A Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Back to the Future?

A distinguished diplomat explores an evolving concept of diplomacy to meet the kaleidoscope of opportunities and challenges America faces.


Since my retirement from the Foreign Service in 2005, I have had the chance, inspired by colleagues doing the same, to think about the future of the diplomatic profession. When I meet new Foreign Service officers, I tell them that I envy them for having a chance to reshape the job of diplomacy—not just because our world has changed, but because they are more educated, technologically savvy and diverse than my cohort.

But I confess that sometimes when I make a presentation about a vision for “21st-century” diplomacy, I wonder what is really new. Is this a “revolution in diplomacy” like the one in the mid-1400s described by Garrett Mattingly in his classic work, Renaissance Diplomacy? Is it similar to the changes identified by Harold Nicolson in his often politically incorrect, but still astute, Diplomacy, or those analyzed by Henry Kissinger in his monumental Diplomacy?

The world in which our diplomats work today is a kaleidoscope of opportunities and challenges, including violent non-state actors; global issues such as women’s empowerment, energy and climate change; negotiation of trade agreements and managing financial crises; America’s need to maintain alliances and create new coalitions; the requirement to manage and further promote globalization; the impact individuals and groups of citizens now have on foreign policy; and a recognition of the important link between pluralism and economic freedom. It is a world that is also defined by the need to recognize the overriding reality of simultaneity: the political, economic, military, cultural, humanitarian and media spheres have merged. Our policies must be as multifaceted as the challenges we face.

The skeptic will say this is admirable, but will ask: What lessons are those who argue for a “new diplomacy” taking from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his continuing effort to destabilize eastern Ukraine? What relevance does a debate about what 21st-century diplomacy might be like have to the 150,000 thousand dead and nine million displaced in Syria’s civil war? What is 21st-century diplomacy’s answer to the “Islamic State”? And is Beijing’s political, psychological and military pressure on its neighbors in the South China Sea a reminder of the staying power of a more traditional, perhaps even timeless, diplomacy?

Imagining a 21st-Century Diplomatic Philosophy

Any vision for a 21st-century diplomacy that can meet new threats, grasp new opportunities and motivate new people is inherently optimistic. But it stands no chance of success unless it is grounded in a realistic assessment of the world as it is. To imagine a 21st-century diplomatic philosophy, we must start with an examination of first principles: What ideas and values do we bring to diplomacy?

What is 21st-century diplomacy’s answer to the “Islamic State”?

Here, briefly stated, are four principles that describe my approach to diplomacy.

Optimism. Twenty-nine years in the U.S. Foreign Service and two more as a special representative for the State Department taught me that the best diplomats are optimists. They believe in the power of ideas. They believe that sustained effort can lead to progress. They believe that diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, can help nations and groups avoid bloodshed.

A commitment to justice. Henry Kissinger rightly maintains that international orders only last if they are just. He also emphasizes that this requirement for justice is connected to the domestic institutions of the nations that make up the international system. That is why, for U.S. diplomats, America’s commitment to political and economic justice at home, not just abroad, is crucial.

Truth in dealing. It is dismaying to witness the periodic resurrection of the statement by Sir Henry Wotton that “an ambassador is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Wotton is wrong. I agree with Nicolson, who wrote in 1939: “My own practical experience, and the years of study which I have devoted to this subject, have left me with the profound conviction that ‘moral’ diplomacy is ultimately the most effective, and that ‘immoral’ diplomacy defeats its own purposes.”

Realism tempered by a commitment to pluralism. It is not a coincidence that the search for foreign policy paradigms after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has led some observers back to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. As Andrew Bacevich maintains in his introduction to a 2008 reissue of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, Niebuhr’s admonitions are hard for us to hear, especially warnings about “the persistent sin of American exceptionalism; the indecipherability of history; the false allure of simple solutions; and, finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power.”

Niebuhr is not the only one to call on for a stock-taking of contemporary diplomacy. In The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Robert Kagan reminds us that “in most places, the nation-state remains as strong as ever” and that national ambitions, passions and competition still powerfully shape history. And Robert Kaplan argues in The Revenge of Geography that while they do not determine future events, “the legacies of geography, history and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place.”

We have also been reminded by many astute observers not to get carried away with the power of social media to influence statecraft and diplomacy, despite all the transformative possibilities of this new form of global interaction. Although we now are in an immediate and direct dialogue with people around the world, and the power of social media to organize is there for all to see, there are limits to the long-term commitments to action or enduring institutional connections social media can make.

Finally, proponents of the “authoritarian capitalist” model have more talking points to use after the financial crisis of 2008-2009; they use them to try to call into question a new diplomacy’s belief in the inherent connection between private sector-fueled economic growth, globalization, and more tolerance and pluralism in society.

These are all powerful arguments and warnings. But the need for pluralism to be both a guiding philosophy and a practical goal of American foreign policy remains. That is why, just as some seeking a framework for U.S. foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan have returned to Niebuhr’s writings, others have also sought the wisdom of Isaiah Berlin. In his 2010 review of a new book of Berlin’s letters in the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Kristof highlights Berlin’s commitment to pluralism as a “pragmatic way of navigating an untidy world.”

But this is not pragmatism devoid of values. As Kristof writes: “Finding the boundary between what can be tolerated with gritted teeth and what is morally intolerable may not be easy, but it does not mean that such a boundary does not exist.” This well describes the profound challenge faced every day by America’s diplomats.

The need for pluralism to be both a guiding philosophy and a practical goal of American foreign policy remains.

An Evolving Concept of Diplomacy

How does a proponent of “new diplomacy,” faced with Putin, Assad, a “caliphate” declared by the murderous Islamic State and a rising China proceed? Part of any future for diplomacy will, of course, be rooted in Niebuhr’s realism. But his views need to be combined with two other considerations: first, the commitment U.S. diplomats have to promote political and economic pluralism (to include practicing Track Two or “citizen’s diplomacy” where appropriate); and, second and related, the continuing need for policies based squarely on the belief that the United States has an important and often unique role to play in the modern world.

This is no easy task today. As Robert Kagan has recently written: “American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back to a defense of narrower, more parochial national interests. … Unless Americans can...see again how their fate is entangled with the rest of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful 21st century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak.”

I am not ready to give up the thought that an evolving concept of diplomacy can have a place in the future of our profession. Even in the apparently “traditional” actions of Moscow in Crimea or Beijing in the South China Sea, the power of simultaneity is recognizable (the recent Ukraine crisis was sparked by the desire of many Ukrainians to join the European Union—an economic entity profoundly connected to a transparent, rule-of-law-based, pluralistic way of life).

If that observation is correct, we will need to use and respond to simultaneity as a key component of every future diplomatic plan, bringing to bear all the elements of national power to respond to today’s challenges. It is through this recognition of the power and necessity of simultaneity, and a “whole-of-government” approach, that one could imagine a synthesis of traditional diplomacy and a diplomacy of the future.

There are important examples of this synthesis. Plan Colombia, conceived in the Clinton administration and pursued by subsequent presidents, was an early and explicit attempt to harness all of the levers of national power to support Colombians in their fight to preserve their democracy. Trade, counternarcotics, counterterrorism and support for human rights were all fused into a common conception. It was an early example of the whole-of-government approach, which the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review recommended for the entire State Department.

Af-Pak: A “Diplomatic Campaign”

My recall to the State Department gave me the chance to pursue another fusion of national goals and instruments: the 2011-2012 diplomatic campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Richard Holbrooke’s appointment as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Jan. 22, 2009, they sent a message beyond South Asia. Sec. Clinton wanted SRAP to show that the whole-of-government philosophy—employing expertise and resources from all relevant parts of government to address the nation’s most important challenges—was the right model for 21st-century diplomacy.

After Holbrooke’s sudden death in December 2010, some asked if that effort to make and execute policy at the State Department in a unique way would continue. Sec. Clinton promised that it would; and, starting in February 2011, when I was appointed to succeed Holbrooke, I pursued the whole-of-government approach, which I had advocated and practiced in earlier diplomatic assignments.

Pres. Obama laid the foundations for the 2011-2012 diplomatic effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the first two years of his administration. Sec. Clinton launched it in a speech at the Asia Society in New York on Feb. 18, 2011. In her remarks, she made clear that the military surge then underway in Afghanistan was a vital part of American strategy. Without the heroic effort of U.S. forces, joined by many allies, friends and partners, there was no chance of pursuing a diplomatic end to 30 years of conflict.

She also reminded her audience of the civilian surge underway in Afghanistan, which had brought thousands of courageous Americans from many U.S. government agencies, as well as international and Afghan civilians, to promote economic development, good governance, the power of civil society and the advancement of women within their society.

In her speech, Sec. Clinton called for a “diplomatic surge” to match the military and civilian efforts to try to catalyze and shape a political end to years of war. This meant drawing together all of our diplomatic resources to engage the countries in the region to support Afghanistan. It also meant, she said, trying to sustain a dialogue with the Taliban to see if they were ready to talk to the Afghan government about the future.

We decided to refer to our effort to create this surge as a “diplomatic campaign” to emphasize that this would not be a series of ad hoc engagements, but rather an effort that followed a comprehensive plan. The campaign would require simultaneous, coordinated action by the SRAP team to connect the military effort with the instruments of nonmilitary power in South and Central Asia, including official development assistance, involvement of the private sector, support for civil society, and the use of both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

It is through recognition of the power and necessity of simultaneity, and a “whole-of-government” approach, that one could imagine a synthesis of traditional diplomacy and a diplomacy of the future.

As we reviewed the diplomatic calendar after Sec. Clinton’s speech, we devised, with our Afghan partners, a road map designed to shape, guide and leverage four international meetings already set for 2011-2012. The first was the November 2011 meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors in Istanbul, designed to define the region’s stake in a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and what they could do to make that happen. The second was the December 2011 international meeting in Bonn to mobilize post-2014 support for Afghanistan. Third was the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago; and fourth was an international gathering to promote economic development in Afghanistan, set for Tokyo on July 8, 2012.

Beginning in March 2011, the SRAP team systematically imagined what could be achieved for the United States, the international community, Afghanistan and the region by the time the Tokyo meeting ended 17 months later. Our plan defined what needed to be accomplished at each meeting and the work that had to be done to produce that result. Every aspect of the diplomatic campaign was integrated to achieve the most comprehensive outcome. Every trip and every conversation with foreign leaders and diplomats at every level was used to press a holistic vision. Each of the four conferences contributed to the larger campaign and explicitly built on the one that had taken place before it.

The other key component of the diplomatic campaign’s regional strategy was based on the recognition that no regional structure in support of Afghanistan would succeed without a strong economic component, including a key role for the private sector. Sec. Clinton announced the U.S. vision—a “New Silk Road”—at a speech in Chennai, India, on July 20, 2011. The American objective was to connect the vibrant economies in Central Asia with India’s economic success. With Afghanistan and Pakistan in the center, they could both benefit, first from transit trade and, ultimately, from direct investments.

The New Silk Road vision highlights a compelling aspect of 21st-century diplomacy: acting as a “whole of government” on opportunities and challenges simultaneously. For example, a successful New Silk Road could increase the incentives for the insurgents to give up their fight by offering, at least for some of their fighters, an alternative way of thinking about the future. It could also promote the crucial role of women in development. In his book Monsoon, Robert Kaplan provides a view of the larger connections: “Stabilizing Afghanistan is about more than just the anti-terror war against al-Qaida and the Taliban; it is about securing the future prosperity of the whole of southern Eurasia.”

The 2011-2012 diplomatic campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan was not just a vehicle of policy, but also a way to think about the interaction of diplomacy with the other aspects of national power. As former British General Rupert Smith wrote in The Utility of Force: “The general purpose of all interventions is clear: We seek to establish in the minds of the people and their leaders that the ever-present option of conflict is not the preferable course of action when in confrontation over some matter or another. To do this, military force is a valid option, a lever of intervention and influence, as much as economic, political and diplomatic levers; but to be effective, they must be applied as a part of a greater scheme focusing all measures on the one goal.”

Global Challenges Today

A survey of America’s global challenges points to the need for policies that press new ideas and simultaneously bring to bear all the elements of national power while remaining rooted in our values and philosophy. For example, the West’s answer to Mr. Putin in Ukraine is rightly focused on supporting the creation of a strong Ukrainian state connected to the West, not tainted by corruption, ready to fight for itself (which President Petro Poroshenko seems inclined to do, at least for eastern Ukraine) and the threat of ever more severe sanctions on Russia, especially in answer to crimes like the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

A policy built on a long-term assessment of the West’s many simultaneous strengths in this battle would focus also on the need to create a relevant and robust vision for NATO’s future after Afghanistan. At the upcoming NATO summit in Wales, Pres. Obama has the chance to lay out new commitments to the alliance and reaffirm the enduring American role in Europe.

Responding to Russia’s actions in a meaningful, long-term way also calls for a trans-Atlantic energy strategy that reduces the possibility of energy blackmail. Diversity of supply was a motivating factor in U.S. support for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which brings Central Asian oil to world markets. Europeans have reduced their dependence on Russian gas.

But more can be done, such as resurrecting Western support for an East-West energy corridor connecting the Caucasus and Central Asia to world markets and renewing the American commitment to the North American Energy Initiative with Canada and Mexico. The U.S. is helping Ukraine and other European countries build up natural gas storage and find gas supplies in Africa. The United States can itself move to export U.S. natural gas to increase world supply and further reduce the chances of Gazprom blackmail. While these steps will not by themselves solve today’s challenges,they send a strong signal about the changing global gas market.

We can also honor our values and the original Euromaidan protesters by recognizing the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for what it is: a strategic investment in the economic and political future of the West. Europe and the United States should complete TTIP negotiations as soon as possible and not let tactical disagreements stop governments from launching what may be the most strategically profound response to Russia’s actions.

There are many other possibilities for a realistic diplomacy carried out by a professional and engaged Foreign Service, one that is committed to supporting a whole-of-government approach and founded on a recognition of the power of simultaneity, a robust commitment to pluralism and a belief in the enduring power of the United States to do good things in a troubled world.

My recall to the State Department gave me the chance to pursue another fusion of national goals and instruments: the 2011-2012 diplomatic campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Managing China’s rise in Asia is as much about bringing into force the trade and investment–focused Trans-Pacific Partnership as it is about stationing Marines in Australia. As Geoff Dyer observes in his analysis of U.S.-China relations: “Instead of American decline, the bigger question is whether Washington can sustain broad international support for the system of free trade, freedom of navigation and international rules it put into place after the Second World War.”

Getting energy policy right has implications beyond Ukraine, perhaps including making a contribution to a better future for Greeks, Cypriots, Turks and Israelis in the eastern Mediterranean. Energy strategy, economics, trade, military strategy, the environment and geography all come together in the Arctic. Promoting the rule of law is not just about human rights; it is also about sustaining economic development. Getting women involved in commerce, development, and peace and reconciliation processes leads to more successful societies.

Diplomacy—even a 21st-century version—is not the answer to every question. Geography, power, passion, ambition and competition still matter. Diplomacy must be backed by force and based on a strong domestic foundation. But there are some new things under the sun, and we need to consider, talk about and study the ways in which diplomacy will need to continue to evolve to meet the challenges of this new era.

We should focus especially hard on those places where we can use simultaneous, integrated tools of national security to face tomorrow’s challenges or the return of yesterday’s.

Marc Grossman, a vice chairman of The Cohen Group in Washington, D.C., retired from the Foreign Service in 2005 as the under secretary of State for political affairs. During his 29-year career, Ambassador Grossman also served as chief of mission in Turkey (1994-1997), assistant secretary of State for European affairs (1997-2000) and director general of the Foreign Service (2000 -2001). He was recalled to the State Department to serve as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2011 to 2012.

The author wishes to thank Mildred Patterson, Jenny McFarland and Dylan Vorbach for their help in preparing this article. Some of the ideas on a diplomat’s philosophy were explored in Joint Forces Quarterly (No. 62, 2011). The story of the diplomatic campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan was reported in the Yale Journal of International Affairs (Summer 2013). The ideas on Ukraine were discussed in the German Marshall Fund blog in March 2014.