Diplomacy may be one of the world’s oldest professions, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. It’s mostly a quiet endeavor, less swaggering than unrelenting, oftentimes operating in back channels, out of sight and out of mind. U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for professional diplomacy and its practitioners—along with his penchant for improvisational flirtations with authoritarian leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—has put an unaccustomed spotlight on the profession. It has also underscored the significance of its renewal.
The neglect and distortion of American diplomacy is not a purely Trumpian invention. It has been an episodic feature of the United States’ approach to the world since the end of the Cold War. The Trump administration, however, has made the problem infinitely worse. There is never a good time for diplomatic malpractice, but the administration’s unilateral diplomatic disarmament is spectacularly mistimed, unfolding precisely at a moment when American diplomacy matters more than ever to American interests. The United States is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, and no longer able get everything it wants on its own, or by force alone.
Although the era of singular U.S. dominance on the world stage is over, the United States still has a better hand to play than any of its rivals. The country has a window of opportunity to lock in its role as the world’s pivotal power, the one best placed to shape a changing international landscape before others shape it first. If the United States is to seize that opportunity and safeguard its interests and values, it will have to rebuild American diplomacy and make it the tool of first resort, backed up by economic and military leverage and the power of example.
I remember clearly the moment I saw American diplomacy and power at their peak. It was the fall of 1991, and I—less than a decade into my career—was seated behind
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