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Why is this Bad?

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

So why is Rex Tillerson’s gutting/destruction of the State Department such a bad thing?

Wait, am I really having to explain why gutting the State Department is bad?

Yes, that is our life in President Trump’s America. In our previous post, I explained that Tillerson and Trump merely accelerated an ongoing public policy trend of moving from “foreign policy” to “national security”. (One of our first posts was on this!) And I explained why it happened. (And yes, we do now need to refer to him as “former Secretary of State” after Tillerson leaves his post at the end of the month.)

But why is it bad? Maybe the Republicans are right that we don’t need any diplomats? No, they are so wrong on that point. Let me count the ways.

Point 1: Gutting the State Department promotes the decline of liberalism (in foreign policy).

In the last two years, the democratic world order has been under threat by...the democratic world order. Basically, in democracies, citizens are voting in “illiberal” leaders or withdrawing from international institutions. America--by electing Trump via the electoral college--has had a terrible time stemming this tide. Now, free-market liberalism has generated some of its own problems--mainly wealth inequality, which inspires economic resentment, and immigration, which has spurned racial resentment. But liberalism in foreign policy has been one of the largest drivers of human welfare in history. And it’s under threat, as many “2016 End of Year” articles discussed. (This is “liberalism” in foreign policy, like how the Economist uses it in their magazine.)

So let me offer a quick defense of liberalism. Here’s my argument: We had some huge drivers of human progress and welfare. Basically, agriculture provided a huge leap. So did clean drinking water. So did antibiotics. Those three things saved more lives than almost anything else you can think of. Industrialization provided another huge boost. These inventions have allowed humanity to not just survive but thrive and multiply.

Of course, with those increased populations, the world went to war twice in 1914 and 1939. Those two wars were two of the more destructive wars of all time. And it would have kept happening but for the invention of nuclear weapons. Those raised the cost of war exponentially, and we looked primed to use them (and extinguish the human race). Fortunately, driven by American leadership, we created the liberal global order. The liberal world order helped not only promote peace, but also democratization and prosperity.

(Yep, I summarized all of human history in about two paragraphs.)

That’s the defense of liberalism. How does the State Department of the United States fit in? Well it promotes free trade, democracy and international institutions. Those are three of the building blocks of liberalism. Without a strong State Department, we can’t promote liberalism nearly as well.   

Point 2: The military can’t promote liberalism.

Let’s be honest, the military can’t help with most of this liberal agenda. (Though some conservatives will definitely try to tell us it can.) For the best explanation why not, here’s Stephen Walt, capturing my thinking exactly.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we do know what doesn’t work [at creating democracies], and we have a pretty good idea why. What doesn’t work is military intervention (aka “foreign-imposed regime change”). The idea that the United States could march in, depose the despot-in-chief and his henchmen, write a new constitution, hold a few elections, and produce a stable democracy — presto! — was always delusional, but an awful lot of smart people bought this idea despite the abundant evidence against it.

Honestly, the critics were right about Iraq: you can’t build democracy facing the barrel of a gun. The US military tried in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it didn’t work. To be clear, I could imagine a military that could promote democracy, but the mentality of the US military, focused on security, won’t allow it. (UN Peacekeepers are a different story.) During the Cold War, in fact, the CIA and DoD proved that they were actually more skilled at overthrowing democracies and establishing dictatorships, than creating democracies. That’s the opposite of liberalism. (And it haunts us to this day.)

Point 3: Creating democracies takes a long time.

Creating democracies, it turns out, is really hard. And it’s not like the State Department can snap its fingers and democracies pop up around the globe. But that’s because the State Department’s job is much harder and much longer term. It helps set the conditions for democracies and free trade and international institutions. It helps create international norms and sign international treaties and provide international aid. All these actions--which are slow and take time--help promote democracy and this in turn helps promote peace. Again Stephen Walt, who I quoted in the previous section, explains why:

The first [way to spread democracy] is diplomacy. When there is a genuine, significant, and committed indigenous movement in favor of democracy — as was the case in Eastern Europe during the “velvet revolutions” or in Myanmar today — powerful outsiders can use subtler forms of influence to encourage gradual transitions. The United States has done this successfully on a number of occasions (e.g., South Korea, the Philippines, etc.) by being both persistent and patient and using nonmilitary tools such as economic sanctions. In these cases, the pro-democracy movement had been building for many years and enjoyed broad social support by the time it gained power. Relying on diplomacy may not be as exciting as the “shock and awe” of a military invasion, but it’s a lot less expensive and a lot more likely to succeed.

Point 4: Immediately, it empowers autocrats.

In the short term, other countries will replace America’s leadership that used to be provided by the State Department. They could harm free trade or promote autocracy (Russia? China?). This could make a world that is less liberal overall, while America is hurt on trade deals. As Bloomberg recently wrote, this is a unilateral disarmament, even if Trump doesn’t realize that.

That’s bad no matter what side of the aisle you are on.