Convulsive events worldwide - in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caucuses - and Washington’s inability to navigate them with authority implies a twilight of U.S. statecraft. The itinerant John Kerry - negotiating in Jerusalem, hectoring in Brussels, speechifying in South Sudan - is received abroad less as America’s top diplomat than as a pauperized, late 19th-century English lord - all rolled Rs and tweed but no inheritance.
This is not for lack of resolve; unlike his ticket-punching predecessor, Kerry wagered his credibility at two high-stakes tables - in Palestine, where his bid for a peace deal was pointedly and publicly thwarted by Israel (and all but ignored by his feckless boss) - and in Iran, which has so far complied with interim agreements to suspend its suspected nuclear weapons programs. This too may fail, but at least he tried.
What ails American statecraft is less personal commitment than the State Department’s structural inability to adjust to the emerging multi-polar world - the “old” normal, as it were, after a quarter-century of abnormal uni-polarity. Faced with the return of minor hegemons like China, Russia, and Iran, the State Department must ditch its ossified nation-state bias in favor of regionalism. For inspiration it need look no farther than its well-endowed cousin just south of the Potomac.
Since the late 1980s, when it divided the world into regional command posts, the Defense Department has become the de facto, if not de jure engineer of U.S. foreign policy. To paraphrase John Quincy Adams, as America goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy she is sustained by a patchwork of combatant commands that divide the globe into six areas of responsibility: the Middle East and Central Asia, East Asia and Oceania, North America, Central and South America, Europe, and Africa. Their four-star field marshals are responsible for making war and keeping peace and they enjoy near-total control over the human, financial, and material resources at their disposal. They are invested with the power of Proconsuls, the military governors who ruled the colonial provinces of ancient Rome, and they are commonly referred to as such.
Needless to say, the power and prestige of these commanders - particular the heads of CENTCOM in the Middle East and PACOM in Asia - eclipses that of their civilian counterparts. While a U.S. ambassador is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s writ extends nearly to the heavens. In a 2010 interview, Anthony Zinni, the head of CENTCOM from 1997 to 2000, lamented the asymmetry in authority between Washington’s senior-most military and civilian representatives. The combatant commanders, he told me, “saw the interdependence and interaction in the region because we had that responsibility. So when we spoke we had more clout.”
The first step in restoring equilibrium between America’s civilian and military elites is to create diplomatic viceroys to match their uniformed counterparts and make them responsible only to the Secretary of State. The second is to close the funding gap between the two sides, a divergence that widened dramatically under the despotic Senator Jesse Helms in the mid-1990s. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Helms slashed the budgets of both the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency, Washington’s public-diplomacy channel. By the end of the decade USIA - along with a vastly diminished U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington’s aid-distribution arm - had been shunted under State Department authority where they could be easily pressured by Congress and the White House.
The high price of needless conflict - in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Libya and Washington’s failed war on drugs - has exposed Americans to the futility of using armed might in response to diplomatic challenges. The need for robust, creative aid and information agencies has never been greater, which is why USAID and USIA should be restored to their pre-Helms independence. At the same time, America’s military and civilian aid programs - indirect subsidies for defense contractors, wheat growers, and a galaxy of consultant-NGOs that create unhealthy dependencies among recipients - should be scrapped and redrawn.
Congress should also allocate funds to the State Department for the foundation of a school of diplomacy, the kind of elite academy common among most developed countries but sadly missing in trigger-happy Washington. The creation of such an institution - it would be a shame not to call it The George C. Marshall School of American Diplomacy - would signal to the global community that America is at long last of the world as well as in it.
Thus reformed, the State Department would be worthy of its most important post-war mission - to dismantle America’s costly and superfluous military commitments. Working in lockstep with their uniformed colleagues, Washington’s regional diplomatic overlords could begin the long-neglected process of shifting the burden of security to its European, Asian and Middle Eastern allies, most of which have grown rich under U.S. vigilance and can now easily afford to look after themselves.
The deep state will agitate in defense of empire. Torch-bearers of the Second Red Scare - they are plentiful and powerful - will cry appeasement. They must be resisted. Even at this late date, Washington could provide no greater service to its people and its allies than to publicly acknowledge the unsustainable cost of militarized, global hegemony at the expense of statecraft.