Coordinators at the New York City Emergency Management Warehouse, pack up a ventilator, part of a shipment of 400, that arrived Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in New York.

Coordinators at the New York City Emergency Management Warehouse, pack up a ventilator, part of a shipment of 400, that arrived Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in New York. AP / Mark Lennihan

The Coronavirus Shows How US ‘Diplomacy’ Is Anything But

Absolutist, America-first approaches isolate us and make us less safe.

Amid a global shortage of medical supplies, Washington is not playing nice—even with allies fighting the same pandemic. Beyond restricting U.S. exports of personal protective equipment, the Trump administration stands accused of “hijacking” shipments headed for friendly nations. Berlin accused Washington of “modern piracy” for allegedly intercepting a shipment of Chinese-made masks going from Thailand to Germany, and a similar U.S. move was reported in Brazil. 

“Even in times of global crisis you shouldn’t use Wild West methods,” said German Interior Secretary Andreas Geisel.

But such methods are all too familiar in what passes for international relations in Washington today. Since well before COVID-19 began to spread, our government has demonstrated it does not understand what effective, mutually beneficial diplomacy looks like. As exemplified (though certainly not originated) by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, American diplomatic engagement is anything but. It is coercive, unrealistic, and ultimately counterproductive.

The last three years of U.S. relations with Iran illustrate this all too well. After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration embarked on a strategy of “maximum pressure,” which has proved damaging and dangerous at every turn. It has gravely diminished the Iranian people’s quality of life, provided fodder for hardline nationalist elements in Tehran, incentivized regional misbehavior and meddling by a regime determined to prove it cannot be cowed, and moved U.S.-Iran relations closer to war than peace.

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Maximum pressure is not necessary for U.S. security; if anything, it makes us less safe. This is especially true for the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and Syria, who are targets for Iran-linked militias. The no-compromises pressure campaign also makes us less likely to achieve the diplomatic progress the administration says it wants. This absolutist approach is simply not how diplomacy works. It destroys any chance at viable deal-making, because it demands everything while offering nothing.

Much the same may be said of recent interactions between Washington and Pyongyang. U.S.-North Korea talks have stalled and show no sign of a productive resumption. The Kim Jong-un regime’s rhetoric has begun to escalate, as has its schedule of missile testing, and were Washington not preoccupied with pandemic, we’d likely see “fire and fury”-style tweets from the president as well. This dysfunction is attributable to the same basic error we find in the broken state of U.S.-Iran relations: American “diplomacy” mostly consists of ultimatums.

At least three correctives would be helpful here. First, Washington needs a more accurate and therefore narrower understanding of core U.S. interests. In dealing with Iran and North Korea, that entails recognizing our proper goal is not blocking or dismantling each nation’s nuclear capabilities but preventing a nuclear attack—which is to say, keeping the peace. Denuclearization may eventually be a means to that end, but it is not a vital U.S. security interest. Peace is. In both cases, we are already indefinitely secure thanks to U.S. conventional and nuclear deterrence, as MIT’s Barry Posen has ably explained regarding Iran at the New York Times.

The second corrective is a recognition that other nations will pursue their interests just as reliably as we will pursue ours. While American primacy may allow us to strong-arm some short-term wins, it is no substitute for a realistic long-term strategy. If these reports of medical hijacking are correct, the U.S. may get a few extra masks and gloves for our health-care workers, but we’ll also get angry allies who won’t forget this insult when the pandemic is over. Likewise, Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as the sole reliable deterrent of U.S.-orchestrated regime change. Given our recent history of regime change operations in the Middle East and North Africa, Kim’s disinterest in denuclearization is to be expected.

Third, U.S. foreign policy requires a fundamental reorientation away from reliance on military intervention. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, Washington has overvalued military power and undervalued diplomacy. Negotiation is too often treated as a petty obligation to check off the list before attack. Is it any wonder it’s conducted so poorly? Practical, patient diplomacy can serve U.S. interests well, if only we give it a try.