The American Way of Diplomacy

How do we rescue U.S. foreign policy from creeping militarization? How can we resurrect diplomacy from the musty archives of the past? A diplomatic practitioner offers some answers.


Two decades ago, the late historian Ernest May imagined a visitor from a foreign land coming to Washington, D.C., and being shown the West Wing of the White House, with its Situation Room in round-the-clock operation, and next door, the Old Executive Office Building housing the ever-expanding National Security Council staff.

“Across the Potomac, [the] visitor sees the Pentagon. With a daytime population of 25,000, it is the crest of a mountainous defense establishment, which employs almost two-thirds of the nearly five million persons who work for the U.S. government. Farther out in Virginia, at Langley, the Central Intelligence Agency has more office acreage than the Pentagon. At Fort Meade in Maryland sits the even larger, more mysterious, and more expensive National Security Agency,” wrote May.

The visitor might return from his visit, May concluded, to describe the nation’s capital this way: “Yes, a city. But, at heart, a military headquarters, like the Rome of the Flavians or the Berlin of the Hohenzollerns.”

Twenty years later, the city is much the same. As J. Anthony Holmes, a former ambassador and AFSA president from 2005 to 2007, observed in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, the defense budget is roughly 20 times as great as the combined budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. There are more lawyers in the Pentagon than diplomats in the State Department.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned in 2008 that the United States risks the “creeping militarization” of its foreign policy by giving such overwhelming priority to our military services and paying so little attention to the diplomats who work to advance American interests through non-military means.

Gates reminded Americans that current and future wars are likely to be “fundamentally political in nature” and that military means always need to be harnessed to political ends.

Rather than seeing war as part of an ongoing political and diplomatic process, Americans have tended to see war as an alternative to diplomacy.

The American Way of War

Except in the early days of the republic, “the American Way of War” has centered on achieving a “crushing” military victory over an adversary, the distinguished military historian Russell Weigley argued 40 years ago. He noted the paradox that although Americans generally view themselves as peace-loving, they have been capable of engaging in the most devastating kind of warfare, aimed at total victory and the complete elimination of enemy threats—or even the enemies themselves. Rather than seeing war as part of an ongoing political and diplomatic process, as Carl von Clausewitz counseled, Americans have tended to see war as an alternative to diplomacy.

So instead of waging war until we have achieved certain limited ends and then negotiating a peace, which is the way most wars have been waged historically, the United States insists on unconditional surrender, regime change and the total defeat of the adversary—not only Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but far lesser threats like Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

In addition, the Cold War produced some lingering bad habits. Because that long conflict had such a substantial military component, and because countries on both sides of the East-West divide built up a substantial military arsenal as a result, it became tempting to view every strategic challenge, then and now, through that same strategic lens. As the saying goes, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

We instinctively look to our military to address global problems, whether or not the military hammer is the appropriate tool for the task. Our soldiers constitute one of the best-trained fighting forces the world has ever seen, but they are asked to do too much. Our diplomats, in contrast, struggle to find adequate resources. Our soldiers are stretched too far; our diplomats are too few and too poorly prepared for the challenges we face.

Now, as U.S. forces return home from two of our country’s longest wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an urgent need to reassess strategic priorities and capabilities. What international role should the United States play in the 21st century? How, and with what tools, should we engage the rest of the world?

What role does America’s still-unrivaled military power play, and how can U.S. leaders better use the formidable non-military elements of American power and influence? And how can we resurrect diplomacy from the musty archives of the past and make it more relevant to the present and future?

International diplomacy remains one of the least studied and most misunderstood elements of foreign policy. Scholars and practitioners have produced a substantial body of literature on international economics and military strategy, but they have not done the same for diplomacy and statecraft.

International diplomacy remains one of the least studied and most misunderstood elements of foreign policy.

The Learning/Practice Gap

Even at the professional level, diplomacy is undervalued, underanalyzed and under-resourced. Although diplomatic training occurs at the Foreign Service Institute and in diplomatic academies around the world, this is mostly confined to foreign language and area studies with a thin veneer of “how-to” instruction for junior diplomats.

Few American diplomats have ever enrolled in a course on diplomacy, either before or after entering the Foreign Service. Even as they rise to the highest levels, they are expected to learn “on the job” rather than as part of a rigorous program of professional preparation. Contrast this with the professional training their military counterparts receive all the way through their careers.

The problem is not all with government: the academy deserves blame, too. There is growing concern among scholars about what has been called the “cult of irrelevancy”: the reality that academic research is too often abstract and theoretical, written by academics for other academics. To illustrate the gulf that has developed between the worlds of learning and policy, a recent poll showed that of the 25 international relations scholars who produced the most important scholarship over the past five years, only three had ever held policy positions in the U.S. government.

Reinventing Diplomacy

To address these shortcomings and begin bridging the gap between policymakers and academics, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas has launched a major new global initiative called “Reinventing Diplomacy”—one of several similar undertakings around the country. This program includes new curricula at the undergraduate and graduate levels, public outreach events so that our citizens are better educated about foreign policy issues and a new effort to elevate diplomacy as a subject for serious academic inquiry.

We also aim to “internationalize” the study and practice of statecraft so that American and Chinese diplomats, for example, will have been trained in similar, or at least mutually comprehensible, ways. Such a synthesis occurs in the academic study of international relations, but not in strategy and statecraft. It is a strange irony that international relations scholars from around the world speak a common professional language, read the same books and debate the same theories—but their statesmen and diplomats do not.

Last spring we convened a major international meeting of scholars and practitioners to investigate the key elements of successful diplomacy. We all know what failure looks like, but we also need to recognize success. When have diplomats worked effectively to influence international outcomes? How can current diplomats learn from past experiences?

The discussions produced a series of historical case studies examining the evolution of successful diplomatic efforts in diverse settings, including the U.S. opening to China, the negotiation of the Camp David Accords in the Middle East, the management of Germany’s reunification at the end of the Cold War and completion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, among other topics. We have worked to consolidate “lessons learned” from these cases that diplomats can use when they approach current opportunities and challenges.

It is a strange irony that international relations scholars from around the world speak a common professional language—but their statesmen and diplomats do not.

A Call for Imagination

Much work remains to be done: to train the next generation of diplomats and better equip those currently serving, to produce a body of policy-relevant research on diplomacy, to reach out to the wider public and to catalyze a global dialogue among students, scholars and practitioners of diplomacy. Beyond the curricular and research agendas we are already pursuing on our campus, there are several avenues of potential collaboration.

We could, for example, form a consortium of top-tier public policy schools, which would offer serious academic training in diplomacy and statecraft. This could be done under contract to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and listed as an FSI course—perhaps through its existing National Security Executive Leadership Seminar. The goal would not be to duplicate the FSI curriculum, but rather to focus on areas where public policy schools have a comparative advantage.

A more ambitious model might “go global,” by partnering with leading public policy and international relations schools around the world so that American diplomats (and other foreign policy professionals) could study alongside their counterparts from Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, in seminars and workshops taught by an international faculty.

There are, of course, obstacles to be overcome. But as the creator of the State Department’s yearlong master’s program for mid-career Foreign Service officers at Princeton University, a program that has been running successfully for 15 years now, I know that such obstacles can be overcome—as long as there are willing partners with sufficient imagination on both sides.

Robert Hutchings is dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the LBJ School in March 2010, he was diplomat-in-residence at Princeton University, where he had also served as assistant dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Among many other positions, he chaired the U.S. National Intelligence Council in Washington, D.C., from 2003 to 2005, and has served as director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, director for European affairs at the National Security Council, special adviser to the Secretary of State with the rank of ambassador, and deputy director of Radio Free Europe.