After 9/11 anniversary: the return of US diplomacy
The US has relied on the military to hit back when attacked or even threatened; to place first priority on building up defenses; to sometimes shoot first, ask questions later. But the most difficult challenges ahead will require greater reliance on diplomacy and traditional statecraft.
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We must also renew the very way we think of national security. After 9/11, President Bush essentially put the military on the front lines of America’s international engagement all over the world, with the diplomats in reserve. The military became in the minds of politicians and in the public imagination the default choice for dealing with international problems.Skip to next paragraph
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That made sense as the US went after Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It makes little sense now when the great majority of international challenges lend themselves more to political and diplomatic resolution than military power.
Mr. Obama appears to be returning the US quite deliberately and sensibly to the more traditional American approach to the world’s problems: Diplomats, aid workers, and nongovernmental organizations are the first responders as America engages the world. The military is in reserve to be used only when absolutely necessary to defend the nation’s vital interests.
America will face in the next few years the most dangerous and complex set of international challenges in recent memory. As it returns to diplomacy, political leaders at home must also resist the pernicious allure of isolationism so evident on the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. Americans must instead renew their global leadership role as the country moves further away from the tragedy of 9/11 and encounters the more complex times ahead.
This will require a substantial evolution in the way Americans think of themselves and their indispensable role in the world.
Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics, and director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as under secretary of State for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. Previously, he was US ambassador to NATO.
This piece also appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.