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Rebuilding American Diplomatic Capital

Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you followed me on Twitter in 2016-2017 or read some of my posts in the same period, you may know that one of my least favorite phrases is “soft power.” Nye used the term back in 1990 to explain why, despite American relative decline, the United States was “bound to lead.” Recall that in the late 1980s it looked like Japan was going to overtake the U.S. economy. Everyone was talking about the lessons policymakers could learn by studying the rise and decline of great powers. Heck, Robert Gilpin’s 1981 classic, War and Change in World Politics, argued that U.S. fiscal imbalances, among other factors, meant that the United States would decline relative to the Soviet Union. Plus ça change, eh? Except this time, it’s almost certainly real, as you can read about in the first quarter of 2010.

Anyway, “soft power” began life as an argument the American democratic institutions, popular culture, and moral authority make the United States particularly attractive. That attractiveness helps Washington persuade other countries to do what it wants, and it helps undergird U.S. international leadership.

Of course, it’s possible to squander soft power. The United States can adopt policies that repel rather than attract. It can let its democratic institutions decay; it might, say, elect a demagogic buffoon as its head of state.

The argument is fine, as far as it goes. One problem is that people sometimes treat the ‘attractiveness’ of the United States like it’s some kind of inherent charisma. In fact, Washington invested a ton of resources into building the American brand during the Cold War. Some of the ways policymakers did so seem kind of weird now; the government promoted abstract art because it demonstrated how “modern” America was. But like the huge investments in human capital and science-and-technology that we’re still coasting on, these efforts dried up and then became overlaid with mythology about the special sauce of American culture.

The other problem is that “soft power” has come to mean basically any non-kinetic (non-military) or non-economic instrument of power. This sweeps a lot of different things—from REF/RFL to development assistance to public diplomacy—into the same category. Worse, it implies that only “hard power” instruments are tough and manly and therefore much more valuable (yes, it turns out that you can get some decent mileage with college sophomores by invoking some very basic feminist analysis).

This is all particularly unfortunate because one of the most important “banks” of U.S. influence is the diplomatic capital the country accumulated in the decades following World War II. This diplomatic capital is broader than just the State Department, but much of it resides in the U.S. diplomatic corps. It depends, in turn, on interpersonal relationships and the cultivation of diplomatic skill; recruiting talented individuals and ensuring the transmission of institutional memory helps with both. The extent of U.S. diplomatic capital also depends on having a really large operation. The Chinese, for what it’s worth, are making some effort to build their own diplomatic infrastructure.

I always assumed that diplomatic capital was something that, like a hangover, would last beyond the circumstances that created it. The British stopped being a real global power in 1956, but continued to maintain a highly accomplished diplomatic corps. So, of course, I was one of the many scholars and practitioners horrified as Tillerson did his best to systematically dismantle the State Department. And I was, like many others, aghast as reports of Trump cronies purging experienced diplomats leaked into the press.

The good news is that Pompeo, who is terrible on all matters related to actual policy, “has made significant strides reversing some of Tillerson’s most controversial policies“. But the State Department sill suffers from serious problems, including the effects of budget cuts and being largely sidelined by the Bush administration. The Obama administration tried to rebuild, but the sequester didn’t help.

To put this in perspective, I am a professor in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. That’s right, the very name suggests we train diplomats. When I started out in the early 2000s, it seemed like every other student wanted to join the State Department. Now, such students seem few and far between. I’m told that our current graduates are most likely to head into finance, consulting, and other more lucrative endeavors.

Given all this, it’s incredibly exciting that Elizabeth Warren’s team has proposed, to be frank, a brilliant plan for rebuilding U.S. diplomatic capital.

The first part of Warren’s plan is about expanding the State Department, including doubling the size of the foreign service and opening new diplomatic posts in under-served areas. She calls for building a stronger foundation for diplomacy and recruiting by installing diplomatic equivalents of ROTC programs across American universities, doubling the size of the Peace Corps, and creating more scholarships for language and data-science programs.

Warren pledges to improve the diversity and growth opportunities of the foreign service by correcting employment records for those fired or forced to resign because of their sexual identity and by recruiting at minority-serving institutions, such as historically black colleges and universities. She proposes a core professional development curriculum, expanded parental leave options and preferential postings.

The second part of the plan is rooted in changing who gets the highest-level diplomatic jobs. “For $2 million, you can become Ambassador to the United Nations,” she said of the status quo in which major campaign donors often get top diplomatic posts. Warren promises not to give positions to rich donors or bundlers and wrote that the most senior positions in the State Department, at least one deputy secretary position and the director general of the foreign service would always be experienced career ambassadors.


You can read the plan here. I hope that whomever whoever the nominee is, they take it as a model for action.

A final note. I am serious that Exit from Hegemony is coming along nicely and should be out with Oxford University Press by March or April of 2020. This is one reason I’ve been mostly AWOL from LGM.

Disclosure: I’m still helping out the Sanders campaign on foreign policy issues. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate smart, progressive plans when I see them.

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