On Sunday night I had a dinner with Ambassador Hill and about 30 Boulder City Club members and guests to discuss the current state of American diplomacy. In an era where every government official, executive, athlete, or author is ready to toot their own horn, Hill never once did. Instead, he spent his time with us advocating for the United States.
Early in his brief talk following dinner I found the hair on the back of my neck rising as he advocated for more and more US engagement in the world. But suddenly there was a refreshing perspective – he was explicit in not asking for more military commitment. Essentially, Hill made the same point several times – the US military is a blunt instrument suited very well for war fighting, but it is not a diplomatic service.
I realized I had become so used to US involvement in a crisis always leading to military deployments I could not even recognize a call for more diplomacy. This blog has consistently supported the US and British militaries as essential instruments of deterrence. But even in my own writing on China recently I realized I went directly to the military role not the broader picture.
The Ambassador brought us all back to the world as it existed before 9/11 and essentially suggested that not everything before 9/11 was useless. The world is not a binary choice between appeasement and military intervention – diplomacy fits right in between. It was a remarkable moment for me to realize that being in DC on 9/11, the constant drum of fighter jets over our house in the month afterwards, the Abrams tank outside the Pentagon as I made my way to the airport, the two major wars, all of it had conditioned me to think US involvement means the US military.
It is an extraordinarily bad conditioning that I hope only affects me. But I am afraid that it is a much broader disease. It is shocking to have to say it, but just because the US is not militarily involved in Syria does not mean we are without options. Instead it is, “the Russians and Chinese won’t agree, so we better arm the rebels”, which of course means boots on the ground.
Ambassador Hill gave another example. He, like this blog, is very supportive of President Obama’s pivot to Asia. But how did the President actually introduce the concept? He announced the deployment of US Marines to Australia with a cacophony of media reporting about containing China.
Would it not have made more sense to announce an economic investment or environmental initiative as our first step in the pivot to the region? Would diplomacy not provide a better path to engaging China? The US could make its more difficult points privately to the Chinese leadership. Which if you have read any Chinese history, is the only way to influence a Chinese ruler.
We have come a long way from TR’s “walk softly and carry a big stick”. US policy toward China it is now all stick. A point Governor Huntsman made over and over in the Republican primary contests last year.
Back before the fall of the Soviet Union the US was very good at detente and deterrence. With the exception of the disaster that was the Carter years, the US built up its defense while engaging the Soviets diplomatically. And when the relationship was difficult in those days you sent an envoy to Moscow or held a conference in Geneva. You did not send in the Marines. The threat of force and a generation of diplomacy was more effective than war.
Ambassador Hill is now Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Quite a shift from his previous post as ambassador in Baghdad. It is comforting to know that the best of the best is training the next generation of our diplomats.