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[Elizabeth Shackelford] How to lead with diplomacy, and not just in Ukraine

President Joe Biden and his top foreign policy advisers have demonstrated how effective diplomacy can be in a crisis. They have worked tirelessly to build a powerful, coordinated response to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Though this has not yet ended the war, it has greatly increased the cost to Putin.

It has also sucked up most of the oxygen in the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department. But other crises haven’t abated in the meantime, from Yemen to Myanmar, Ethiopia to Afghanistan. If the State Department were better resourced and empowered, the United States could bring more robust, nonmilitary foreign policy solutions to many more complex conflicts around the world.

Diplomacy is the least risky and least costly foreign policy tool at our disposal, but it has taken a back seat for years to a military-first approach and budget, leaving us less prepared to provide the global, nonmilitary solutions required.

From global health risks and climate shock to armed conflict and authoritarianism, our interconnected world is becoming less safe, not more. We need to be prepared to face these challenges. But when the war in Ukraine began, the State Department wasn’t. The US had no ambassador to Ukraine, and the senior positions for refugees, international security and nonproliferation, and sanctions policy all sat empty.

Biden has spoken about leading with diplomacy, but there are few signs so far of institutional change. Here are some places this administration could start.

The State Department needs more money. Biden says often, “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” If he truly values diplomacy as a tool of first resort, his budget should reflect it.

The Pentagon’s budget reached historic levels this year, at $768 billion. The foreign affairs budget, which covers the State Department and US Agency for International Development, was about 7 percent that amount at $58 billion. (An additional $7 billion was set aside for Ukraine’s emergency funding.)

As a US diplomat, I frequently saw the impact of insufficient funding. For example, in South Sudan, we didn’t have enough vehicles, so I often missed important events because I couldn’t get a ride. We didn’t have enough staff, so I had two full-time jobs, which meant long hours and hard conditions even before a war broke out. Facility repairs took so long that a large section of our perimeter wall collapsed in a heavy rain -- a dangerous predicament in a conflict zone.

The State Department also needs empowerment to lead. The National Security Council inside the White House has in many ways replaced the State Department as the premier foreign affairs agency. The State Department today has a seat at the table when the NSC chairs meetings on foreign policy, but the Pentagon literally has two -- representing both the military and civilian sides of the Department of Defense. If State were leading and shaping these discussions from the start, the US would be more likely to lead with diplomacy.

The State Department should also have fewer political appointments. These are the outsiders -- sometimes true policy experts, sometimes just pals of the president -- who land positions typically for their political support. The State Department has five times as many political appointees as the Department of Defense and 10 times more than any other federal agency. This means State incurs more gaps in staffing with each change in administration than any other agency, harming continuity in our foreign policy and promoting a short-term perspective of foreign policy problems on a political timeline.

Much has been written about big-money donors given plush ambassador postings, a practice no other developed nation uses. But political appointees fill hundreds of other nonambassadorial positions across the State Department too, in both policy roles and supporting positions. While many have subject-matter expertise, this practice limits the professional path of career diplomats, which has led to high attrition, and that depletes the cultural, historical and linguistic resources they have developed through years of service.

Finally, the State Department has some work to do internally to pave the way for more creative solutions. The department has a history of homogeneity -- “male, pale and Yale.” It looks more diverse today than a few decades ago, but leadership positions remain woefully nondiverse. Improved diversity not only builds a diplomatic corps more reflective of America, but more diverse experiences and backgrounds help bring forward more diverse ideas. President Biden established State’s first Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which is a strong start. To succeed, this office must address not only hiring but also entrenched biased practices that impede retention and promotion of diverse staff.

The West’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine proves that nonmilitary foreign policy tools can be powerful, but dysfunctional treatment of the State Department remains an impediment to leading with diplomacy. Just imagine how an empowered State Department could shape similarly robust responses in the rest of the world.

 Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a US diplomat. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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