Military’s limits show need for America’s neglected weapon

THE ATTACKS of 9/11 brought us a decade of war with the seemingly endless and bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan — the most intensive period of US military deployments in our history. But, we may now be entering a decade of diplomacy as we learn that military power is not always the answer for many of the difficult problems ahead.

That was just one of the major insights from last weekend’s citizen-led Camden Conference, which I moderated this year. Legions of local volunteers succeeded in attracting academics, journalists, and former government officials to cold and snowy Camden on the Maine coast in the middle of February. More than 900 people filled Camden’s venerable 19th-century Opera House and theaters linked to it in Rockland, Belfast, and Ellsworth to debate war and peace in the Middle East. What I heard consistently was the need for the United States to find a way to negotiate with and outwit our adversaries rather than fight them.

To be fair, President Obama has been trying to institutionalize just such a restructuring of America’s foreign policy DNA. While President Bush was right to come out swinging against Al Qaeda after 9/11, Obama knows we lost our way in occupying two Muslim nations in wars that exhausted our military and soured the public on foreign adventures. He has pivoted away from reflexively trying to make others bend to our superior force. Instead, he pushed our allies to lead in Libya and Mali and refuses to put American boots on the ground in the Syrian quagmire.


But if Washington wants to emphasize diplomacy and reserve the military for crises of last resort, it will have to counter two sharply negative trends that have nearly hollowed out our diplomatic strength in recent years. The first is the widely recognized and troubling militarization of our foreign policy. We have grown to rely too much on the military and sometimes seem like a “shoot first and ask questions later” nation.

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This week’s productive start to negotiations with Iran is a case in point. The airwaves are filled with debates on the merits of an Israeli or American use of force against Iran when the real action, at least for now, is at the negotiating table. As a former ambassador to NATO, I certainly value the military’s unique strength. But it isn’t the right vehicle for some of the critical problems we face this year — assembling a global coalition on climate change, promoting reform in the Arab world, and competing economically with China.

That is why the second trend — the weakening commitment to the State Department budget and the future of the Foreign Service by an inattentive Congress — is so alarming. Until recently, the House and Senate have fully funded the military, intelligence, and homeland security. But the State Department budget seems constantly under threat, and sequestration will do even greater damage. Our first-class Foreign Service is atrophying; we don’t have enough people to staff our embassies and train for the future. It took a secretary of defense, Bob Gates, to make the case for strengthening diplomacy when he pointed to the ludicrous fact that there are more members of the armed services bands than there are American diplomats. That tells you all you need to know about our national priorities.

Obama has a new ally in resurrecting our diplomatic strategy and fully funding it. It is clear from Secretary of State John Kerry’s first month in office that he views diplomacy as a force multiplier for America’s global power. Some of Kerry’s predecessors saw diplomacy as the right answer at times of crisis. George Marshall’s celebrated Marshall Plan employed economic aid to help turn back communism in Western Europe after World War II. More recently, James A. Baker’s masterful negotiation of German reunification and Condoleezza Rice’s pursuit of a strategic opening to India are examples of the application of diplomatic ingenuity to global challenges.

Diplomacy is a more deliberate and sometimes frustrating path for the world’s strongest country. It will not answer all our problems. But we won’t get very far in this complex, chaotic, and unpredictable century without it.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the ­practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.