A strong legacy of U.S. leadership and engagement in global politics has been reduced today to what I call kinetic diplomacy—diplomacy by armed force.
As of March 2018, the Trump administration had appointed only 70 of 188 U.S. ambassadors. Meanwhile, it increased the deployment of special operations forces to 149 countries, up from 138 in 2016 during the Obama administration (the use of military force also expanded under Obama). By October, after a concerted effort by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 127 ambassadors had been appointed. Still, ambassadors are operating in just two-thirds of the world’s capitals, while special operations forces are active in three-fourths of them.
It wasn’t always like this. After World War II, the U.S. Department of State played a critical role in transitioning America from an emergency ally to a global leader. At the time, two key assumptions were taken for granted. The first was a close connection between U.S. diplomatic power and military effectiveness. The second was the understanding that in the U.S., civilians outrank generals (as President Harry S. Truman underscored by firing General Douglas MacArthur in 1951).
In the late 1940s, diplomat George F. Kennan, deputy chief of mission in Moscow, helped shape half a century of U.S. foreign policy when he successfully argued that the Soviet Union could be deterred from aggressive expansion and contained—a much less risky strategy than a direct military confrontation, which might lead to world war. Successes like that reinforced a pattern: Diplomats led behind the scenes so that soldiers didn’t have to follow. As General James Mattis, then-commander of U.S. Central Command, put it in 2013, if the State Department budget were to be cut, he would “have to buy more ammunition.”
But the turn to kinetic diplomacy began after the attacks of September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror,” and successfully shifted the United States from containing security threats to preemptively engaging them overseas. The Bush administration accelerated the practice of seeking out “evildoers” abroad, arguing that only by doing so could American lives be protected. This initiated the shift from diplomacy first, and armed force as a last resort, to armed force first.
Traditional diplomacy was granted a modest reprieve under the Obama administration. Under the Trump administration, however, the U.S. Department of State has been gutted, leaving us with kinetic diplomacy as a default. Without diplomats to inform and guide our armed forces and their leadership, we are left with an accelerating vicious cycle—the more “bad guys” we kill abroad, the more we have to kill. As a result, an increasing number of those we preemptively kill—instead of bargain with—will be either civilians or heroes in their own countries. Martyring them guarantees the loss not only of future American lives, but the lives of our allies who become targets by association.
Monica Duffy Toft is a professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Fletcher. This essay was adapted from one she published on The Conversation (theconversation.com).