Former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, William J Burns puts forward a strong argument that the partisan divide that is gripping US politics is having disastrous effects on American diplomacy.
He argues that Donald Trump is not the first American to lead a nation split along party lines and that polarisation has been a part of politics for a very long time. However something has changed under Trump and the President’s politics have left a large scar on America, and its foreign relations. Under Trump, the effect of polarised politics on American diplomacy is clear – it’s not just bad, it’s terrible.
The consequences of division at home are clearly visible, but for the first time, the world is seeing the effects of it abroad. Burns argues that In the past, a sense of common domestic purpose gave ballast to U.S. diplomacy; now its absence enfeebles it. American diplomacy is no longer the power it once was, leading to the rise of China and Russia as dangerous global competitors.
While debates are good for democracy, partisan divides can be dangerous. Such divisions lead to poor decision making, that not only cost lives but can also have economic impacts for decades to come. From Central America to the Iraq war, American diplomacy has often in the past taken a backseat to domestic political turmoils. Now with Trump, those turmoils are having a larger effect on the world order.
Trump Rips Apart the Playbook
The notion of pax Americana is not just being challenged but ripped apart under Trump. From the Iran nuclear deal (called “an embarrassment”) to the Paris Climate Accord (dubbed “very unfair”) and even the WHO (accused of mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic), Trump has been taking America out of the world. Burns argues that he has scrapped one agreement after another, with disruptive glee and no regard for Plan B.
Burns believes that Trump has had a willing collaborator in this, namely secretary of state Mike Pompeo. If Representative Mike Pompeo’s Benghazi hearings showed the power of weaponizing foreign policy for domestic purposes (where polarization is the end, not the means), Secretary of State Pompeo’s tenure has been marked by the weaponization of domestic politics on the world stage. The impeachment scandal—the distortion of Ukraine policy to pursue what Fiona Hill aptly termed “domestic political errands”—is not the only example, just the most dramatic.”
The argument is that without America’s presence, challenges around the globe are proving harder and harder to combat. From the Kurds in Syria to China’s intervention in Hong Kong, the global order is quickly falling apart with Trump’s scorched earth policy replacing traditional diplomacy. Trump may not see America as the world’s policeman, but unfortunately since World War 2, that is the role the US has traditionally occupied.
The Fall of American Diplomacy
William Burns was one of Washington’s most accomplished diplomats and he explained in his memoirs (The Back Channel) the importance of diplomacy for the US to maintain its standing in the world order. The world is a complex place, and Washington has neither the time nor the ability to master all the histories, motivations and ideologies around the globe. It is why local partnerships are of the essence, and these require compromise and negotiation. That’s where the skill of diplomacy comes in.
If the Cold War saw the rise of American diplomacy, the period after it saw a rapid decline. Writing for Foreign Policy, Jeremy Suri notes: “A unipolar post-Cold War hegemon, the United States possessed unmatched military and economic power, and its ideological righteousness seemed unassailable. Who needed difficult, slow diplomatic compromises when U.S. leaders could get what they wanted largely through pressure and force?”
Burns carefully documents this fall, which he attributes to the rising militarization of US foreign policy. From Bill Clinton’s NATO expansion into the soviet bloc to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, America marched in brandishing guns and dollars. Burns calls the Iraq war America’s “original sin”, saying it was “born of hubris, as well as failures of imagination and process.”
Under Trump, this fall has taken a new turn. Now it is no longer about brandishing dollars, but removing them from the equation entirely. The drawdown of troops in Germany and Afghanistan and exiting multinational agreements does little to strengthen America in the eyes of its allies.
The Fallout is Severe
The consequences of this are severe, not just for global security but American interests as well. The nation is quickly losing credibility in the eyes of the world. It matters in diplomacy, especially when America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial, in a world in which the U.S. can no longer get its way on its own, or by force alone. In 2018, Trump claimed, “the world is laughing at us”. Under his presidency, with American incapable of getting anything done, that statement has never been truer.
According to Burns “If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.? And why should they have any confidence that the American government will deliver on its commitments if they do?”
Before Trump, America’s foreign policy did not have a lot to do with domestic politics. There was a respect for the State Department, which domestic politics did not touch. It gave the Department not just credibility, but also the ability to get things done. Not so under Pompeo, whose politics have left the State Department in shambles. As Burns notes, Pompeo is “barely concealing his use of the department as a platform for future political ambition.”
All of this leads to the destruction of diplomatic capabilities. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign failed in Iran and North Korea, and with the rising threat of China and Russia, the current administration has severely undercut the potential of American diplomacy when it is needed the most. Multiple US allies are now distancing themselves from Washington, leading the US to become more isolated than ever before.
Depolarisation Comes with Challenges
As Burns notes, polarization in American politics has been around longer than in other nations. However, there is some good news – partisanship over foreign policy is limited to the political elite. Depolarising American politics and saving American democracy can be achieved if the focus is on the citizens, who ultimately decide domestic political agendas.
To that end, there is a growing consensus that Trump’s isolationist approach is failing. A 2019 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that “69% of Americans say it would be best for the future of the country to take an active part in world affairs.” That result is consistent among Democrats, Independents and Republicans. Especially in light of the coronavirus, America is being forced to reckon with its role in the global order, even for domestic purposes.
The scramble for PPE’s, masks, ventilators and other medical equipment are just a small part of America’s broken domestic system that needs to be fixed. From healthcare to infrastructure, America’s foreign policy will have to be more representative of its public’s concerns. Leaders will have to deliver results and reinvent a foreign policy more in line with a post-pandemic world. This cannot be achieved by staying out of the global conversation, but rather in. And now, with an unforgiving international landscape, there is far less margin for error.