American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
The need for U.S. leadership has never been clearer. A once-in-a-century pandemic, an accelerating climate crisis, widening economic inequality, and rising authoritarianism all demand urgent multilateral cooperation. Yet under President Donald Trump, the United States is missing in action and its infrastructure of diplomacy is crumbling.
Trump has not only abdicated the United States’ global leadership role but waged war on his own State Department. His administration has repeatedly proposed draconian budget cuts to diplomacy and development assistance, attacked career diplomats and civil servants, and pushed many of the most experienced officials out the door. As a result, the State Department is increasingly run by unqualified donors and political sycophants.
Replacing the expertise and experience of retired career diplomats is hard enough in the best of times. But after four years of the Trump administration, the situation is particularly dire. The barrage of attacks from the president and his appointees has torpedoed morale and thinned the ranks of seasoned foreign policy professionals. Applications to join the U.S. Foreign Service have plummeted since Trump took office, starving the State Department of new talent.
If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the upcoming presidential election, he will need to restore U.S. global leadership and mobilize the world to take on shared challenges—from COVID-19 and climate change to rising authoritarianism and nuclear proliferation. Doing so will require rebuilding the United States’ infrastructure of diplomacy. Congress should start by writing a new Foreign Service Act that reimagines diplomacy for this new era of shared global challenges. In the same way that the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 modernized the U.S. military for the post-Vietnam era, a new Foreign Service Act should equip the State Department with the right people, capabilities, and organizational structure to advance U.S. values and interests in the twenty-first century. Such an ambitious undertaking will be bigger than any one president and require a long-term commitment from both Congress and the American people. If Biden wins, his administration and Congress will have a historic opening to begin this urgently needed diplomatic revival.
The demotion of diplomacy did not begin under the Trump administration. U.S. foreign policy has become militarized over generations, resulting in a Defense Department budget that is 30 times the size of the State Department’s. As Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has noted, the United States employs more military grocery store workers than it does Foreign Service officers. This lopsided budgeting not only reflects U.S. priorities but increases the likelihood that military action will be a first response rather than a last resort. The United States has been at war since 2001: thousands of American soldiers and innocent civilians have been killed, and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent, but stability and security remain elusive.
Under Trump, the United States is missing in action and its infrastructure of diplomacy is crumbling.
The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has painfully exposed the shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy. More than 225,000 Americans have lost their lives to a disease that has brought the U.S. economy to a standstill. The strongest military on the planet could not protect Americans from the virus. But proactive diplomacy—prudent investments in early warning systems and deeper engagement with international partners, for instance—could have better contained the outbreak and prevented many deaths. The administration of President Barack Obama created a virus-hunting program called PREDICT that tracked emerging diseases in countries around the world. But the Trump administration allowed the program to expire just weeks before the first cases of COVID-19 were documented in China. The United States had also trained thousands of scientists to strengthen safety standards at laboratories around the world—programs Trump curtailed or threatened to eliminate. COVID-19 is emblematic of twenty-first-century challenges—including climate change, transnational corruption, rising authoritarianism, and nuclear proliferation—that cannot be addressed by military might alone. Diplomacy should be the primary instrument of American power because it is the most effective tool for advancing American values and interests.
U.S. diplomats are some of the country’s best public servants, but the State Department, as the oldest executive agency, needs renewal. Congress must invest in making the State Department a model workplace, cultivating diversity, deepening expertise on crucial issues, and making sure that career diplomats are not sidelined. After the calamity of the Trump presidency, the next administration cannot merely restore U.S. diplomacy to the way it was before. It must build the United States’ infrastructure of diplomacy back better.
This mission must start with rebuilding the U.S. State Department and reinvesting in the country’s diplomatic corps. The United States needs more diplomats, in both the Foreign Service and the civil service, as well as more capacious diplomacy. From policy evaluation and regional expertise to climate science and modern communication, the art of diplomacy is changing, and the United States has to keep up. The country needs new expertise, particularly in global health, economics, and emerging technologies. The Defense Department has stayed nimble by offering continuous professional development: it operates a network of colleges and universities and generously funds the training and graduate education of military officers. By contrast, the State Department offers few such opportunities and forces diplomats to shoulder much broader-ranging responsibilities than their military counterparts.
To address this overextension, the State Department must invest in professional development. Doing so will entail expanding the diplomatic corps, so that as much as 15 percent of it can be made available to pursue training opportunities, and Congress should work with the next administration to make the funds available for such hiring. Moreover, Congress should invest in programs that allow diplomats to spend time working in other federal agencies to improve interagency coordination; in state and local governments to inform efforts to combat corruption and improve governance abroad; and in graduate schools to build specialized expertise in areas such as financial transparency and climate science.
Congress can encourage diplomats to pursue such training experiences by weighting them more heavily in the federal laws governing promotion in the Foreign Service. Congress should also establish a center for professional education in diplomacy. The Defense Department currently operates the National Defense University, Army War College, and Naval War College. The intelligence community operates the National Intelligence University. The State Department deserves its own well-resourced, degree-granting institution that can train not just U.S. diplomats but military and intelligence officers and officials from foreign governments.
To ensure that its investments in diplomacy deliver the greatest return, the next administration must modernize the State Department. The structure of the Foreign Service—established by laws written in 1924, 1946, and 1980—erects significant barriers to success for diplomats and their families. For example, spouses of diplomats have few opportunities to advance their careers when posted abroad; couples in same-sex marriages often cannot live together while serving in countries where the government does not recognize their marriage; diplomats with disabilities, and those who have children with disabilities, struggle to succeed at the State Department; and women and people of color face significant obstacles to being promoted and valued in the department. Now is the moment for systemic change.
As the chair of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I have worked to address each of these concerns. I have pressed the State Department to take action, held hearings, and—alongside Democratic Representatives Dina Titus, Jackie Speier, and the committee’s chair, Eliot Engel—written legislation that would strengthen protections for diplomats with disabilities and overhaul the State Department’s procedures for handling sexual harassment and discrimination. These are all issues that the State Department must improve on and that I will continue to advance in Congress.
I am particularly insistent on the need to correct the appalling lack of diversity in the U.S. diplomatic corps, especially among the senior leadership. In this moment of national reckoning with racial injustice and police brutality, the United States has an obligation to ensure that its institutions reflect its values. Put simply, the people who represent the United States to the world should reflect the diversity of the American people. Currently, less than a quarter of diplomats are people of color. Turnover at the State Department for people of color is higher today than it was a decade ago, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office. And the reason for that is clear: racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to be promoted than white peers with similar education and experience. The result is that fewer young diplomats from diverse backgrounds rise through the ranks to become career ambassadors. Today, less than four percent of career ambassadors serving overseas are Black or Latino.
The people who represent the United States to the world should reflect the diversity of the American people.
To strengthen advocacy for diversity at a senior level, the department should elevate the position of chief diversity officer so that it reports directly to the deputy secretary of state, who should also be responsible for improving diversity at the department. Currently, the CDO is also the head of the Office of Civil Rights and responsible for enforcing civil rights laws, not advocating for internal structural changes. An elevated CDO would be responsible for holding the entire State Department accountable for diversity and racial inclusion. This year, the State Department expanded the Charles Rangel and Thomas R. Pickering Fellowships, two programs that seek to recruit racial and ethnic minorities. These initiatives are important, but addressing the issue of recruitment is not sufficient. The department’s lack of diversity primarily reflects shortcomings in retention and promotion, not recruitment. For this reason, diversity should be added to the criteria for promotion if the department is serious about creating a more inclusive culture.
Like any large organization, the State Department is tough to navigate for even the most experienced diplomats, and it is all the more so for new public servants surrounded by people who don’t look like them and who have not invested in their success. The State Department needs to nurture these new employees by helping to craft satisfying career paths that offer opportunities for advancement. A real mentorship program could help in this regard by ensuring that new officers in the Foreign Service and civil service have the opportunity to learn from those at the middle and senior levels.
Improving diversity doesn’t just better reflect the country—it advances American interests around the world. No other nation is founded on the ideal that all people are created equal and that anyone, from any background, can be an American. The United States is a nation of immigrants—of doers and dreamers from around the world. That diversity is a real advantage over adversaries who can only wish that they had such a deep moral and personal connection with people in faraway lands. But for that advantage to last, the United States must do a better job of living up to its values by addressing the inequality and injustice that Americans of color face daily.
Rebuilding the United States’ infrastructure of diplomacy will not be easy, but it is necessary. From COVID-19 to climate change, the biggest problems of this century can be solved only by working together with other nations. No one administration can fully revamp U.S. diplomatic capabilities after the carnage of the Trump years. Such an effort will require a long-term commitment from Congress, crafting legislation such as a new Foreign Service Act and funding investments in a modernized State Department. But after the chaos, incompetence, and corruption of the Trump administration, the next administration and the next Congress will hopefully have the opportunity to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy and mobilize the world to overcome shared challenges for a better future. I am committed to this hard work ahead.
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