The Global War on Terror and Diplomatic Practice

The war on terror fundamentally changed U.S. diplomacy, leaving a trail of collateral damage to America’s readiness for future challenges.


Twenty years ago, jetliners crashing into New York City’s twin towers and the Pentagon shocked America out of its post–Cold War complacency, ushering in the global war on terror (GWOT) and a surge in international support for the United States. A senior State Department official, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Francis X. Taylor, speaking to the American Bar Association in late 2002, answered a question on how long the war on terror would last: “As long as it takes. Years, maybe decades.”

Taylor was prescient. This summer’s withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan after 20 years is a controversial coda to two decades of GWOT-dominated foreign policy that fundamentally changed American diplomatic practice and arguably left a trail of collateral damage to America’s standing in the world and readiness for future challenges. In the two decades of the war on terror, we squandered the goodwill America enjoyed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Although the multilateral diplomacy that had fallen by the wayside with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 came back into currency, the comeback was only partial. Our forays into, first, Afghanistan, then Iraq, came at a huge cost. Our shortcomings and abrupt departure from Afghanistan now will cause foreign decision-makers to reconsider aligning themselves with us again.

Moreover, the emergence of “fortress embassies” in response to Washington’s increasing aversion to physical risk and Diplomatic Security’s expanded influence on policy and overseas operations since 9/11 has left our diplomats physically and psychologically isolated from the societies they have to influence, and playing catch up in public diplomacy.

Today, as we are tested by the People’s Republic of China and its predatory foreign policy, as well as a series of problems that require global solutions supported by a stable, rules-based international order, we are scrambling to recoup.

From Multilateral to Bilateral

In the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, the Cold War mentality of reliance on international alliances and “one team, one global fight” morphed into country-specific stovepipes. Per American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, “history ended” in December 1991 with the presumed eternal triumph of liberal democracy. Colleagues may disagree, but the reality I experienced is that many members of the Foreign Service who joined after 1991 came with a different set of expectations for what they were there to do.

This “interwar” decade was a period of euphoric exuberance, the dawn of American hubris, aka Pax Americana. In those 10 years, American embassies and diplomats went from being aligned globally in containing and confronting the USSR to focusing largely on single-country, bilateral diplomatic efforts. This was accompanied by the fragmentation of foreign policy and the growth of single issue / special interest envoys and offices that number around 55 today.

The legacy of our Cold War multilateral diplomacy was now paying dividends, with our allies and friends rising to the occasion with words and deeds.

In an example of the absurdity of this period, as deputy chief of mission (DCM) in Copenhagen in 2000 I invested substantial time trying to implement my then–chief of mission’s campaign to reimagine how an embassy does business, protesting the Danish government’s treatment of Scientology and coping with local derision of the annual Human Rights Report blasting Denmark for failing to have a 50-50 gender balance in its parliament. This kind of to-do list was not unique to Denmark.

Whether counting our peace dividend chickens before they hatched, or blithely expanding NATO (a suddenly obsolete organization in search of a reason to persist) eastward to avoid a political and security vacuum in the former Warsaw Pact space, we were blindsided by the Rwandan genocide, civil war in Somalia, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of global religious extremism. And seeing how ineffective the United Nations was in responding to international crises—Bosnia being the most extreme—we doubled down on U.S.-led bilateral efforts.

That changed on 9/11. In Copenhagen, I watched the TV in my office in real time as the second aircraft hit the second World Trade Tower in New York. My staff panicked. We closed the embassy early that day. The next day, Danes arrived in growing numbers to light candles and place flowers and teddy bears. The queen presided over a moving memorial service at a local church for us. Until then, American foreign policy had been widely unpopular among ordinary Danes who strongly opposed our many interventions in places such as Vietnam and Central America. In an instant, all was forgotten. The legacy of our Cold War multilateral diplomacy was now paying dividends, with our allies and friends rising to the occasion with words and deeds.

Back to Multilateralism, Sort of

Global wars require partners and alliances. We refocused on reengaging and reenergizing alliances and kludging together coalitions to deal with al-Qaida globally. After a decadelong hiatus, we were all rowing in the same direction. At the same time, however, because the cooperation we sought was strictly, even narrowly, tied to the anti-terror effort, many other issues and concerns fell by the wayside. We also needed diplomats (and an institution) prepared to take physical discomfort and risks in combat zones. Hardly new to us Balkan hands, this was definitely not something most of the Foreign Service had experienced or welcomed.

The speed with which American diplomacy worked at the United Nations for authorities and created a coalition for Afghanistan (the Danes went with us) and then a follow-on NATO mission with partners from as far away as New Zealand and Singapore, was as astonishing as how fast we drove the Taliban out of power. Initially, this was a public diplomacy triumph that reinforced our influence in multilateral institutions. Rinse and repeat with our adventure into Iraq in 2003, with more than 35 nations sending troops (“flags in the sand”) to serve with us, though this latter intervention plus “drone wars” would eventually come at a high cost.

A notable exception to the return to multilateralism was the George W. Bush administration rejection, based on concerns for the erosion of our sovereignty, of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and insistence that our embassies negotiate bilateral deals exempting U.S. military personnel from its jurisdiction (so-called Article 98 agreements). As chief of mission in Macedonia in 2004, I succeeded in cutting an Article 98 deal, but was left with a nagging doubt. Did our rush to demand immunity from our partners undercut our moral authority in emphasizing commitment to international norms, rule of law, human rights and multilateralism?

The influence of combatant commanders grew as we fought the war on terror primarily with lethal operations that had little oversight or control by individual chiefs of mission or State.

I found myself hoisted on my own petard in insisting on legal accountability in (North) Macedonia on gross violations of human rights while insisting that we not be held to the same standard. We became infamous for drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, black sites and Guantanamo to the world. And we diplomats had to defend these practices as necessary to win the global war on terror we had declared.

Militarization of Diplomacy—Mars Rising, Venus Falling

With the rise of the Pentagon and the four-star generals dictating foreign policy, the State Department was sidelined. Much ink has been spilled on this that need not be spilled again here, but clearly the late Donald Rumsfeld’s driving President George W. Bush to invade Iraq without a day-after plan stands out. The decision to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan was not controversial; but the decision to stay 20 years reflected the Pentagon’s desire not to be seen as losing another war more than anything else.

The influence of combatant commanders (the Special Operations Command and the geographic commands) grew as we fought the war on terror primarily with military operations that had little oversight or control by individual chiefs of mission or State. One ambassador lost his job when he tried to exert control over drone strikes from the country in which he served (on paper) as the president’s personal representative. Around 2010, State’s Office of the Inspector General bowed to the Special Operations Command when it failed to insist that its personnel assigned to an embassy in Southeast Asia submit to the NSDD-38 staffing process (which puts U.S. government personnel under chief-of-mission authority). A recent Congressional Research Service report on State’s personnel challenges highlighted challenges to chief of mission authority as an issue Congress should look at.

Expeditionary Diplomacy

Prior to the global war on terror, unaccompanied tours overseas were rare. Belgrade in 1994 with the Bosnian war raging next door was a downsized, but accompanied, tour. But in the wake of 9/11, “expeditionary diplomacy” came to the fore as the United States serially invaded or caused regime change in the greater Middle East and a growing number of failed states and unaccompanied tours proliferated in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan. Unaccompanied service in a war zone became very controversial during the 2007 surge (AFSA leadership vigorously opposed directed assignments to Iraq at the time). But the Foreign Service then adapted, accepting the new rule that any officer expecting a promotion to more senior ranks had to serve an unaccompanied tour at least once.

Of course, since the Foreign Service personnel pool is more like a puddle, the cost for the Iraq surge was stripping other posts of critical staff. According to a Reuters report, in 2013 more than 1,000 Foreign Service personnel were serving at unaccompanied posts. Today, while Afghanistan and Iraq staffing has shrunk or is shrinking, Pakistan and difficult spots like the Central African Republic and South Sudan still host employees who serve a year or two in a dangerous location while their families stay stateside.

Whole of Government: Agencies Everywhere!

“Whole of government,” another concept born of 9/11, briefs well, but it is hard to put into practice in the diplomat’s Westphalian world of nation-states and Washington’s federal system. A foreign policy meeting at the White House these days is very likely to have a dozen or more domestic agencies represented, each with its own agenda. I recently reviewed the staffing at several larger embassies in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East as part of prepping the U.S. military to work with our embassies. They were surprised to see how many agencies can be present overseas.

While some agencies have long been part of the Foreign Service family, others are GWOT newcomers, like the many Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice law enforcement entities. These agencies have their own communications channels and legal authorities, and often have many regional responsibilities. And they are a serious problem for the chief of mission, who may not have visibility into, much less control over, their activities.

Diplomatic Security and the Fortress Embassy

When DS Assistant Secretary Taylor explained the global war on terror to the American Bar Association in 2002, after the Taliban had been driven from power in Afghanistan, he said this: “We must also fight terror with every diplomatic, economic, law enforcement and intelligence weapon we have in our arsenal. We are using all these weapons in a coordinated, comprehensive campaign against the terrorist menace.” The fact that GWOT and its whole-of-government approach was articulated by the head of DS should not be lost on anyone. It signaled the ascendance of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, previously focused on protecting embassies and investigating passport/visa fraud, as a policy force at State and ushered in a culture that was inward-looking, preoccupied with security, suspicious of locals and unwilling to take risks.

Since the Foreign Service personnel pool is more like a puddle, the cost for the Iraq surge was stripping other posts of critical staff.

With GWOT, new terms entered our diplomatic practice lexicon: personal security details (PSDs), bad guys / violent extremist organizations (VEOs), things that blow up (VBIEDs, IEDs, EFPs). Crash-and-bang courses became a part of FACT (Foreign Affairs Counter Threat) pre-deployment to war zones training. DS got funding to build its own counterpart to the Foreign Service Institute on the grounds of a Virginia National Guard base. New embassies were built, often outside city centers, with substantial setbacks, anti-ram barriers, blast-proof walls and layers of local security guards. Diplomats began to operate from fortress chanceries, insulated from the local population, sallying forth only with an RSO-approved security package. American ambassadors, with some exceptions, cannot even drive themselves while in country. The days of informal meetings at cafes and restaurants, or just sauntering among the local people, are rarer than in the past depending on the threat profile of one’s post.

Mission Creep, aka Nation-Building

We Americans are cursed with the belief that our purpose in life is to remake the countries to which we are assigned more like our own. This stems from our post–World War II successes in Germany and Europe at large, Japan and, later, Korea. Once the U.S. military had succeeded in regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, instead of declaring victory and going home, American diplomats went to work on nation-building. In none of the three cited cases did we prepare for this mission; nor did we succeed. In all three, this was mission creep, taken on as a follow-on to consolidate the military’s battlefield successes. And all three cases displayed a failure to take the long view of our core national interests.

Today we are witnessing the lamentations from U.S. diplomats who served in Kabul about how all the good things we did there at great sacrifice of Afghan and American blood, financed with American taxpayer money, are going to be lost with our withdrawal. One should recall that we went to Afghanistan to deal with al-Qaida, not transform the country. The latter is a diplomatic practice that needs to be discontinued.

Similarly, eight years of U.S. military and civilian presence in Iraq with 150,000 troops and, at one point, 25 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) and a massive USAID effort, left little to brag about. Or take Libya: A well-intentioned effort to avert a massacre of civilians in Benghazi ended up making matters far worse, with a flood of weapons and mercenaries ensconced in Syria and North Africa / Sahel and an American presidential bid derailed by the death of an ambassador.

GWOT’s So What?

The most important effect of the 9/11-driven imperative from Washington to take on global terrorism was that we relearned the principal lesson of World War II and the Cold War: Allies matter. The risk today—in a policy context defined by “great power competition” (GPC)—is that we will revert to prioritizing country-specific policies, however well intentioned, without seeing the bigger picture. China sees the big picture. So does the U.S. military’s geographic command structure. One Middle Eastern embassy’s integrated country strategy is no match for Central Command’s theater campaign plan, which sees the region as a whole, not a collection of pieces. And this gives the military the policy high ground.

Second, the hubris of invading Iraq, followed by the well-intentioned but poorly-thought-through intervention in Libya in 2012, badly damaged our international image and led to even more death and destruction than we averted. With international relations, and conflict, conducted at the speed of tweet, public diplomacy has reemerged (as it was during the Cold War) as our most used, and useful, weapon to combat violent extremist rhetoric. We have to resist the temptation to intervene everywhere, while shifting to a better-coordinated, agile and effective public outreach if we want to prevail.

Third, with GWOT giving way to GPC, American diplomatic practice needs to adopt a more balanced model of multilateral and bilateral foreign policy if it wants to contend with China’s more effective version of “whole of government” diplomacy—namely, the Belt and Road Initiative. Even as we compete and confront China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, we will still have to contend with networks of violent extremist organizations while resisting proliferating demands emanating from American special interest groups for niche policy initiatives that stretch our limited resources and “talent puddle,” diluting a cohesive and coherent diplomatic strategy and practice. An apt adage for this comes to mind: If everything is a priority, then nothing is.

Ambassador Larry Butler served for 40 years with the State Department, starting in Finland and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria during the Cold War and finishing his career in the Greater Middle East with postings in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has a track record of involvement in peacemaking, including working for President Bill Clinton at the White House for the Northern Irish Good Friday Accords and with Richard Holbrooke in Belgrade for the Dayton Accords. A Balkans expert, he served in Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and as U.S. ambassador to Macedonia (2002-2005). After retiring from the Foreign Service in 2013, he now provides interagency operational expertise to U.S. military organizations from his home bases in Maine and Virginia.