The Trajectory of American Statecraft and Kids These Days

Has the U.S. government lost its statecraft mojo?

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School

Philip Zelikow has served in multiple U.S. administrations and chaired multiple high-profile bipartisan commissions. He has written some important articles about the U.S. foreign policy machinery. He also earned a MALD and Ph.D. from the Fletcher School. As a Fletcher professor I believe university bylaws require me to take every word he writes extremely seriously. 

So I read with interest his latest for the January/February 2024 issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Atrophy of American Statecraft.” In it, he argues that as the world grows increasingly complex, the federal government has grown increasingly less agile in its statecraft: 

The United States does not have the breadth and depth of competence—capabilities and know-how—in its contemporary government. The problem has existed for decades, as has been depressingly evident from time to time. What is new is the context. The current period of crisis challenges the United States and the other countries of the free world more than anything has in at least 60 years. They will have to cultivate new qualities of practical leadership….

Most of what the U.S. government does is distribute money and set rules. Relatively few parts of it mount policy operations, especially diplomatic ones. Doing so requires complex teamwork. Officials must master international choreographies, intricacies of law and practice, and a bewildering variety of instruments, cultures, and institutions spanning societies. The ability to do all that is a fading art in the United States and the rest of the free world. As it fades, handwringing and platitudes take its place….

What is different this time, compared with those past eras of confrontation, is that the American public has not absorbed the gravity of the dangers, and the country’s industrial base is much narrower and less agile. The United States relies too much on ill-focused military insurance policies and has not adequately prepared plausible operational strategies short of direct warfare.

That sounds pretty depressing! It also sounds… not entirely accurate?

I am quite sympathetic to Zelikow’s argument that “the world has entered a period of high crisis” at the same time that the world’s problems have grown more transnational and complex.1 This is happening at the same time that perceived U.S. influence is on the wane. And I am not unsympathetic to Zelikow’s proposition that the U.S. foreign policy has been excessively militarized. 

But it is quite easy to point to examples of U.S. diplomats and policymakers exercising the kind of quiet adroitness that Zelikow believes has disappeared. Check out this long Reuters story about how the United States has cemented its ties with the Philippines as tensions mount with China. Or this Washington Post story about how the United States helped to avert a coup in Guatemala (though landing that plane has continued to be rocky). 

Furthermore, Zelikow’s essay elides an important source of dysfunctional statecraft: U.S. domestic politics. Slate’s Fred Kaplan gets at this in his assessment of Zelikow’s argument: 

Back in Zelikow’s golden age, America’s two major parties were run from the top down. The party leaders selected and funded candidates. (Not until the 1970s did popular primaries bind a majority of delegates at presidential conventions.) As a result, presidents had considerable leverage over their parties’ lawmakers. In the past few decades, parties have lost much of their power to political action committees and populist insurgents. President Joe Biden—who has a keener grasp of congressional politics than any occupant of the White House since Lyndon B. Johnson—is having a hard time passing a $60 billion aid package to Ukraine, which a majority of Americans and legislators favor (yes, it’s a dwindling majority but a majority nonetheless) because his Republican opponents are tying the aid to the passage of a Senate bill shuttering the U.S.–Mexico border so tightly that, when the bill came before the House last spring, not a single Democrat voted aye. (It passed with unanimous Republican support, but with the understanding that the Senate would vote it down.)

In other words, the United States is having a hard time getting its way in the world, or effectively managing global challenges, not because our officials lack skill at practical problem-solving but because the problems are so damn hard to solve. The United States enjoys less influence because the world is less susceptible to any single nation’s influence—and because, even when a president figures out how to deal with a problem, Congress can all too easily block his way.

In fact, when it comes to the sheer ability—the “know-how,” as Zelikow puts it—to solve problems, American officials are in many ways more adept, and have more efficient tools, than their predecessors. With the expanding bureaucracies have come more specialists, including technical specialists (economists, environmental experts, medical teams), who have in fact dealt with the complexities of trade, energy, climate change, and pandemics much more skillfully than anyone could have half a century ago. Whether their efforts have impact often depends on domestic and international politics—and there, we’re back to the structural transformations of the post–Cold War era.

The more I read Zelikow’s essay, the more convinced I became that something else might be going on. And then I got to these paragraphs: 

As the mountains of superpower confrontation crumbled with the end of the Cold War, the remaining foothills began to seem like mountains. NATO and Croatia’s victory over little Serbia in 1995 fed years of hubris. That sensibility, mixed with the great fear after 9/11, ushered in the United States’ years of nemesis. Chastened, the American public’s already slender interest in foreign engagement thinned. The protectionist current became a flood. In the scholarly world, the fashion was to critique the United States’ hunger for empire, its endemic racism, its endless militarism, and its voracious capitalism. The implied corollary was that if the U.S. government was such a malign force in the world, then everyone would be better off if it stayed home.

Even as the U.S. intelligence community grew and grew, the U.S. government’s capacity to analyze and solve problems did not. Its policy side became weakly staffed and poorly trained; officials had barely been taught about policy work at all. Those who excelled had usually taught themselves. When operations were needed, contractors had to be hired, and they often just compounded the problems. Although the military’s components were still potent, its force structure—the hugely expensive carriers, squadrons of aircraft, and brigades of troops stationed back home—became more symbolic and less relevant. Economic sanctions became the tool of first resort. Communiques and platitudes covered the rest.

So there’s a lot going on there, some of it contradicting what he had previously said.2At its core, however, Zelikow is suggesting that public policy schools have stopped educating their students, leaving kids these days ill-equipped to craft policy and needing contractors to clean up the mess. 

As a professor at a graduate school that trains American diplomats, a school that Zelikow graduated from, it is tempting to take this personally. But that would be wrong. Instead, I would assure Zelikow that the curriculum at places like Fletcher and elsewhere still contain an awful lot of courses on diplomacy, conflict mediation, and statecraft — not to mention courses on cyber, climate, GIS, and the like. In my experience, the students who go on to serve in government report back that they have to use an awful lot of their Fletcher training in their government work.

So yeah, I think Zelikow is wrong. The more interesting question is why he’s wrong, and let me suggest two possibilities. The first is that all spheres of life are coping with greater complexity nowadays but Zelikow can only see how it affects policymakers. As Gillian Tett pointed out last week in response to a World Economic Forum survey, corporate actors are finding themselves even less prepared to cope with these problems: “business leaders are ill-equipped to handle current risks: their MBAs trained them to model economic issues, not analyse problems such as war, and the former feature relatively low on the worry list.” Diplomats and statesmen have their issues, but so does everyone else. 

The second is that Zelikow, like all of us who are approaching senior citizen status, look at younger generations and find them wanting. This is a perennial problem of misperception, but the pandemic has likely exacerbated things this time around. It created a 16-month window where everyone forgot how to behave. 

See, for example, this Eugene Daniels story in Politico about junior Biden staffers refusing to act like junior staffers:

Protest culture is shattering the last remaining barriers in official Washington, exposing a generation gap between how young staffers and their older bosses view the responsibilities of a Washington operative.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, President Joe Biden’s consistent support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response has prompted a series of anonymous letters from staffers within the White House, the State Department and the Biden campaign — letters that have left politicos of a certain age shaking their heads….

For a younger generation of activists, these types of analyses seem painfully outdated. In college and afterward, they marched in rallies in an era of mass protests around gun violence, women’s rights and police brutality — in which political debates often have been directly impacted by vocal pressure. Whether that comes from outside actors or inside actors is largely immaterial. 

My Gen X colleagues serving in the Biden administration have engaged in similar eye-rolling about the younglings, and I get it. Disagreeing with U.S. foreign policy in Gaza or elsewhere is perfectly understandable — but if you really feel that strongly about it, quit your damn job and then complain all you want in public! 

Still, even this kind of behavior does not mean that Gen Z is incapable of learning the tools of statecraft. It is just that they are still at the early phase of that learning curve. 

I worry about a lot of challenges facing U.S. foreign policy. An inability to perform statecraft is not one of them.

1 Ecuador seems like the perfect synecdoche of these trends; the country has been falling apartfor quite some time and things have accelerated

2 Sorry, but if you write “The United States relies too much on ill-focused military insurance policies and has not adequately prepared plausible operational strategies short of direct warfare” in the introduction and then write, “economic sanctions became the tool of first resort” later on, you need another draft.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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