Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might be on his way out. An open race is on for a Senate seat in his home state of Kansas, and Republican leadership appears uncertain their current candidate can claim victory. If Pompeo has made up his mind, he hasn't said so publicly, but already speculation about his possible successor is afoot.
It's a long shot, but as in any Cabinet-level turnover (and in this administration, they are legion), this is a chance to make things better. Our next secretary of state should — and, unlikely as it may be, could — be a champion of diplomacy.
Pompeo never was. He has shown himself reckless and dishonest, an advocate of preventive war and forcible regime change. His "diplomacy" too often amounts to ham-handed coercion, sanctions layered on sanctions without regard for civilian suffering in pursuit of absolutist demands that seem designed to fail. This pattern is most egregious in Pompeo's dealings with Iran, where the administration's policy of "maximum pressure" has made productive talks impossible, emboldened hardliners in Tehran, incentivized Iranian provocations, added grave economic woes to ordinary Iranians' already difficult lot, and increased the likelihood of war.
Though he has at times preached a commendable patience with North Korea, there too Pompeo has not taken the pragmatic, dogged approach to diplomacy we need, going along with the president's affection for photo-ops and press releases instead of insisting on normalized relations, working-level talks, and achievable goals, a category that for the foreseeable future does not include denuclearization.
But Pompeo is hardly the sole author of America's diplomatic impotence. President Trump has had knives out for the State Department budget — already less than a tenth of the Pentagon's swollen coffers — since he arrived in Washington, and as much as he boasts of his deal-making prowess, he has proven a poor diplomat, too short-sighted and self-aggrandizing to negotiate well. A spate of departures and firings have left State's ranks depleted to a worrisome degree; one in five ambassadorships are unfilled.
Yet State's weakness predates Trump, too. In theory, the secretary of state is the most important Cabinet member and the president's chief foreign policy adviser. Like the vice presidency today, the role was once considered a stepping stone to the presidency. But the last century has seen a shift of power away from State and toward the National Security Council and especially the military advisers among its members. Predictably, this change has coincided with the increased militarization of American foreign policy.
Such "continued diminution of the State Department makes the country less safe because it makes peaceful resolution of diplomatic issues less likely," explains historian Mark Edwards at The Washington Post. A flagging State Department means more war, Edwards writes, costing "Americans money, time, stature, and lives."
A secretary of state committed to the renewal of diplomacy as the crown jewel of U.S. foreign policy could begin to reverse that trend. It would be incredibly difficult — and that's if the secretary could avoid a prompt sacking by the president, which I rather doubt. Decades of loss of institutional wisdom and momentum in the American diplomatic corps cannot be undone overnight. Worse yet, as the University of Texas at Austin's Jeremi Suri notes at Foreign Policy, the "U.S. electoral system does not favor diplomats or the slow compromises they nurture in foreign policy. And the United States invests far more in military power than other less kinetic elements." Most of the weight of institutional Washington is leveraged against a move toward robust diplomacy. Sanctions and military intervention are the default. Few want to take the time to talk or chance accusations of "weakness" for working through the compromises diplomacy often requires.
Still, that must be our aim. It would be so under any circumstances, but the increasing complexity of foreign relations — the effects of new technologies of transportation and communication; the rise of non-state adversaries and the risk of great power conflict; the global attention to climate change — compound that necessity. As the last two decades have made painfully evident, we cannot bomb our way through all the security threats of the 21st century.
With Pompeo possibly gone, we desperately require a secretary of state capable of restoring the State Department's influence, organizational health, and budget. My hopes here are appropriately pre-dashed, but it is past time to take up again the gardening tools of diplomacy and lay down the bludgeon of war.
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