Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Biden's State Department Needs a Reset

| Apr. 01, 2023

The administration's diplomacy has underperformed—except at time-wasting talk about democracy.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that America's diplomatic institutions—and especially the State Department—are under-resourced. This truth is especially evident when you compare the State Department or Agency for International Development budgets with the money allocated to the Defense Department or the intelligence services. It's even more obvious when you take America's lofty global ambitions into account. It's also a truism that the president's time—and that of top cabinet officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken—is the scarcest resource of all.

If this is the case, then why-oh-why did the Biden administration devote any time at all to a second Summit for Democracy? It's not just the time that U.S. President Joe Biden, Blinken, and other senior officials devoted to this talkfest. Putting something like this together also burned up hundreds of hours of staff time that might have been used to address other problems.

I raise this issue because the Biden administration took office vowing to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy, yet it has relatively few diplomatic achievements to show for its first two-plus years. On the plus side, U.S. allies are far more comfortable with Biden and Blinken than they were with former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and they've been willing to forgive some of the administration's early blunders (such as the unnecessary snub of the French during the AUKUS submarine deal in 2021). But apart from improved optics, the administration's diplomatic record is unimpressive.

Part of the problem is the "democracy vs. autocracy" framing that Biden & Co. have embraced. I like democracy as much as anyone and more than some, but this dichotomy causes more problems for U.S. diplomacy than it solves. It doesn't help the United States work more effectively with the autocratic governments that outnumber the world's democracies and whose help may be more valuable as great power rivalries intensify. It leaves the United States exposed to accusations of hypocrisy, and it doesn't seem to motivate Washington's democratic allies very much. Case in point: European leaders keep traveling to Beijing to safeguard their economic interests with (autocratic) China, behavior sharply at odds with the democracy vs. autocracy template. Similarly, the president of (mostly) democratic India, Narendra Modi, just held talks with one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's top national security advisors.

Meanwhile, other items on the administration's agenda remain unfulfilled. Biden took office saying he'd rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran that his predecessor had foolishly left. But he dithered and delayed, Iran's position hardened, and it is now clear that no new nuclear deal is forthcoming. The result? Iran is closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, raising the risk of a Middle East war that neither the U.S. administration nor the world needs right now....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Biden's State Department Needs a Reset.” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt