State Department

To Rebuild America’s Weakened Alliances, Heal Its Diplomatic Corps

To guide us through troubled waters, we need a competent, influential, and re-invigorated State Department.

“Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither,” wrote James Mattis in Call Sign Chaos, making headlines with his implicit criticism of Trump administration policy. As we continue to claw our way through 2020, his thinly veiled warning rings truer than ever. Amid one of the most trying periods since World War II, the United States has rarely been more isolated.

Three years of ill-conceived policies have strained ties with friends and foes alike: defunding and disregarding international institutions, imposing tariffs on partner nations, and withdrawing from landmark multilateral achievements like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change agreement. 

Our allies do not view these actions as bargaining schemes or isolated events. Rather, they are asking a question that for decades has been unthinkable: Is the United States a reliable partner? French President Emmanuel Macron is pessimistic; last November, he declared that Europe should prepare for a future in which the U.S. would not defend its NATO allies. Others are at least a bit more optimistic; they have informally adopted a policy of “running out the clock” in hope that American voters will bring change in November. But if that change doesn’t happen, another four years of uncertainty may permanently damage the U.S.’ international standing and push allies into the orbits of other great powers.

How do we get out of this mess?

If the administration changes in November, the incoming team will face a monumental task of rebuilding relationships, reassuring allies, and re-asserting the U.S. as a global leader. Getting out of the mire will require skillful strategies and cross-government buy-in. Central to this effort is rebuilding a U.S. State Department whose leadership is experienced, competent, and influential. We recommend several steps:

Rebuild the diplomatic corps. The recent distrust by allies has emerged under—and some argue in part due to—the current administration’s systematic disregard for the skill and expertise that is required at key posts at the State Department. In this American bastion of diplomacy, full of dedicated diplomats, civil servants, and subject matter experts, dozens of key positions, including ambassadorships, remain empty and career diplomats have left in droves. Among the prominent positions that have been filled, many have gone to inept and inexperienced media personalities and campaign donors. 

Rebuilding trust in American diplomacy starts by seeking competent and experienced leaders. This does not mean rejecting politically appointed ambassadors. Indeed, past administrations have nominated tremendous leaders from outside the foreign service with ambassadors such as Caroline Kennedy, Robert Strauss, and Clark Randt Jr. Rather, the incoming administration should advance and appoint diplomatic leaders who share a fundamental understanding of diplomacy, respect the State Department’s mission, and further not the President’s, but the nation’s interest abroad. 

Return the State Department to center stage. We should limit the perception that our leaders at State play second fiddle to those in the Defense Department. Both departments have a rich history of cooperation ranging from counterterrorism and peacekeeping to international military training and education. However, the parity between the departments is not always felt in Washington, where the DOD enjoys consistent funding increases while State Department officials recently have characterized the department as “battered,” “demoralized,” and “mistreated.”

There are good reasons why the DOD requires more funding than its diplomatic sister and the department should have a central part in influencing foreign policy. However, in the current complex global environment, it is the State Department’s expertise and diplomatic approach that ought to lead our way in most foreign policy discussions. 

America’s alliances have been a source of national security, and pride, for more than a century. Yet, the last three-plus years have put this competitive advantage at risk. As we continue to fight our way through the pandemic, we must plan for even greater threats on the horizon. A potential Sino-American confrontation and compounded adverse impacts of global climate change will require long-term strategies supported by skillful diplomacy and deterrence. To guide us through these troubled waters, we need a competent, influential, and re-invigorated State Department. We already carry a big stick; we should prioritize speaking softly.