These campaigns were unsuccessful not because the Pentagon lacked resources, or our soldiers lacked valor or our generals don’t know how to lead. They failed because the United States’ leaders either picked the wrong fights or could not translate battlefield successes into political solutions. Unmatched military might means little unless it is wedded to realistic political goals and effective diplomacy.
To be sure, military strength can facilitate diplomatic success. As George Kennan once observed, “you have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet force in the background.” But bludgeoning others into doing our bidding is not diplomacy. Diplomacy is first and foremost about reaching mutually beneficial arrangements that others will accept and not look to overturn.
Paradoxically, the stronger we are, the more important diplomacy becomes. America’s vast power makes even its closest allies nervous, and diplomacy is needed to assuage others’ concerns and persuade them to follow our lead. Doing this requires officials with a sophisticated knowledge of other states’ interests, a keen appreciation for how America’s actions are perceived and the awareness that even weaker opponents have the ability to resist if we cannot persuade them. That is why Secretary of Defense James Mattis once bluntly warned, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
The State Department would no doubt benefit from certain reforms. But putting America’s diplomats on a starvation diet is not the way to do it. Gutting the State Department will dissuade smart and ambitious people from entering diplomatic service and make it harder for those who remain to acquire the professional training they need as they rise in the ranks — something our more lavishly funded military does quite well.
If Mr. Trump continues to privilege force over diplomacy, the United States will continue to blunder into trouble, upset allies unnecessarily and be unable to end its present conflicts on favorable terms. Diplomacy is an essential part of a successful foreign policy. Ignoring that fact is a recipe for continued failures.