Destruction vs. Diplomacy


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“War is the continuation of politics by other means” [1]. In writing that, Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz intended to show that rather than ending all political discussion between parties, war is a tool that can be used to achieve a political end. Historically, countries have employed a mix of militarism and diplomacy to push their interests and coax or coerce other countries into cooperation. With tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, one would think that the prospect of open warfare among North and South Korea, Japan, the United States, and potentially China would cause the President to speak with caution and employ the best diplomats to negotiate a peaceful resolution. However, amid the escalating back and forth between Washington and Pyongyang, the President’s bluster earns him ridicule both domestically [2] and abroad [3], and the White House’s insistence that war is the last resort is contradicted by his budget proposal [4]. Lost in the flurry of pressing domestic issues is the understaffing of the State Department [5], the very agency dedicated to explaining the nuances of Korea to the President so he doesn’t just get it from Chinese President Xi Jinpeng [6].

When budget director Mick Mulvaney introduced the White House’s budget proposal for the state department, he famously called it a “hard power budget” [7] as it not only grew military spending, it also made cuts to the package of agencies responsible for diplomacy, foreign aid, and economic development that the United States deploys as its “soft power”. While the proposal is unpopular with Congress in its current state [8], the budget proposal does stand for the President’s aims while in office; moreover, the understaffing at the State Department has hampered our diplomatic corps’ ability to advocate for United States’ interests internationally [9]. This, mixed with the President’s priorities on military spending, have set up a political vendetta that the United States hasn’t ever faced: Hard Power v. Soft Power. Hard power consists of not only the use of military force itself, but the maintenance of a massive military and deployment capacity to deter would-be challengers. Soft power conversely, is the use of economic relationships, trade, diplomacy, cultural, and moral capital to convince allies and adversaries to cooperate with the United States. While it is true that there has always been a debate over whether or not the United States should go to war over X, Y, or Z, even the most ardent war hawks acknowledge a need for a functioning diplomatic corps. This is not about war versus peace, it’s about fundamental ideas on how countries should interact with each other. Should disagreements between enemies be settled on the battlefield, or can they be settled through politics?

Historically, most countries mix their hard power and soft power capabilities in their diplomatic toolkit, and as a military, economic, and cultural giant, the United States has made ample use of both hard and soft power to achieve its interests across the world. Its military and industrial capacity allowed it to become the arsenal of democracy in WWII and post-war Marshall Plan helped it rebuild western Europe and Japan into its modern allies. Throughout the Cold War, while hiking military spending in hopes that the USSR would bankrupt itself keeping up, the United States funded the arts and other cultural outreach so that American culture and values could be broadcast globally [10]. In the modern era, while our use of hard power was praised in the former Yugoslavia and condemned in Iraq, our failure to act in the Rwandan genocide bruised our moral authority while George W. Bush’s anti-HIV programs in Africa made him one of the continent’s most popular presidents.

While it’s one thing to see how hard and soft power have been deployed in the past, in 2017 it seems as if soft power is failing. Today North Korea is far closer to being able to launch a nuclear weapon at the mainland US than ever before; our closer economic relationship with China has not made China any more successful in restraining North Korea; and everyone is so afraid of war that North Korean missile tests only get toothless statements from the global community. No President has been able to solve the problem; the Agreed Framework, negotiated under Bill Clinton was scrapped when North Korea was found to have been enriching uranium in 2002 [11]. A year after being named as a part of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty [12] and detonated its first nuclear warhead in 2006 [13]. And Obama’s policy of Strategic Patience was premised on the assumption that North Korea will collapse of its own weight and incompetence before it actually attacks the US or its allies.

Now we have America First, where bellicose rhetoric and personal insults at the UN General Assembly [14] are accompanied by a growth in military spending. A hard power budget for a hard power foreign policy. But even if you’re the person that actively wants war and regime change how are you going to get the support of South Korea without an ambassador to South Korea? The President’s prospective nominee, Victor Cha, has not yet been formally appointed to be confirmed by the Senate [15]. If you want to have the on-the-ground knowledge from China, why implement a hiring freeze on the people who’s job it is to get it, cultural and economic outreach aside, a spy’s best cover is often as a diplomat. At the end of the day, what the rejection of soft power does is make war a means unto itself. Whatever the initial attack that starts a war, there was already a political fight going on. Attempting to diminish the agency responsible for the politics that leads to or prevents war means we’re fighting wars for the sake of war. Whatever you think of war with North Korea, it’s clear that whatever steps the United States takes needs a fully staffed and competent State Department.

So what now? As it stands, the State Department budget Trump proposed is dead in Congress, with Senators of both parties rejecting the massive cuts.[16] Not only has Trump attempted to cut the budget, but he and Secretary of State Tillerson have left the department woefully understaffed [17]. Key political appointments have yet to be made, including an ambassador to South Korea.The President, who trusts the Pentagon on military matters, has no similar advisement in the diplomatic arena. By ignoring diplomacy, the State Department will be ill equipped to use its diplomatic tools to craft the political situation that can bring war to an end.

What can we do?

It has long been a bipartisan consensus that the American hard and soft power should be exercised together in order to maintain the institutions, alliances, and networks that have made the United States into a global superpower. With the President ready to throw out half the toolkit to double down on military might, it falls on us to make sure that America is able to deploy its soft power.  Please, take the time to urge your Senators and Representative to mandate a fully funded State Department, urge your Senators to stop congressional business until key appointments and ambassadors have been named. The debate over when or whether the use of military force is appropriate can be had at another time; right now we need to make sure that the military option is not the only option.

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Markose Butler is a Policy Corner Writer for PVNN. He earned his Bachelor's degree in Government and International Relations from the University of Texas in Austin and a M.A. in International Studies. He is also an insurance professional based in Los Angeles. As a political junkie, he likes discussing a variety of issues ranging from the election to the most arcane policy debates. As a writer, he is focused on issues of war and peace, sustainable economic development, and civil rights justice (especially racial and LGBT justice). Markose ordinarily writes from a progressive viewpoint incorporating data, history, and socioeconomic context into his work. As a situational ethicist, he considers himself more of a pragmatic progressive and is interested a practical political solutions to policy priorities.

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