Thursday, November 12, 2015

America’s Short-Tail Diplomacy in a Long-Tail Game



My convenient definition of ‘short tail’ for the purpose of this article is politics and ‘long tail’ is statesmanship. Politics usually (and far too often) shoots from the hip and statesmanship is the long and tedious work of looking way down the road for mutual agreement and benefit. True statesmanship is rare in the modern diplomatic world. Much to my surprise, Secretary of State John Kerry has shown himself (for me) to have this talent.

I understand that Americans are not much interested in International Diplomacy. We are a bread-and-butter, jobs oriented society and as long as we can plunk down the monthly payment on a late-model car, we’re happy campers. Our focus outside our own borders stops at gas prices and preventing another terrorist attack. From this perspective we are more an island nation than a world power of unprecedented strength.


But the 98% of the world that lives elsewhere cares a great deal. I make the case that the ninety-eight percent’s perception of America has, in the brief period of four presidential terms, moved from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to most feared nation on the planet status.

I make the further case that our love affair with the investor-class and the quarterly dividend is behind it all.

Business lives or dies on the quarterly dividend. The stock-price reigns supreme. Quarterly expectations must be met and it doesn’t mean all that much if your hamburger or automobile is great. Corporations run more on fear than vision and American politicians live or die on the same terms; two-year quarters for Representatives, four-year quarters for Senators and Presidents.

Which puts America dead square on the horns of its major dilemma—how to contribute to a world that desperately needs long-tailed statesmanship when all we have to offer is short tailed politics?

The United States Foreign Service (of which part includes the State Department) has a total of 15,000 professional employees. Yet its leadership is all by presidential appointment (with consent of the Senate). A truly professional and scaled up Diplomatic Service is an essential first step and it’s long overdue

The Brits have a bit of a jump on us in this regard, employing a Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs who also serves as the Head of the Diplomatic Service. Furthering that jump on us, Oxford University offers a Foreign Service Program, as does the Diplomatic Academy of London, the longest established British institution providing advanced degrees and training programs in Diplomatic Studies and International Relations.

How can we have gone so wrong? Britain had its hand in the game for hundreds of years, while we are newcomers to world power and use it like adolescents. It shows, in the muddle we have made of things since Eisenhower’s return from WWII. Our short-tail in this regard brought us a Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and (very nearly) further screw ups in areas where we have very little experience, history, language skills or worldview.

Our precious quarterly dividend mindset steadily escalated to the point where we presently spend 55% of our national budget on military hardware—with what can only be defined as a disastrous return on investment. When more than half the national budget is spent on hammers, everything begins to look like a nail. So we continue to Whack-a-Mole our way through international intrigues while our infrastructure and other needs at home collapse.

Which arguably might be okay, if it worked, but it clearly doesn’t.

We not only have banks too big to fail, but a military-industrial complex way too big to manage or control—just as Eisenhower warned.

The wheels came off our former communist adversaries under exactly those same circumstances (leaving out the banks). Yet every single American politician is terrified of looking weak before the electorate in his next personal 'quarter.' No statesman would accept that. 

But short-tailed politics enabled neocons to fear-monger their way through one war after another with no human, political or economic progress to show for it.

America needs to grow a longer diplomatic tail--and be quick about it--before the adolescents among us bring the nation to its knees and China’s historic long-tail wraps itself around the planet.