Understanding America’s nerve-racking foreign policy | Tennessean Op-ed

May 9, 2018

Published Sunday, May 6, 2018 in “The Tennessean”

Understanding America’s nerve-racking foreign policy

You could be excused for feeling as if you have whiplash when trying to keep up with global developments these days.

There’s a seemingly never-ending parade of crises and concerns – virtual global car wrecks – that come at us every time we turn on the news.

The breadth and depth of foreign policy challenges requires a score card to keep up with – North Korea nukes and missiles, Russian aggression, Chinese economic muscleflexing, setbacks for democratic rule, and a dozen flashpoints in the Middle East among them Syria, Iran and Yemen – all threatening American security, prosperity and interests.

It is tempting to say America’s place in the world has never been in as much danger as it is now, but that would be overlooking how our country navigated dangerous waters across the globe in the past.

And this former military intelligence officer who surveyed Cold War and Middle East threats over a 26year career could make a case that what we face now is nothing new.

What is new is the state of our government’s ability to deal effectively, efficiently, coherently and multilaterally with the global challenges on our plate. At no time in my lifetime has there been a national security team – in particular the White House and the State Department – that has been less prepared and organized.

The concern goes beyond partisan policy disagreements.

In just over one year America has had three National Security Advisors – the most recent one could not earn Senate confirmation from his own party for the U.N. ambassador job — and two secretaries of State including the ignominious dismissal by tweet of Rex Tillerson.

On the diplomatic front, an inexplicable shakeup at the State Department – axing career professionals, time-tested structures and already thread-bare budgets; unfilled ambassadorships in 66 of 188 posts; cutting 1,982 Foreign Service and Civil Service positions.

We should be reminded that in 2013 future Defense Secretary James Mattis famously warned against cutting America’s diplomatic capability, saying “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, American Foreign Service Association President, looked to the National Security Strategy when she said, “’We must upgrade diplomatic capability’ to cope with escalating threats,” So it’s hard to argue that cutting diplomacy is about achieving our strategy goals.

However, the “America First” platitude says to partisans that the United States position in the world is not compatible with America as a great nation. That flies in the face of the facts.

American leadership after World War II built the most prosperous and secure nation in history and that status remains reliant on international trade, multilateral cooperation and all the tools of “soft power” – principal among them American diplomacy.

If we believe the buck stops in the Oval Office then responsible citizens must ask what is going on at the top.

Professionals and observers alike have been bewildered to see policymaking by pique and tweet, by positions changing on a dime, by lack of coherent strategy and doctrine, and by – at the most generous interpretation – a mysterious “bromance” between President Trump and our principal global adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So how to sort through the problems besetting our global position and diplomatic clout?

There may be less whiplash in absorbing our daily news feeds with more context, background and solid facts on U.S. foreign policy.

Patrick W. Ryan, U.S. Navy, retired after 26 years as a submariner and Navy Intelligence Officer. He is founder and President of the Tennessee World Affairs Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education organization that works to provide global literacy programs to the community. These are his views.

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