In the third installment of Democratic debates, Senator Elizabeth Warren called for the revival of diplomacy. As part of an answer about bringing U.S. troops home from the 18-year war in Afghanistan, Warren succinctly argued for investing in diplomatic answers. “We’re not going to bomb our way to a solution in Afghanistan,” Warren said, which seemed like a jab at President Trump’s recent threat to eviscerate the country. “We need to treat the problem of terrorism as a worldwide problem, and that means we need to be working with all of our allies, our European allies, our Canadian allies, our Asian allies, our allies in Africa and in South America.”
The Massachusetts senator added that the U.S. should focus on a values-based approach to international affairs. “It means economic investment. It means expanding our diplomatic efforts instead of hollowing out the State Department and deliberately making it so we have no eyes and ears in many of these countries,” she said. “We need a foreign policy that is about our security and about leading on our values.”
Since Trump took office, he has challenged the notion of expertise at nearly every turn. Nowhere has this been more deeply felt than in the diplomatic corps. A recent New York Times op-ed from a former foreign service officer said it was impossible to know how many people had left State, because for every visible senior officer resignation, there are more at the entry and middle levels. On the debate stage, Warren underlined three ways her administration would reverse the decline in the United States’ presence and power internationally.
First, “We need to be working with all of our allies.” From the beginning of Trump’s tenure, this administration reversed many diplomatic efforts made under President Barack Obama, alarming allies (especially in Europe) and sending mixed signals to longstanding adversaries (like Iran and North Korea).
In June, 2017, Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord and its non-binding agreement with 195 other countries to combat the climate crisis, forcing individual states to make up for a lack of national commitment. A year later, the U.S. was the sole country to quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Deal, which stopped the Iranian government from developing nuclear weapons for 10 years. The deal was criticized by Republicans at the time and still today, but the so-called better deal that Trump purports to want with Iran sure looks a lot like Obama’s.
Indeed, the Obama administration’s successful diplomatic feat ensured that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapons program; and it has been enforced through agreeements to reduce uranium stock piles and regulate inspections. This past May, Trump reintroduced economic sanctions against Iran. Tensions have since escalated to the level of seized oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and near Gibraltar, drones being shot out of the sky, and Iran’s symbolic breaks from the deal .
Second, Warren emphasized “expanding our diplomatic efforts instead of hollowing out the State Department.” In an article for Foreign Affairs, she wrote about how Trump’s actions have made the U.S. less secure because of his lop-sided idea of funding. “Trump promised to rebuild the military,” Warren wrote, “but as president, he has gutted the diplomatic corps on which the Pentagon relies.”
It was reminiscent of former Defense Secretary Jim Matthis’s aphoristic remark: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
Trump and his first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in the administration’s first budget proposal, targeted the State Department and USAID budget ruthlessly. In 2016, State’s budget was about $50.3 billion. The executive’s budget proposal for 2020 suggests spending just $40 billion on the State Department, but $750 billion on National Defense, according to Foreign Policy.
Third, Warren noted the importance of “having eyes and ears on the ground.” In addition to funding American statesmanship, there need to be diplomats, foreign service workers, and staff in American embassies and consulates to advance initiatives and security.
The Government Accountability Office published a report this March outlining the “chronic vacancies” at embassies around the world, causing employees’ work and security to suffer. The report shows that every region is lacking personnel, ranging from 9 percent of posts vacant in the Americas to 21 percent in Southeast Asia.
There were also foreign service post vacancies under the Obama administration, but under Trump this trend has been amplified by mass resignations. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, many top executives resigned. These resignations included State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy, Assistant Secretaries Joyce Barr and Michele Bond, Office of Foreign Missions Director Gentry Smith, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, and Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr. Such senior practictioners cannot be so easily replaced.
Ironically, the day after the debate, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo launched a “Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy” initative to honor of “the fine men and women who show up day in and day out to carry out America’s foreign policy.” Missing from this initiative, it should be noted, will be American ambassadors for Iraq, Hondorus, Brazil and Cuba, because these positions are vacant, among the posts for about 50 other countries.
In the same way that Trump took immediate actions to weaken American diplomacy, the next president will have to make active decisions to reverse this decline. Warren makes a clear and concise argument on how she can revive American foreign policy—in short order.