December 21, 2018

Tanks, Weapons and Drones vs Diplomacy: Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

What is foreign policy like in the 21st century?

This is a tough question for foreign-policy makers, academics, researchers and students of international relations. Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace and Ben Rhodes’s The World as It Is explore this subject. Both authors struggle with the question of when in the past 20 years diplomacy and cooperation disappeared from US foreign policy.

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. 432 pp.

The decline of diplomacy in US foreign policy is the central premise of Farrow’s book. Diplomacy (negotiations, the conclusion of agreements, the art of developing civil cooperation) and the instruments that facilitate diplomacy (international organisations, foreign ministries, diplomatic work) have virtually disappeared from US foreign policy and their place has been occupied by military alliances and the bilateral cooperation of security and intelligence organisations. The use of force and the military are not means for realising diplomacy, but have turned into a universal solution for nearly all the world’s problems. Tactical foreign policy has been taken over by a strategy according to which the US counts the battles it has won, not the wars in which it triumphed.

To support this claim, Farrow dedicates a large part of his book to relations between the US and Pakistan. The saying “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” excellently describes a relationship that has nowadays become absurd. The Pakistani government supports terrorist organisations, offers them a safe operating location and allows their free movement. At the same time, it provides the US with much-needed military information and intelligence. In public, the US calls Pakistan an ally, but behind closed doors the relationship is a headache for American officials. Farrow asks whether the information to be used in the war against terror is fair and useful for the US in the long term. What is the purpose and strategy of the US-Pakistan relationship? Why are intelligence and military organisations dictating and managing US-Pakistan relations when the matter should be in the hands of the foreign ministry? Who controls the use of US economic aid to Pakistan?

Ronan Farrow’s claim is largely based on his experience working for Richard Holbrooke in the State Department. Holbrooke is considered a champion of modern diplomacy: he headed the negotiations that led to the conclusion of the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and was the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2008 to 2010, the final years of his career. Farrow writes that Holbrooke constantly had to fight generals and the Pentagon to develop US relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, Farrow doesn’t fail to mention Holbrooke’s complex and colourful character. He uses Holbrooke as an example of how diplomacy and the related skillset are no longer valued and how foreign policy has been overtaken by drones, hummers, spies and guns.

The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House. Ben Rhodes. The Bodley Head, 2018. 480 pp.

Ben Rhodes’s memoir The World as It Is describes eight years in the Obama White House, where he worked initially as a speechwriter and later as deputy national security advisor focusing on strategic communication. In addition to having a long job title, Ben Rhodes headed the negotiations with Cuba and participated in the talks on the nuclear deal with Iran. Having read the book, I can say that Rhodes’s role in shaping and realising president Obama’s foreign policy is more extensive and deeper than any title can tell.

The New York Times book reviewer Joe Klein describes Rhodes’s memoir as a “coming-of-age” story.1 Rhodes, who as a New Yorker was affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror, comes to the conclusion that the US use of force in the world has become a problem rather than a solution. He agrees with Farrow that US foreign policy has become militarised. Rhodes criticises the shared mindset of the government and think-tanks in Washington, in which e solution to every global problem involves a tank or fighter aircraft. He thinks the leading role and influence of the US cannot be only about force, but should involve kindness. President Obama found Rhodes to be a leading spirit who helped him to put this viewpoint into practice.

This thick book is about this very same subject—how president Obama’s administration tried to preserve the leading global role of the US through multilateral cooperation, diplomacy and values-based foreign policy. For each president, foreign policy is a strange combination of managing inherited conditions, responding to new crises and the chance to find opportunities to start new initiatives that leave some trace in the world. Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo prison, a global economic system that was on the verge of crisis and the rise of China were the foreign-policy challenges president Obama inherited when he assumed office. The Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict, increasing Russian aggression and information warfare, and ISIL were new crises. New initiatives included the Paris Agreement on climate change, launching a dialogue with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal and fostering closer relations with Asia. These and several other challenges put the US global role based on Obama’s and Rhodes’s values, institutions and diplomacy to the test in every way, especially in a deeply divided Washington.

Rhodes and Farrow deal with the same problem but look at it from different perspectives. One worked at the State Department and is a journalist, the other was an official in the White House. Rhodes is a strategist and innovator, Farrow a practitioner and critic. Both see that in practice foreign policy is drifting further away from diplomacy and is increasingly more about involving military and intelligence organisations. Increasing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuing conflict in Syria and Yemen show that military solutions aren’t interchangeable with political ones and swapping diplomacy for military action leads, rather, to greater instability. Can this trend be reversed and, if so, how? How is the growing militarisation of foreign policy affecting international relations? What is foreign policy in the 21st century and how is it conducted? These questions need answers—and Ben Rhodes’s and Ronan Farrow’s books are a great start.




This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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