Crafting a diplomacy-first US foreign policy

US President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that diplomacy will be at the centre of his administration’s foreign policy. Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one of his administration, recommit to NATO allies, return the United States to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and convene a ‘summit for democracy’ to ‘renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world’. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs in March, ‘[D]iplomacy should be the first instrument of American power.’

Rebuilding America’s treaties and alliances will be a welcome development after four years of President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to the world. Trump’s ‘America first’ foreign policy has eroded the country’s relationships with its allies and impeded its ability to confront increasingly complex global challenges such as pandemics, climate change, nuclear proliferation, democratic backsliding and inequitable trade practices.

But crafting a diplomacy-first foreign policy to address issues like these depends on more than the new administration’s policy choices in its first year, as important as they will be. It requires fundamentally revamping the relevant US institutions to make diplomacy and development the permanent centre of America’s foreign and national security policies.

Such efforts should begin with a rethink of what security is and who it is for. Practitioners and political scientists have traditionally defined security in the narrow sense of protecting a nation-state’s territorial integrity and political independence, which naturally leads to a focus on military capabilities.

But national security should actually mean protecting people from the threats—ranging from disease and violence to fire and floods—that affect their everyday lives. The fact that these threats disrupt the most vulnerable communities the most is a result of policy, not chance. Security must therefore begin with developing a set of national and global tools to reduce the risks that these groups face.

Diplomacy, on this calculus, starts at home. If pandemics threaten national security, for example, then the US will need to invest in a more robust health system while substantially ramping up its engagement in international institutions like the World Health Organization to prepare for the next virus.

If political violence threatens Americans’ safety—and the New America think tank has shown that more Americans have died from right-wing terrorism than from jihadi terrorism since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks—then the US will need to invest more in tracking tools at home and abroad. We must also invest in rebuilding trust in our democratic institutions, including our voting system, while working with partners around the world to counter democratic backsliding and fight the spread of disinformation.

Likewise, if unequal internet access prevents some Americans from obtaining education and health care, as well as a growing number of government and private services, then the US government must focus on how to make digital connectivity as ubiquitous as electricity across the country. At the same time, it must work with other governments and international organisations to create a far more equal and accessible digital world.

The incoming Biden administration should also devise a plan to reinvent the US State Department, starting with the Foreign Service. As one of us recently argued in the journal Democracy, the 21th-century conception of the Foreign Service as a corps of career officials ‘deprives the United States of the talent, connections, and agility we need to advance national interests and address global challenges effectively in the twenty-first century’. A service that welcomed the talents of professionals from non-profits, universities and faith-based groups, among others, would be better equipped to tackle complex transnational problems that demand personnel from diverse backgrounds with a wide range of experience and expertise.

Finally, a diplomacy-first US foreign policy would recognise a far greater role for development, which requires its own diplomacy. Ideally, the Biden administration would work with Congress to overhaul the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act and establish a new cabinet-level department of global development. Short of that, elevating the director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to a cabinet-level position could signal that the US regards economic development as a critical tool in its efforts to increase global human welfare.

Other countries can similarly rethink their diplomatic strategies and how they define diplomacy and security. This will require their legislatures to play a role. In the US, Congress is responsible for deciding how much funding each federal agency and program gets. In the 2019 fiscal year, defence accounted for about half of the federal government’s total discretionary spending, while the entire international affairs budget amounted to less than 4%.

Congress can help to build America’s diplomatic capacity by devoting more resources to reforming and increasing funding to the State Department and USAID. In addition, via its oversight role, it can prevent the executive from relying too much on military tools. At its most assertive, Congress can revoke its authorisations for the use of military force, block US arms sales, and restrict or place conditions on funding for security cooperation.

Faced with a global pandemic and climate change, political leaders around the world should re-examine exactly what makes their citizens more or less secure. They will find that investing in domestic resilience and international diplomacy and development makes more sense than boosting military budgets. As Biden prepares to take office, we need a collective surge of new global diplomacy to enable greater cooperation in the face of common threats.