Not so smart power

Why America needs to learn lessons from its post-9/11 diplomatic efforts

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov unveil the new plan Friday.
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after talks toward a ceasefire in Syria, 2016. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini, AFP

In the months and years to come, the U.S. military will almost certainly – and deservedly – be subjected to severe scrutiny over its failures in Afghanistan. Lacking faith in the Pentagon’s ability to learn from its own mistakes, for instance, the now-retired officers who led the Army’s own internal post-mortem on the war in Iraq have called for an independent civilian commission to provide a “brutally honest assessment” of the U.S. military’s performance in Afghanistan over the past two decades.  These proposals are all to the good and ought to be welcomed, whatever form they happen to take.

At the same time, however, the United States ought to take a long, hard look at its diplomatic performance over the past twenty years – especially if, as President Biden and others assert, we’re going “lead with diplomacy” from now on. Diplomacy isn’t a magic wand, and America’s diplomatic track record in recent decades is mixed at best. A strategic review of the U.S. diplomatic efforts can help assess our performance and point the way toward changes necessary to make American diplomacy more effective moving forward than it has been over the last two decades.

American diplomacy has notched some significant successes over the last twenty years, including the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, the Paris climate accords of 2015, and the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in late 2020.  Other, less dramatic diplomatic achievements of the past two decades include engaging NATO as a military partner in Afghanistan from the mid-2000s on, assembling the international coalition to fight the Islamic State in the mid-2010s, and a cyber-espionage agreement between President Obama and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping in 2015.

But even these successes show the practical limits of diplomacy. Both bringing NATO into Afghanistan and pulling together the anti-Islamic State coalition were diplomatic efforts in support of larger military conflicts. In both cases, military operations and hard security concerns dominated and overshadowed the diplomacy involved. 

What’s more, sometimes diplomacy achieves only short-term gains because of shifts in the world or political changes at home.  President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate agreement on his own accord, while the cyber-espionage agreement with China fell apart in 2018 amidst a wider deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington. Though President Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord shortly after taking office, negotiations with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal appear in jeopardy despite some initial progress. It also seems unlikely that Biden would be able to revive the 2015 cyber-espionage deal with Beijing even if he so desired.

These qualified successes must be set against some large diplomatic failures – particularly when it comes to ending wars and resolving ongoing conflicts. The Trump administration’s badly negotiated withdrawal deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan easily stands out as the worst American diplomatic failure of the past twenty years, if not one of the worst diplomatic debacles in American history. But American diplomats could never find a way to end or even significantly curtail Pakistan’s material support for the Taliban and other extremist groups. Blandishments of aid – including some $12.7 billion in non-military assistance since 2001, more than any country outside Afghanistan, Iraq, and Jordan over the last two decades – and promises of partnership failed to change Islamabad’s strategic calculus.

Likewise, American diplomacy failed dramatically in Syria. President Obama’s 2013 deal with Moscow to remove much of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile was a pyrrhic diplomatic victory, one that solved an immediate problem without addressing Syria’s wider civil war. American diplomats (including Secretary of State John Kerry) repeated the mantra that there was “no military solution” to the conflict, despite the obvious pursuit of such a solution by the Assad regime and its international partners. Ceasefire deals brokered by both the Obama and Trump State Departments consistently faltered and fell apart.

Then there’s Yemen, which has defied repeated American diplomatic attempts to end the fighting between a Saudi-led military coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthi movement (among many others). In late 2016, for instance, Secretary of State Kerry made strenuous efforts to negotiate a ceasefire that ultimately failed to take hold. President Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, has similarly hit diplomatic walls in his attempt to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

In all three conflicts, there’s been an almost willful blindness about the military conditions on the ground that weaken the hands of America’s diplomats. It’s next to impossible to achieve diplomatic success when one party thinks they can gain the upper hand through military action.

The crisis of efficacy in American diplomacy isn’t confined to the Middle East and South Asia, however. Neither American nor European diplomats appear to have had much success persuading Russia to end its aggression against Ukraine, for instance. The Bush and Obama administrations made deals with North Korea to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear program that never stuck, while President Trump’s summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un yielded nothing beyond photo opportunities. 

On balance, though, American diplomacy over the past two decades has been something of a muddle. It’s neither made enormous advances nor committed major blunders, President Trump’s Afghanistan withdrawal deal aside. Noteworthy successes like the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate agreement have been offset by failures to adequately address conflicts around the world.

Still, there are a number of lessons we can take away from this brief history of American diplomacy over the past two decades.

Firstwe need to temper our expectations about what diplomacy can realistically achieve. Too often, proponents of diplomacy-first approaches to foreign policy make it sound like a panacea, a cure-all for all of America’s foreign policy ills. They underestimate the practical difficulties involved in diplomacy and overstate what it can accomplish – particularly when it comes to resolving wars and conflicts. Even in other areas of foreign policy, it can be harder to forge international consensus than we might think. Witness the difficulties the Biden administration has faced in its attempt to coax a reluctant Europe into taking a harder line on China. 

Second, we hamstring our own diplomacy when we ignore or downplay events on the battlefield and insist there’s no military solution to a conflict. Aside from being plainly false – as demonstrated by recent events in Afghanistan – the “no military solutions” shibboleth reflects a desire to excise military and security considerations from our foreign policy calculus to the greatest extent possible. That’s perfectly understandable after two decades at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but viewing diplomacy and military force as incompatible and irreconcilable in principle leads to inaccurate understandings of conflicts and ineffective attempts to end them. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking appears to have no illusions on this score, however, arguing in August that a failed Houthi offensive in Marib could lead to a return to the negotiating table.

Third, diplomacy can backfire. In Yemen, for instance, the much-heralded Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 averted an Emirati-led ground offensive on the crucial port of Hodeidah – but it allowed the Houthis to regroup and mount an offensive of their own against Marib. In this particular case, well-intentioned diplomacy managed to exacerbate and lengthen a conflict rather than de-escalate or resolve it. Similarly, autocratic regimes and parties to civil wars can use humanitarian aid to bolster their own grip on power or position in a conflict. It’s happened with the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, and the Biden administration should do its utmost to prevent the Taliban from doing the same in Afghanistan moving forward. 

This brief look back doesn’t provide a comprehensive overview of American diplomacy over the last two decades. However, it does tell us that American diplomats have generally avoided major fiascos and scored some important successes – but also that American diplomacy has proven largely ineffective at resolving or de-escalating a wide range of conflicts around the world.

It’s one thing to talk about putting diplomacy first in America’s foreign policy, but it’s quite another to make it effective.