Whether the United States can follow other major powers in ending the dearth of diplomacy will depend heavily on the direction of domestic U.S. politics.
Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times, published an analytic piece the other day that should be disturbing food for thought, especially for professional diplomats but also for everyone else. While marking, along with President Joe Biden, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland, Baker observed that “such diplomatic breakthroughs have become a thing of the past.” In recent years, nations—and especially the United States—have appeared more likely to break treaties and international agreements than to sign new ones. Baker concludes that although it would go too far to talk about the death of diplomacy, “certainly there is a dearth of diplomacy for now.”
Baker uses formal agreements as a measure of diplomatic accomplishment, a gauge that may overstate the problem. The output of productive diplomacy goes well beyond such agreements to include communication and informal understandings that help to stabilize volatile situations, as well as the persuasion of foreign governments to act more in line with the interests of the country the diplomat represents. Nonetheless, Baker is on to something, and it is appropriate to consider what most accounts for the dearth.
The same three levels of analysis that political scientist Kenneth Waltz once used in a classic work about the causes of war can also be used to address a decline of diplomacy. One of those levels, the international system, figures prominently in Baker’s article, with references to “the revival of great power competition on the scale of the Cold War,” and what currently appears to be little appetite in Moscow or Beijing for compromise with the West. But recalling how the original Cold War featured highly significant international agreements, especially on arms control, most explanations at this level for a decline in diplomacy are not persuasive. There is at least as much need for peacefully negotiated agreements with one’s competitors and enemies as there is for agreements with one’s friends and allies.
As for any reluctance in Moscow or Beijing to compromise, if one could strip away the internal forces affecting policies in those two capitals and look solely at the geopolitical circumstances facing Russia and China today, there is little or no reason for those two regimes to turn away from diplomacy. The relevant needs to be served by diplomacy include, for Russia, a rescuing of its great power status in the face of economic and military decline, and for China, a full exploitation of its rising strength to secure a major role in the international system.
A second level of analysis—national political systems—provides more cogent explanations for the current dearth of diplomacy. The rise of anti-globalist populism provides much of the story here, and Baker correctly mentions the ascendance of that brand of populism during the administration of President Donald Trump as a big factor as far as the United States is concerned. In the current hyper-partisan U.S. political environment, Republicans attuned to their populist party base adhere to an anti-globalism that often takes the form of opposition to any agreement with an adversary that involves compromises, as all such agreements do. For Democratic presidents, the certain prospect of being assailed by the other party for making such compromises means the path of least political risk is to forgo major new international agreements.
Many significant international agreements, including the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland as well as the arms control treaties from the Cold War, are the product of months and often years of work. Such timelines include not only the negotiations that lead to the final agreement but also much earlier diplomacy that conveys shared interests, explores the boundaries of the bargaining space, and otherwise prepares the ground for signing on to a new agreement. U.S. politics that revolve around a four-year election cycle impede the sustained effort necessary for diplomatic success.
The peculiar American practice of tearing apart the upper echelons of the federal government with each change of administration has always been a problem in this regard—with domestic as well as foreign policy—but the effects have become more severe amid the intensified partisanship of the last three decades. Not only have cross-party senior appointments become much rarer than they once were, but also there is often reflexive rejection by one party of any initiative coming from leaders of the other party.
The third level of analysis—the individual leader—offers additional explanation for the absence of diplomatic agreements in situations where such agreement seems badly needed. The tragedy of the war in Ukraine, with no ceasefireagreement in sight, has much to do with the personal ambitions and now the personal political predicament of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has staked his regime on achieving not compromise but rather victory in Ukraine. In China, the consolidation of power in one man’s hands to a greater degree than at any time since the death of Mao Zedong has meant that Chinese foreign policy, including bully-like “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, is primarily the policy of that one man, Xi Jinping.
Trump’s proclivities are a major part of why in recent years the United States has torn up or reneged on more major international agreements than it has negotiated or signed. The line between this level of analysis and the previous one is somewhat blurry insofar as much of the Republican Party remains in thrallto Trump. But Trump put a more personalized stamp on U.S. foreign relations by posing as an ace negotiator without—as demonstrated perhaps most clearly by his handling of relations with North Korea—getting substantive results commensurate with the pose.
Powers other than the United States have the potential for rising out of the diplomatic dearth and are already demonstrating their ability to do so. This is true of China with its recent brokering of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, of Russia with its facilitation of restored relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, and both Russia and China regarding the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and potential expansion of the BRICS group. By comparison, U.S. diplomacy in recent years has not appeared as productive, apart from Finland joining NATO and other Western actions in response to the Russian war in Ukraine.
The dead hand of Trump continues to weigh heavily on U.S. diplomacy. In several important areas where U.S. leadership in the more distant past had led to fruitful international agreements, the Biden administration, apparently out of an abundance of domestic political caution, has not undone the Trump administration’s damaging retreat from diplomacy. It has not reversed most of Trump’s moves that made an Israeli-Palestinian peace an ever more remote possibility, such as the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It missed an early opportunity to reverse through executive order Trump’s reneging on the multilateral agreement that had closed all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon (a subject on which the Trump administration intentionally tied the political hands of its successor with the way it constructed a “sanctions wall” against Iran). And it has not undone Trump’s move away from the promotion of trade through international agreements.
Whether the United States can follow other major powers in ending the dearth of diplomacy will depend heavily on the direction of domestic U.S. politics. And it will depend on getting the American electorate to understand how the compromises that are inevitable in international agreements represent not just concessions to foreign states but also sometimes an essential part of advancing U.S. interests.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.