had more than half a million troops in Vietnam at the peak of the war and still lost. The 1991 Persian Gulf war was a short-term triumph but did not yield a stable peace. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led to a costly quagmire, to enhanced Iranian influence and, eventually, to the creation of the Islamic State. The American military has been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years, and the Taliban today controls more territory than at any time since 2001. United States airstrikes helped drive Muammar el-Qaddafi from power in Libya in 2011, and the country is now a failed state.

These campaigns were unsuccessful not because the Pentagon lacked resources, or our soldiers lacked valor or our generals don't know how to lead. They failed because the United States' leaders either picked the wrong fights or could not translate battlefield successes into political solutions. Unmatched military might means little unless it is wedded to realistic political goals and effective diplomacy.

To be sure, military strength can facilitate diplomatic success. As George Kennan once observed, "you have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet force in the background." But bludgeoning others into doing our bidding is not diplomacy. Diplomacy is first and foremost about reaching mutually beneficial arrangements that others will accept and not look to overturn.

Paradoxically, the stronger we are, the more important diplomacy becomes. America's vast power makes even its closest allies nervous, and diplomacy is needed to assuage others'concerns and persuade them to follow our lead. Doing this requires officials with a sophisticated knowledge of other states' interests, a keen appreciation for how America's actions are perceived and the awareness that even weaker opponents have the ability to resist if we cannot persuade them. That is why Secretary of Defense James Mattis once bluntly warned, "If you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition."

The State Department would no doubt benefit from certain reforms. But putting America's diplomats on a starvation diet is not the way to do it. Gutting the State Department will dissuade smart and ambitious people from entering diplomatic service and make it harder for those who remain to acquire the professional training they need as they rise in the ranks — something our more lavishly funded military does quite well.

If Mr. Trump continues to privilege force over diplomacy, the United States will continue to blunder into trouble, upset allies unnecessarily and be unable to end its present conflicts on favorable terms. Diplomacy is an essential part of a successful foreign policy. Ignoring that fact is a recipe for continued failures.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Power of a Strong State Department.” The New York Times, May 12, 2017.