Community members gathered Friday at the William Street United Methodist Church to become more informed about the state of U.S. diplomacy, presented by Alex Thompson.
Thompson is an associate professor of political science and a faculty associate of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University. His book “Channels of Power: The UN Security Council and U.S. Statecraft in Iraq” has won awards from ISA-Midwest and the International Studies Association.
Thompson started off with his connection to the subject of diplomacy – his father.
“I actually grew up as the son of a career foreign service officer (FSO),” Thompson said. “So, I spent part of my childhood living abroad. My father was stationed in some pleasant places, like Aruba, spent time in Niger, then he was in Vietnam for several years during the war.”
Thompson said the heart of diplomacy is the U.S. Foreign Service, which has 8,000 FSOs. These diplomats are highly trained, experienced and multi-lingual. He also stated that FSOs have a deep knowledge of the countries they are interacting with.
The features of diplomacy, Thompson said, include negotiations, “soft power” (the ability to persuade other countries to do what you want), multilateralism, and cultivating relationships where a long-term perspective is key. But, Thompson said, he still believes that diplomacy is under-appreciated due to the constant temptation of becoming a superpower, and the fact that diplomacy is most effective when invisible.
“The United States is so powerful,” Thompson said. “We have the ability to achieve our goals through so many different means. And there is often a temptation to use means that will give us a more visible or direct result, rather than the quieter, long-term investments.”
Chronic under-funding is another example of diplomacy being underappreciated. The International Affairs budget is tiny, 1.5 percent of the total budget, including foreign aid. The United States has spent as much on military bands as it has on foreign service, he said.
Thompson then transitioned to discussing the State Department under President Donald Trump. The administration, Thompson said, has systematically sidelined and undermined the State Department and career diplomacy. Thompson highlighted both some of the direct and indirect challenges diplomacy faces under Trump.
The direct challenges include dramatic cuts to the budget, sidestepping career officials in favor of inexperienced individuals, and damage to the morale of the department. Thompson described the administration’s attitude as, “We don’t need diplomats.”
Some of the indirect challenges Thompson mentioned included the administration’s focus on coercion and short-term gains, rejection of allies (NATO and seeing European Union as a “foe”), the rejection of multi-lateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and disdain for international organizations such as UNESCO.
In his concluding thoughts, Thompson emphasized that diplomacy is needed more than ever, and the U.S. “can’t police the world.” This would be both expensive and ineffective, according to Thompson.
Retired Maj. Gen. Dennis John Laich, who knew a lot about the State Department coming into the talk, praised Thompson for the discussion.
“I thought it was well done,” Laich said. “It was important; it was balanced, and I think he conveyed the reality that the State Department is under pressure especially in the Trump administration with the cuts in budget. I think the (administration) has accelerated the depletion of U.S. soft power in a number of ways.”