In his first speech as US president to the United Nations General Assembly, Joe Biden promised the world that this period of “relentless war” was giving way to “a new era of relentless diplomacy.” In this new era, he explained, the US would be working with other nations to lift people out of poverty, defend and renew democracy, address climate change and shore up traditional alliances such as NATO.
It all sounds marvelous. But it is difficult if not impossible to advance US interests and values without a credible threat of military action — which is to say, one that is not belied by events on the ground. And his withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan shows that the premise of Biden’s global vision is a mirage.
To start, the distinction between diplomacy and war is true only in the narrowest sense. Yes, heads of state routinely face choices about how to deter and respond to aggression. Those options range from diplomatic protests to declarations of war. A modern superpower such as the US, with the dollar as the global currency, also has the choice of economic sanctions.
In the last 20 years of “relentless war,” US presidents have used both diplomacy and military action to disrupt terror networks, enforce international norms (such as the ban on chemical weapons) and prevent rogue states from attaining weapons of mass destruction. And to be fair, Biden pledged that the US “will continue to defend ourselves, our allies and our interests against attack, including terrorist threats, as we prepare to use force if any is necessary.”
Effective diplomacy requires the threat of force lurking in the background. As Otto Von Bismarck famously observed more than 150 years ago: “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” Since at least World War II, the words of American diplomats have mattered in part because they have been backed up by a nation willing to use its military to accomplish strategic goals.
This is why the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is not only a military blunder but also a diplomatic one. Biden’s unwillingness to keep a few thousand US forces in Afghanistan, which had prevented the Taliban from taking over the country, undermines American diplomacy there.
This is a lesson that Biden and his administration appear not to have learned. Until the Taliban surrounded Kabul, the State Department had planned a robust diplomatic mission for Afghanistan after most US forces had left. Now Biden is reduced to touting his administration’s efforts to secure a UN Security Council resolution demanding that the Taliban respect human rights. As the last Afghan ambassador to the UN told the body’s Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, the Taliban continue to be serial human-rights abusers.
America’s surrender in Afghanistan has also undermined US diplomacy elsewhere. Consider the condemnation last month from the parliament of America’s closest ally, the UK. Or look at the taunting message from Chinese state media to Taiwan in the aftermath of Kabul’s collapse.
None of this is to say that diplomacy is not a valuable means of advancing the national interest. As former Defense Secretary James Mattis observed in 2013, if the US doesn’t have enough diplomats, “then I need to buy more ammunition.” But the reverse is also true: If the US is unwilling to use its ammunition, then its diplomacy will have less power. Its words and warnings may still be heard, but they will go unheeded, no matter how relentlessly they are conveyed.