Thinking Aloud: “Righting the Balance”

May 7, 2014 by Darius 

Does the diplomacy apparatus of the United States, specifically the State Department and USAID, meet the country’s needs in the modern world?  Yesterday, I saw former State Department official Daniel Serwer and author of the new book Righting the Balance argue that no, it does not.  

For starters, according to Serwer, the US military has played an outsize role in US foreign policy since “at least the French and Indian War” – in other words, since before the founding of the country.  US soldiers have been deployed in conflict zones for fully one quarter of the country’s history, not even counting wars against pirates and Native Americans, and have been deployed every year since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Serwer felt that today, the US has too much military and not enough civilian capabilities when it comes to foreign policy.

Additionally, Serwer felt the US needs to build its capabilities for nation-building.  He detailed how every president since Ronald Reagan swore that the US would never get involved in an open-ended nation-building project under his watch; yet in each administration, the US got into just such a situation.  And in each case, the US didn’t have the capability to do the job effectively – thus souring the idea for the future.  Instead, Serwer argued, the US should embrace its role as a nation-builder and develop the abilities to do it well.

Serwer also pointed out that it is much easier and cheaper to prevent a country from collapsing than to put it together afterwards.  He advocated the creation of a force of several thousand “foreign office” civilians able to be deployed overseas with or without US troops to build institutions and prevent state collapses.

Serwer also made the excellent points that (1) our foreign policy apparatus was developed during a period in which foreign policy meant state-to-state interactions, a situation that has been overtaken by global internet-mediated connectivity between individuals and by the prominence of non-state actors and (2) the intelligence services have taken on an oversized if opaque role in conducting foreign policy, even to the extent of having CIA-directed armies outside the purview of the Departments of State or Defense.

Serwer advocates abolishing the State Department and USAID in favor of a “foreign office” and a smaller, more nimble foreign service.  Beyond that, Serwer unfortunately didn’t seem to have hammered out, or didn’t share, the specifics of what he was advocating and didn’t address a whole host of complicating factors.  While it may well be true that the diplomacy apparatus we have is not the diplomacy apparatus we need, Serwer’s proposals are unlikely to be a template for change.

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