Fast Forward: US Diplomacy in an Untethered World

When scanning the international scene today, it is tempting to see shadows of a dark past. Feudal powers annexing neighboring territories, maniacal cults perpetrating atrocities, pandemics threatening to wipe out entire societies—many of today’s top challenges have an eerie resemblance to upheavals of the medieval period. While there is indeed some validity to these parallels, they represent only a partial view of the extraordinarily complex realities unfolding in front of us. We face daunting challenges, to be sure, but we also face unprecedented opportunities for progress, as global poverty levels recede, access to education and medical care expand with the ranks of an international middle class, and technological advances put almost unlimited knowledge and influence into the hands of millions of individuals. Charting a way forward in the midst of this complexity—blunting threats to our security at home, seizing opportunities to advance our interests around the world, and working where possible to alleviate human suffering—is the task of American diplomacy. And if the world of tomorrow looks anything like what the trends of today suggest, effective diplomacy, and effective diplomats, will be more crucial to our national success than ever before.

None of us can predict the future, but all of us must heed the underlying trends now taking place. Broad analytical work on global trends, both inside the government and in the private sector, has shown significant consistency in tracking radical changes in the areas of technology, demography, governance, and statecraft, along with a near consensus view that the pace of those changes is accelerating. Given our previous track record in failing to anticipate dramatic change, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the rise of the Arab Spring, it is essential that we focus now on these trends and the potential paradigm shifts they represent. When contemplating the future of American diplomacy, three of these trends are particularly significant. 

First, most senior diplomats today cut their professional teeth in a world of fairly well established order. Throughout the Cold War period, the bipolar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union defined much of what happened around the world. States clamored (or were pressured) to join opposing military alliances and political structures, while most issues—including questions of economics, human rights, and social development—were largely defined through the lens of that political competition. The years of flux following the Cold War have dramatically changed that perspective. The “architecture,” both real and perceived, that once regulated international discourse is crumbling. Challenges to the authenticity of structures such as the United Nations Security Council and the Bretton Woods international monetary system were once unthinkable and are now commonplace. Military alliances like NATO and ANZUS used to conduct operations on an “all in” basis, and are now lucky to cobble together coalitions of the willing in the midst of very public squabbles. Without the procedural framework provided by this architecture and the organizing concepts that sustained it, our diplomats face a far more complex circumstance as they attempt to drive outcomes with and between states that increasingly see themselves as unmoored to anything larger than their own national interests.

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Accompanying the erosion of international architecture is a proliferation of influential players. Since the birth of the modern nation-state in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, various configurations of global and regional powers have emerged, but all were of a similar form—sovereign national states. Today we have both more states and more non-state actors, with each wielding considerable influence depending on the issue and the circumstance. In just a few short years, we have witnessed the rise of numerous regional powers (such as Brazil and Turkey) determined to extend their reach, along with the emergence of non-state actors using extraordinary wealth and influence both for philanthropic purposes (such as the Gates Foundation) and for destructive ones (global trafficking and terrorist networks). We are also experiencing a new and wholly unprecedented capacity of individuals to use social media to shape actions by millions of others, which in turn is shifting how many perceive authority and define allegiance. From the tweeted photo of a slain young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, focusing global attention on illegitimate Iranian elections, to the use of Facebook and Twitter to mobilize protests by the Uighur minority against Chinese oppression, social media is putting real power in the hands of average people. Along with the positive opportunities presented by our evolving technological landscape come rising threats that state and non-state actors will utilize these new ways of connecting to distort reality and mislead. This diffusion of power throughout the international scene—a greater number of more diverse players with distinct influence and starkly divergent objectives—has exponentially complicated the tasks of negotiating deals, averting conflict, forging compromise, and implementing sustainable solutions.

Finally, the nuclear armageddon feared during the Cold War has been replaced by a torrent of less cataclysmic but far more erratic threats to American security and global stability. Aptly described by the Economist as featuring “fewer dragons but many more snakes,” today’s security environment faces potential degradation on virtually every front. Cyber attacks, failed states, piracy, environmental collapse, and multinational networks of traffickers and terrorists have piled on top of the more “traditional” but still lethal challenges of ethnic conflict, clashes over resources, and competition for political and military dominance. And, much as we might wish otherwise, we will increasingly be forced to grapple with all of these threats simultaneously.


How we respond to these developments, how we seek to get in front of and shape the future direction of these trends, are some of the most critical questions confronting policymakers today. We face an incredibly complex calculation, with no quick fixes or easy answers. But there is one thread that weaves these many developments together, and that is the inescapable need for the United States to play the long game. In the world ahead there is no place to hide, no way to insulate ourselves and let problems burn elsewhere while we remain unscathed. We must take steps now to shape positive outcomes in the future. This will require an investment of both time and resources, as well as a sustained and broad-based diplomatic engagement around the world. This does not mean that we become the traffic cop or community organizer on every street corner of the globe. But it does mean that we explicitly make conflict prevention in strategic areas a priority, and then put resources behind our rhetoric. This will require a greater balance in both funding and focus between diplomacy and defense, which means a willingness to act early to expend what’s necessary to prevent conflict and thus to avoid the exponentially more expensive and more agonizing cost of war later. The fact that State Department funding—including foreign assistance—is about one percent of the national budget while Defense Department spending is more than 18 percent is a clear indicator that our current approach is unbalanced and shortsighted.

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote that “the supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” In the rush for quick solutions, far too many forget this lesson and make the mistake of assuming that use of military force is a solution rather than an instrument. We pay a very high price for that mistake, as we experienced so painfully in Somalia and Beirut in years past. More recently, in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria, significant public and political pressure to “do something,” defined as quick military action ranging from drone attacks to no-fly zones to boots on the ground, is very rarely accompanied by any clarity about how military action will lead to a sustainable solution. In the decades ahead, our interests will be better served with less initial reliance on military action and a far greater commitment to get in front of problems with non-military solutions wherever possible. The macabre brutality of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is excruciating proof of that point: their barbaric murders clearly demand swift and violent justice, but the long-term solution—the eradication of violent extremism and thus the prevention of future atrocities—will only be achieved when we get at the underlying ideological, social, political, and economic causes. Perhaps most fundamentally, we will have to grapple with the sense of spiritual and moral aggrievement that fuels the ranks of jihadi recruits.

There is yet another reason we need a more proactive and strategic diplomacy in the years ahead, and that is to seize opportunities for progress. It is easy to be daunted by the complexity and simultaneity of the problems we are likely to face, and we are right to focus on them. But, at the same time, we must also dedicate resources and strategic capacity to an agenda of advancement. While always defending against threats, we need to go on the offensive to help create conditions of greater stability, prosperity, and freedom. We must seek out and harness the potential created by dramatic new advances in medical, manufacturing, and agricultural technologies. We must also maximize the power of evolving capacities, such as the prospect of US energy independence facilitated by new extraction technologies. We need to build broad-based partnerships that go far beyond transactional exchanges of political favors for counterterrorism assistance and contributions of coalition troops. And, while it is true that the decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wearied the American public and engendered resentment in Muslim populations, there is still a reservoir of yearning around the world for America’s principled leadership as well as the benefits of our soft power. Our global image is not without blemish, but the magnetic pull of our entrepreneurial economy, our innovative culture, and our values-based democracy are still major assets that we need to leverage to our own and others’ advantage. 


World-class diplomacy requires world-class diplomats. The Department of State has some of the finest talent our country has to offer. But we must do much more to hone that talent with education and training, mentoring, and guidance, to ensure it is used with maximum effectiveness in the face of new realities. And we must constantly challenge ourselves to renew our approaches, both to training and to the execution of diplomacy, in light of changing circumstances. Given the trends identified here—new perspectives, new players, and more pitfalls—there are at least four key lines of diplomatic effort that will be crucial for future success. 

Wider coalitions. Government-to-government relations remain crucial, but they are just one part of the larger dynamic under way. We need to go far beyond the formal structures of government ministries and intergovernmental organizations to reach new partners, whether that is states outside of formal groupings or key members of civil society, youth groups, faith communities, and private businesses. In this increasingly networked world, where the lines of the networks are drawn not by hierarchical organizational charts but rather by personal motivation, social identity, and charismatic messengers, our challenge is to identify and actively engage with informal power centers and emerging authority figures. We must also recognize that our primary task is to identify common interests and then use those to catalyze action by others. We need to persuade and convince, drive action and shape outcomes, and must do so with far greater scope and finesse than ever before. And, as the players continue to multiply, we must also acknowledge that attempts to strong-arm solutions that ignore key actors or dismiss seemingly parochial interests will quickly founder. We are likely to find ourselves forced to deal with uncomfortable ironies, such as the election of Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as a timeline that extends far longer than our patience, recognizing that significant political reform in places like Russia will have to be preceded by generational change. 

Deeper expertise. One of the most crucial aspects of diplomacy is the ability to get inside other peoples’ heads, to know what they think, how they think, and why they do so. Our diplomats must be thoroughly fluent, not just in foreign languages but also in the issues that matter most to those we’re dealing with. Questions of social development such as education, literacy, and poverty; environmental degradation; post-conflict stabilization; women’s and minority empowerment; corruption, rule of law, and market-oriented policies that create the conditions for job creation—these are the issues driving the world, so we must be positioned to drive them. The “generalist” tradition of diplomacy, steeped in the arcana of international treaties and the tradecraft of formal demarches is increasingly insufficient. We must speak with real expertise, reflecting a deep understanding of regional and local circumstances, and do so in the local language with nuanced and sophisticated mastery. While international trade and travel along with broad access to instant information have brought people closer and made the world seem smaller than at any point in history, this same globalism has accentuated the importance of cultural and religious identity, regional and informal authority, and individual priority. Put another way, our diplomats must haggle with fluency and expert knowledge in each of the boutiques of the global bazaar. This type of advanced regional, substantive, and linguistic expertise is acquired not in weeks or months, but rather over years of sustained and focused effort. It entails a significant investment of individual effort as well as government resources. But the long-term dividends—grasping underlying trends and shaping them as, and often before, they unfold—will recoup the cost many times over. 

Strategic clarity. Much of the daily flow of diplomacy can be highly operational. Conducting meetings, arranging visits, building contacts, launching negotiations, overseeing programs—these are the practical “foundational” steps that consume a great deal of time and effort. With the United States prosecuting two wars over the past decade, the intensity of these operational demands has escalated dramatically, as our diplomats have staffed civilian positions in combat zones, ramped up engagement with the conflicting parties, and sought to negotiate and implement sustainable post-conflict arrangements throughout the region. These are all vitally important steps and work that must be done. But each and every task of that daily operational process must be carried out with a crystalline focus on the broader strategic objectives, some of which may only be achieved years in the future. Clarity about our geostrategic intent is the North Star for our diplomacy and the indispensable ingredient that ensures our short-term actions drive toward—and achieve—our long-term success. Of course, it is the president’s responsibility to set and steer our global strategy, and given our current domestic debate, with many calling for withdrawal from international engagement, this is more complicated than ever. And it makes it even more imperative that our diplomats avoid the mistake of focusing on short-term operational gains without full mastery of the long-term strategic context. With the multiplicity of threats coming at us, our margin of error is likely to grow significantly smaller. In every country and region of the world, each practical step of our diplomacy must build toward our broader policy objectives around the world, as we constantly weigh the effectiveness of our operational tactics in advancing our strategic goals.

Throughout the first century of American diplomacy, our diplomats would literally “set sail” for distant lands, and have only sporadic communication with Washington. The advent of air travel as well as the telegraph and telephone in the second century brought far greater interaction, both in exchanging information and transmitting instructions. It is highly likely that our technologically accelerated third century will witness yet another paradigm shift, as we face an imperative for immediate action, and the expectation of instantaneous response, in the midst of crisis and chaos. Our people on the ground will have to assess and react, often in just minutes, sometimes in seconds. They must reach past the “surface” story to synthesize what is happening behind the headlines and beyond the cameras, and do so in real time. When our embassy was set ablaze in Serbia in 2008, when opposition demonstrations began to tip the political balance in Ukraine last year, when a blind dissident sought refuge in our embassy in China in 2012, our diplomats had to make instant decisions and take action as the whole world watched. In this type of high-pressure environment, an individual’s capacity for critical analysis, intellectual agility, and strategic clarity is likely to be more important than any other factor.

Broader resilience and risk taking. Contemporary diplomacy is a grueling and frequently dangerous business. The hours are long, the stakes are high, and the stress is even higher. Some 30 of our diplomatic posts are now formally designated as “high threat,” an unprecedented number, while all of our overseas posts entail some form of serious risk, and most of them feature substantial hardships. To thrive in this kind of adversity, both physical and mental resilience are essential. Another essential quality is knowing when and how to take the right risks. Physical risk, policy risk, programmatic risk—we cannot shy away from any of them and expect to excel. Experimenting with new approaches and “pushing the envelope” for innovative solutions can sometimes result in costly failures, but the cost of not trying is even higher. For as the pace of change accelerates in the years ahead, we will likely have only two choices: adapt or fall behind.


Preparing for the future is fundamentally a game of hedging. America is one of the few countries in the world with a truly global perspective and presence, and thus we need to hedge against a range of contingencies that is exceptionally large and staggeringly complex. Fortunately, we have a number of crucial advantages, including our size, our strength, and our national spirit. And we have our people. The men and women who serve as America’s diplomats are patriots and public servants. They know that risk and sacrifice are integral to diplomacy, and they approach their work not as a job but as a calling to be pursued with passion and professionalism.

As we look ahead, we hold another, even more precious, asset in our hands, and that is the moral content of our policy. Throughout the history of our country, American diplomacy has always been based on our values, our judgment of right and wrong, and our sense of responsibility to act to make things better where possible. Of course, we have and will continue to fiercely debate how to translate those values into specific policies. This is not now nor has it ever been a straightforward calculation. There are always agonizing trade-offs and intense differences about how best to define and execute our role in the world. We also always have and always will continue to make mistakes, sometimes woeful ones. But when we do, we own up to them and then work to rectify the problem. These are the reasons why America continues to be seen by many around the globe as a beacon in a turbulent world. They also are why we continue to symbolize the most cherished ideals of individual dignity and personal freedom, of inclusive society and benevolent government, of liberty and democracy. These enduring principles, combined with a diplomacy that is sharper, stronger, and more ready to deal with the toughest challenges of uncertainty, will help us navigate into a future that is likely to arrive faster than we can even imagine. 

Nancy McEldowney is the director of the Foreign Service Institute, the training center for American diplomats and the US government foreign affairs community. The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Department of State or the United States government. 

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