by Mary Thompson-Jones
Within hours of being sworn in, President Joe Biden put the United States on track to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. A week later, he signed a new START Accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin, extending the nuclear missile nonproliferation treaty for another five years. These actions—along with many others—were important messages to a world that had grown accustomed to seeing America walk away from treaties.
Why would Biden prioritize the international community? Americans are far more concerned about the pandemic, the events of January 6, the faltering economy, and scores of pressing domestic issues. Clearly, the early attention was a chance to give substance to his inaugural promise that “we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
Biden underscored the change of focus in a speech to the State Department in which his now-familiar line, “diplomacy is back,” has become a rallying cry for a crowd eager to resume the day-to-day operations that underpin diplomacy. They can now proceed with the confidence that their work will be valued by the boss.
But the more interesting message is the one that the President and his national security team are sending to the rest of America. Biden unveiled his Interim National Strategic Guidance in early March with the admonition that “we must also demonstrate clearly to the American people that leading the world isn’t an investment we make to feel good about ourselves. It’s how we ensure the American people are able to live in peace, security, and prosperity. It’s in our undeniable self-interest.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first major speech promised foreign policies that “make your lives more secure, create opportunity for you and your families, and tackle the global crises that are increasingly shaping your futures.” And National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that “putting the middle class and working people at the center of our foreign policy isn’t just good from a strategic perspective, it’s just good common sense, and good, decent values as well.”
This is a defensive line of argument. The willingness to take on the burden of proof and desire to fall back on domestic justifications is a departure from past administrations. The fact that Biden feels it necessary is a commentary on how far diplomacy has fallen from the comprehension and esteem of Americans. Taking international relations to Main Street is not entirely new— for years, scores of foreign service officers on home leave have spoken at venues ranging from the Rotary Club to high school civics classes to connect the dots between their work overseas and the communities from which they hail. What is new is a Washington effort to do the same thing on a national scale. It’s fair to ask: Why is this message needed? How easy is it to make the case? And, will it work?
Why is the Message Needed?
The answer to the first question springs from the American people’s checkered relationship with diplomacy. An ingrained tendency to pivot from isolationism to internationalism runs parallel to a disdain for diplomatic practitioners. In the last century, we saw that disdain in our reluctance to enter two world wars and in the McCarthy-era witch hunts at the Department of State, which ruined the careers of many innocent officers. The storied attributes of great diplomats—foreign language skills, a deep knowledge of foreign cultures, a willingness to listen, and an eye for compromise—are sometimes seen by domestic audiences as the trappings of an effete, out-of-touch profession. While New Yorker cartoons show tuxedo-clad diplomats exchanging bon mots with the foreign minister, the reality is more likely to find them riding Humvees rather than limos.
Those cartoons come at a price. In both Republican and Democratic administrations, a skeptical Congress found diplomacy an easy target for budget cuts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who frequently pleaded for more funding for his State colleagues, famously said development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers. One of his successors, James Mattis, made substantially the same point, telling Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Despite plain-spoken appeals from these and other colleagues, the State Department found itself increasingly disparaged. By the Trump era, it reported to a president that openly scoffed at it and a public all too willing to agree. Diplomacy needs rescuing, and the good news is that Biden officials should have no trouble finding examples of how it has benefitted Americans.
Making the Case
—Diplomacy Makes America Safer
Americans are quick to see the military as the key to national security, but as Gates and Mattis argued, it is diplomacy that has, time and time again, prevented us from having to use our military. When we engage diplomatically we are reminding our interlocutors that we are part of a rules-based order—much of which we created after World War II. We built a global society which encouraged peaceful resolution of conflict. We’ve encouraged the world to focus on human rights, championed the cause of women and minorities, and expounded on the virtues of good governance. Where we’ve succeeded there has been progress, social change, and an absence of violent extremism. In turn, that helps Americans live in a safer world.
Biden has spoken of renewing old alliances, and NATO is a prime example of an alliance built on the bedrock of diplomacy. The enlargement of NATO that followed the 1989 fall of communism was a diplomatic, rather than military, initiative. Alliances and partnerships extend the zone of peace and security far more effectively than we could do unilaterally, further benefitting ordinary Americans.
Force does not answer to many of today’s threats, least of all the pandemic. It cannot protect us from climate change, pollution, and famine. As one country among many we cannot face down these challenges, but our participation in multilateral organizations allows our representatives to ensure American interests and solutions are heard and understood.
True diplomacy means moving away from theatrical high-wire summits that often lead nowhere. Instead, it’s based on scores of mid-level diplomats going about their work assiduously—with clear direction from the top. They manage the relationships set in motion to resolve problems and improve lives. Diplomacy is a process in which breakthroughs are rare and setbacks are common.
—Diplomacy Makes Americans Better Off
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made this link explicit, saying foreign policy decisions should be judged by a basic question—“will this make life better, easier, safer for families across this country?”
Economic statecraft seeks out win-win trade opportunities that encourage foreign investment. Diplomacy often means bringing the right people together, then standing back and letting them get to work. It also means speaking up. Diplomats promote American products in overseas markets; ensure foreign government tenders allow American companies to compete on a level playing field; and protest unfair tariffs on American-made products. When American products compete and win, it means more jobs back home.
—Diplomacy Makes Americans Healthier
The pandemic has brought home bitter lessons about the global nature of disease, reminding us that we live in a world in which “a tourist carrying home a virus can be as dangerous as a terrorist planting a pathogen.” Regional and global health organizations provide platforms for quick exchanges of information, establish networks of qualified scientists and health workers, and allow faster responses to new outbreaks. America’s long-term presence in these organizations has led to its corresponding influence. It takes years to establish public health partnerships with other countries. In the words of one international health official, “You can’t just show up in Afghanistan and start vaccinating people.”
—Diplomacy Helps Americans Abroad
Americans are a global people. In 2019 more than 45 million Americans traveled abroad – another 10 million live and work overseas. Americans work in NGOs, church groups, charitable organizations, civil society, and media outlets. They have sought-after skills as contractors and advisers, and many play leadership roles in multinational corporations.
American diplomats care for their own. They help overseas Americans register to vote, file their taxes, register their new babies. When disaster strikes, embassies are first responders, helping Americans injured in plane crashes, hotel fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Consular sections help Americans who lose passports, who are robbed, or fall ill abroad. And in the early stages of the pandemic, as countries closed borders and airports, they helped thousands of American citizens return home. The visa to your next vacation spot is there thanks to diplomatic negotiations, which make it possible for you to enter for tourism, business, or study, just as foreign nationals enter the United States.
Diplomats improve lives by administering programs that bring Fulbright Scholars to the United States for higher education, but which also send American scholars overseas to research at foreign universities. Diplomats select participants for the International Visitors Leadership Program, which brings scores of professional people across the globe to meet with their U.S. colleagues, an important professional exchange that benefits Americans. Diplomats also see to the soft power success of people-to-people diplomacy such as performing arts exchanges.
At Home and Abroad: Will the Argument Work?
We should expect to see more domestic justification for foreign engagement in the coming months, at least until the Biden administration can measure the resonance of its message. It’s fair to wonder in our hyper-polarized political world if it will it sway the non-believers? Or will it merely hearten those who already appreciate diplomacy’s value? Those who still doubt Biden’s legitimacy are unlikely to be persuaded by arguments of enlightened self-interest. Conversely, many Biden supporters were already longing for a return to diplomacy and international engagement – there is no need to re-legitimize it as the answer to domestic problems.
A second concern involves cultural change within the administration and the millions of career workers who support it. Speeches aside, does the Biden administration have a means of internalizing its new approach? Will this be just another directive from above in which policy papers and Congressional testimony must check the box, or will it be part of a new deliberative process at the policymaking level – at the National Security Council, State Department, and the Pentagon?
The third question is how this thinking will play overseas. Most career diplomats have been far more concerned about making the case to skeptical foreign audiences. Secretary Gates minced no words in describing our ham-handed abilities. “We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals.” Gates also understood the long game. Convincing people will not be the result of “some slick PR campaign, but through the steady accumulation of actions and results that built trust and credibility over time.”
Some of America’s allies, perhaps best exemplified by politicians like Germany’s Angela Merkel, are eager to re-engage with no questions asked. What Biden says to his domestic audience is of secondary concern. But the old guard might not be the right audience. The passing of the post-1989 generation of political leaders, along with new and disturbing trends on a global scale, show many countries dealing with the same kind of extremism, ethnic violence, and authoritarianism that we see in the U.S. Should these countries become as insular and self-occupied as the United States was in Trump’s era, Biden’s domestic rationale for foreign policy will not matter.
Diplomacy can do a lot for Americans, but Biden’s “diplomacy is back,” refrain may set him up for failure. There is an unassailable logic in winning domestic support for diplomacy, but it is simplistic and naïve to base foreign policies on whether they will work well for middle class Americans. In fact, much of America’s diplomatic business may not align well. There will be frustrating compromises and prolonged negotiations leading to inevitable disillusionment. It is disingenuous to encourage a belief that we can always win for Main Street.
Now that the big message is out, Biden’s team should nuance the follow-up and lower public expectations to allow for imperfect outcomes. Like diplomacy itself, educating Americans about it will be a long-term process.
Mary Thompson-Jones is a retired foreign service officer and author of To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect. She is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The views in this essay are not necessarily those of the U.S. government.
 (The White House, Renewing America’s Advantages: Interim National Security Guidance, Washington, D.C. 2021.)
 (Blinken, Antony. “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” Washington, D.C. March 3, 2021.)
 (Psaki, Jen. “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan,” The White House, February 4, 2021.)
 (Lemothe, Dan. “Retired generals cite past comments from Mattis while opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts.” Washington Post, February 27, 2017.)
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 (Gates, Robert M. “Landon Lecture,” Kansas State Univrsity, Nov. 26, 2007.)