An Empire Decomposed: American Foreign Relations in the Early 21st Century

Remarks to the Foreign Affairs Retirees of Northern Virginia

Americans are accustomed to foreigners following us. After all, for forty years, we led the industrial democracies against the former USSR and its captive entourage. After the Soviet collapse, we bestrode the world as its sole colossus. For a while, we imagined we could do pretty much anything we wanted to do on our own. This, in the opinion of some, made followers irrelevant and leadership unnecessary.


Still, on reflection, we thought things might go better with a garland of allies and a garnish of friends. So we accepted some help from NATO members and some other foreign auxiliaries in Afghanistan. And, when we marched into the ambush of Iraq, we recruited a few other nations eager to ingratiate themselves with us to tag along in what became known as “the coalition of the billing.” In the end, however, in Iraq, it came down to us and our faithful British collaborators. Then, without even a “yo! Bush,” the Brits too were gone. And when we looked for other allies to follow us back into Afghanistan, they weren’t there.

All this should remind us that power, no matter how immense, is not by itself enough to ordain leadership. Power must be informed by vision, guided by wisdom, and embodied in strategy if it is to inspire companions and followers. We’re a bit short of believers in our leadership these days, not just on the battlefields of West Asia but at global financial gatherings, the United Nations, meetings of the G-20, among human rights and environmental activists, in the world’s regions, including our own hemisphere, and so forth. There are few places where we Americans still enjoy the credibility and command the deference we once did. A year or so ago, we decided that military means were not always the best way to solve problems and that having diplomatic allies could really help do so. But it isn’t happening.

The excesses that brought about the wide-ranging devaluation of our global standing originate, I think, in our politically self-serving reinterpretation of the Cold War soon after it ended. As George Kennan predicted, the Soviet Union was eventually brought down by the infirmities of its system. The USSR thus lost its Cold War with America and our allies. We were still standing when it fell. They lost. We won, if only by default. Yet Americans rapidly developed the conviction that military prowess and Ronald Reagan’s ideological bravado — not the patient application of diplomatic and military “containment” to a gangrenous Soviet system — had brought us victory. Ours was a triumph of grand strategy in which a strong American military backed political and economic measures short of war to enable us to prevail without fighting. Ironically, however, our politicians came to portray this as a military victory. The diplomacy and alliance management that went into it were forgotten. It was publicly transmuted into a triumph based on the formidable capabilities of our military-industrial complex, supplemented by our righteous denunciation of evil.

Many things followed from this neo-conservative-influenced myth. One conclusion was the notion that diplomacy is for losers. If military superiority was the key to “victory” in the Cold War, it followed for many that we should bear any burden and pay any price to sustain that superiority in every region of the world, no matter what people in these regions felt about this. This was a conclusion that our military-industrial complex heard with approval. It had fattened on the Cold War but was beginning to suffer from enemy deprivation syndrome — that is, the disorientation and queasy apprehension about future revenue one gets when one’s enemy has irresponsibly dropped dead. With no credible enemy clearly in view, how was the defense industrial base to be kept in business? The answer was to make the preservation of global military hegemony our objective. With no real discussion and little fanfare, we did so. This led to increases in defense spending despite the demise of the multifaceted threat posed by the USSR. In other words, it worked.

Only a bit over sixty percent of our military spending is in the Department of Defense budget, with the rest hidden like Easter eggs in the nooks and crannies of other federal departments and agencies’ budgets. If you put it all together, however, defense-related spending comes to about $1.2 trillion, or about eight percent of our GDP. That is quite a bit more than the figure usually cited, which is the mere $685 billion (or 4.6 percent of GDP) of our official defense budget. Altogether, we spend more on military power than the rest of the world — friend or foe — combined. (This way we can be sure we can defeat everyone in the world if they all gang up on us. Don’t laugh! If we are sufficiently obnoxious, we might just drive them to it.) No one questions this level of spending or asks what it is for. Politicians just tell us it is short of what we require. We have embraced the cult of the warrior. The defense budget is its totem.

Of course, our virtue as Americans is self-evident, at least to us. Our military power is famously irresistible. Those with the power to do good have the duty to do it. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us a virtual monopoly on global military power. It followed that we must use our power to impose our values on others abroad unfortunate enough to have different mores. Or so the neocons argued, in a sort of parody of the beliefs of America’s long-vanished, Christian Wahhabis — my Puritan ancestors. Hence, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Liberal interventionists often join the neocons in their eagerness to remake the world in our image. Hence, the war to secure Afghanistan for feminism and other undeniably worthy causes not normally associated with that country. Americans are learning the hard way that armed evangelism and the diplomacy-free foreign policy associated with it give birth to more enemies than they kill. But what’s done is done. We’re addicted to military surges and the substitution of campaign plans for strategies. We just can’t seem to quit.

The many trillions we spent on perfecting our capability to use force against our Soviet enemies included paying billions of dollars to universities and research institutes to develop doctrine for influencing foreigners by coercive means. To date, there has been no comparable effort to research how to persuade others to do things our way without whacking them. Problems without military components get lower priority. That is why we strain to relate issues like climate change to future military tasks. Two generations of decision-makers have been taught that only the threat or the use of force can really change foreign minds or produce decisive results. Of course, to change minds at home we draw on bonds of friendship, seduce, inveigle, coax, wheedle, beguile, or make it worth their financial while for them to do things our way. Few of us would consider it appropriate or effective to seek our compatriots’ cooperation by pulling a gun or pistol-whipping them. Foreigners are a different matter. In American politics, common sense now stops at the water’s edge.

Amazingly, as an example, we retain a touching faith in sanctions as an instrument of coercive influence. Our diplomacy follows a predictable pattern. It begins with bluster, experiments with covert action, then proceeds to demands that others join us in sanctions, which become a diplomatic end in themselves. When sanctions fail – as they always do, we put the bombers in the air and the tanks on the dirt. Somehow, the thought that foreigners could, like Americans, be induced rather than bombarded into seeing it as in their interest to do things our way is seldom, if ever, considered. After all, they’re not like us. The only language they understand is that uttered by firepower. Only wimps attempt to reason with such people.

Given our idiosyncratic and often counterproductive preference for military solutions, it’s hardly surprising that we have lost our political hegemony. Equally clearly, the neo-liberal dogma of deregulation and the “bankster” capitalism it fostered on Wall Street have been discredited. The wingnut notion that fiscal deficits don’t matter has been disproved. All these developments, and the military adventurism that catalyzed our fall from global grace, have indeed brought disrepute on our country. Other nations are indeed strengthening. Yet, America remains the only military power with worldwide reach, the safe haven of rattled foreign investors, the possessor of the single most important reserve currency, and by far the largest economy and market in the world. Much to the distress of proponents of higher culture everywhere, our entertainment industry and universities retain preeminent appeal to the world’s youth. In short, the United States continues to possess unmatched fundamentals. Our decline — if that is the word — is self-inflicted. So is the collapse of our self-confidence.

It is hard to believe what we have done to ourselves. It is harder still to know where to start to diagnose it and to begin to prescribe appropriate solutions. I have no experience in domestic politics. I cannot explain how the Congress became so venal and corrupt — a forum dedicated almost completely to the sale and trading of favors on behalf of special interests — or why we have allowed our political, economic, and social systems to decay to the extent they have. I do not know how we decided we were OK with foreign nations excelling us in an ever-growing range of social and economic indicators. I will stick to what I know, which is foreign affairs.

The bottom line in that arena? Without really understanding what we’ve done, we have thoroughly militarized our approach to foreign policy. It has come to the point that the Secretary of Defense (of all people) feels obliged to complain about the atrophy of civilian instruments of influence and the incapacity of non-military elements of our national security apparatus to manage programs abroad. He’s right to do so. Civilian incapacities leave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to do a mediocre job of diplomacy and development instead of the superb job they can do as war fighters.

But it’s not just that military forces, funding, and capabilities dwarf those of the Department of State, related agencies, and the Foreign Service. (So, of course, do those of the intelligence community.) Budgets can be plussed up, and to some extent this is happening. More than a quantitative problem, however, our statecraft deficit and crisis of civilian capacity are qualitative problems. They have to do with decades of underfunding, malorganization, deprofessionalization, inattention to training and professional development, and — let’s face it — sometimes truly catastrophic leadership by elected officials and political appointees. And they have to do with civic illiteracy amongst Americans.

As the Chinese saying has it: “three feet of ice didn’t freeze in a one day of cold.” These problems took time to reach their current severity. They can be fixed. But this will take time as well as money. And fixing them will be politically demanding to say the least.

Among other things, it will require stripping the congressionally mandated barnacles from the ship of state. The foreign affairs agencies must be reorganized to deal with the world beyond our borders rather than to appease special interest groups at home. To placate particular blocs of voters, Congress has created a bewildering Rube Goldberg-type array of wheel-spinning bureaucratic entities — bureaus, ambassadors-at-large, special coordinators, czars, and the like. These establishments make it look as if we’re taking special interests seriously. So what if their work eats resources but doesn’t connect to much in the real world beyond our borders? We have knocked together a Department of State that even gifted managers find unmanageable and a policy process that produces more platitudes than strategy.

Regaining diplomatic effectiveness will require an unprecedented emphasis on training and professionalization. The concept of the foreign service as a refuge for dilettantes went out of style a while back. Replacing dilettantes with campaign gerbils, as we did in Iraq, was not an improvement. But our foreign service is not only amateurish, untrained, and unreflective in comparison with our military, it is far less trained and professional than the foreign services of other great and middle-ranking powers. It should not surprise anyone that retired flag officers, rather than foreign service officers, are now being appointed to some of our most difficult ambassadorial assignments. What can one say of a so-called profession that cannot present the best qualified candidates for its own most senior and demanding positions? What’s happening confirms the militarization of our diplomacy. It also reflects a judgment about the professional incapacities of our career diplomats.

Meanwhile, new employees and a whole lot of contractors are being rushed to the diplomatic front with next to no training beyond brief familiarization with government operations. Well, why not? After all that’s how we train the third of our ambassadors whose principal qualification for diplomacy is wealth and political connections. In other countries, civilian control of the military is paralleled by political control of diplomacy, that is, a foreign policy whose goals are set by elected and appointed national leaders but whose implementation is carried out by experienced professionals. We are now alone among nations in imagining that political appointments should be made directly to the diplomatic battlefields on which policy must be implemented. We let our ambassadors learn their trade through trial and error on the job. We expect their career subordinates to cover for them. As a nation, we have less margin for error than we used to have. We can ill afford diplomatic operations that are so much less competent and professional than the related operations of our armed services.

Given the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, we need to leverage our huge natural advantages as a nation into restored international leadership. Rather than allowing others to rearrange the world to their gain and our loss, we need to shape the global trends and regional events that bear on our interests and values. To be able to do this, we must, no less than other nations with which we compete and cooperate, develop and insist upon professional standards from the bottom to the top of our diplomatic services.

The last election seemed to herald the demilitarization of our foreign policy and a return to diplomacy. So far it hasn’t worked out that way. The reason is the political culture bequeathed to us by the four decades of the Cold War and the decade and a half of national hubris that followed it. The notion that military phenomena are the only significant element of national security policy would be regarded elsewhere as simple-minded. It is, however, the politically correct view among our elite. This accounts in part for the strange pattern of American military activism and diplomatic default in regions like the Middle East.

Since very few Americans have any idea what diplomats do or what diplomacy is, it is hardly surprising that they imagine it as appeasement and the avoidance of strife rather than a means of cultivating support for US positions and sizing up adversaries while setting them straight about US interests. Nothing in their educational experience, on their television screens, in popular fiction, or in movie theaters gives Americans any basis for understanding where diplomacy begins or ends or what it can or can’t do. Of course, a public that is so ignorant of geography that it cannot distinguish Australia from Iraq on a world map and so parochial that it is aware of no connection between Judaism and Islam might not know what to do with diplomacy even if it understood it. Yet the international alternative to diplomacy is violence — either violence from us or violence against us. Our schools and colleges don’t just fail to prepare Americans to deal with the challenging world we live in. They reinforce dysfunctional approaches to the world and dumb us down about it while reassuring us that we are the best and most virtuous.

Erroneous assumptions and assertive ignorance about foreign societies are self-reinforcing. Polls show that Americans do not want more foreign news in part because they feel they lack the background to understand it or to see how it links to the fate of our country or themselves. For this and many other reasons (including often obvious ideological biases), our news oligopolies filter what they report about the world beyond our borders. The net effect is to reinforce blind spots and prejudice rather than to challenge stereotypes or provoke thought about why U.S. policies often seem to produce backlash rather than progress toward their declared objectives.

Perhaps this sort of contempt for the intelligence of the American people explains our leaders’ evident fear of candid discourse on an expanding range of international issues. Take, for example, our pathetic national inability to do demand management. Without the insatiable demand of North American addicts, neither drug lords nor the current bloodletting in northern Mexico would exist. Americans sell Mexican cartels the guns they use to kill anyone who gets in the way of supplying other Americans with drugs. Yet our politicians, to the extent they take account of the issue at all, talk about supporting the Mexican authorities, not about ending the American drug culture that is the source of the problem or curbing the gun sales that make it so lethal. Or think about the last presidential election, in which candidates promised the American people both cheap gas at the pump and lessened dependence on oil imports. Or consider our efforts to deal with Muslim terrorists with global reach while denying that our subsidies for Israel and our own invasions and occupations of Muslim lands have anything to do with motivating their attacks on us. Dumb-downs, demagoguery, and denial do not provide a basis for resumed global agenda-setting by the United States.

The absence of American leadership is conspicuous in a widening range of international problem areas — the precarious transnational role of the dollar, the missing peace process in the Middle East, the all-but-abandoned effort at trade liberalization, Russia’s still undefined relationship to Europe, the eroding rule of international law, the wobbling US-Japan alliance, accelerating climate change, contriving a satisfactory Chinese role in global governance, and many other arguably less momentous matters come to mind. Then there are perplexing issues we can neither defer nor evade, like how to cope with spreading hostility in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how to extricate ourselves from Iraq without throwing it either to Iran or into turmoil — or both. I have not exhausted the list. Doing nothing about so many international issues — or letting them drift to all-too-plausible ruin — should not be an acceptable option for our country.

What, then, are the prospects for a renewal of effective American international leadership? And, if it is not forthcoming, what — other than vacuum — will replace it?

I have discussed a few prerequisites for a revival of American diplomacy. These include a more sophisticated understanding of foreign affairs by citizens and their representatives; the reorganization of our foreign affairs agencies to focus on U.S. national interests abroad rather than to posture for special interests at home; the development of a more professional civilian presence abroad; and the appointment of better qualified officials at policy-making levels in Washington. Until these pieces are in place, it is hard to see how the United States can conceive or implement strategies for foreign affairs that require robust contributions of a political, economic, cultural, or informational nature to complement those of our military.

There are two ways to reform our educational system, government structure, career development programs for diplomats and development specialists, and inappropriate use of political appointees. One is effortless. We can wait for disaster to impose recognition of the need for change. This is a time-honored American tradition. Think of our failure to prepare for Pearl Harbor; think of Sputnik or Hurricane Katrina. The other way is arduous. We can try tackling our deficiencies before they do more damage to us and the world. I see heads shaking in disbelief that we might actually attempt any such thing. The collapse in our national confidence is a problem too. European friends who have not been here for a while tell me they are struck by the extent to which the vaunted optimism and can-do spirit of American society are now in eclipse. The dominant motif in our politics is pessimism and partisan rancor, coupled with a deep cynicism about Washington’s capacity to acknowledge, let alone mount rational responses, to the challenges we face as a nation and people.

If pessimism proves justified — if we cannot do what is required to pull our diplomatic act together — we must expect a further decline in our power to shape the world order and what happens within it. For the past decade or more, in the absence of American leadership and engagement, the focus of problem solving has been devolving to the sub-global and regional levels. It has been moving beyond our control. This trend is accelerating.

China and others are experimenting with new policies and monetary groupings to hedge the dollar. Events in the Middle East are taking their own perilous course, not only undirected but often uninfluenced by us. Trade deals at the bilateral and regional level fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of the Doha Round. Russia and Europe are working out a separate peace without regard to stated American interests. Since the United States no longer polices its own behavior, other nations have begun to do so, issuing arrest warrants for U.S. officials engaged in actions, like extraordinary rendition and torture, that violate international law. American-sponsored practices on matters like the law of the sea are being set aside in favor of interpretations that disadvantage us. Japan is charting a course to an unknown destination, without apparent benefit of American counsel. U.S. relations with Turkey are in free fall. In the absence of a global regime for climate change, major polluters are each doing their own thing. For the first time in decades, China is picking diplomatic fights with the United States and we are preparing to pick fights with it. Brazil is staking out positions at odds with our own on a widening range of global and regional issues. I could but will not go on.

Let me instead sum up. The United States remains militarily supreme but increasingly unable to work its will politically or economically on the global or regional stages. America’s fundamentals are sound. Our diminished influence is much more the result of dysfunctional behavior and organization — diplomatic incapacity aggravated by militarism — than of national weakness. Be that as it may, the world now looks elsewhere for leadership. With the inherited international system no longer working and no one in charge, an increasing number of urgent issues fester unattended. A resurgence in American leadership is needed. Such a resurgence is possible. It is, however, unlikely that our politicians or public will muster the determination to bring it off until catastrophe imposes it.

In the absence of reinvigorated U.S. diplomacy, others — including allies and friends as well as enemies — will craft solutions to issues in ways that exclude us. Solutions like that may benefit them. As likely as not, they will adversely affect the well-being and domestic tranquility of the United States. Opportunities to advance our national interests will meanwhile be lost. This is, in fact, already happening. An increased defense budget and greater capacity to use violence against foreigners will not turn this around — even if supplemented by additional diplomats and development specialists. That will certainly be the case if these civilian augmentees are neither professionally qualified nor properly trained.

The Cold War taught us to put military matters first. In the 21st Century, it has become clear that this does not work. As John Maynard Keynes once remarked, “the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” To preserve both our liberties and our prosperity, Americans need to rediscover our values, remake our government, and reinvent our current militaristic approach to international relations. We have the potential to renew ourselves and the power to play a revitalized role at the center of world affairs. The longer we wait to do this, the harder it will be. Why not start now? 

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Arlington, VA

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