Building Back Better – State Department

   It’s December – and no doubt your mailbox soon will be stuffed with wishes for good will, joy and peace on earth. Those sentiments may be a good fit for greeting cards, but the actual mechanics of global amity and concord are a much messier proposition. Statecraft and diplomacy require a heap of patience and a host of skills: a deep knowledge of history, an understanding of different cultural norms, an ability to listen carefully and communicate clearly, experience in negotiation and conflict resolution, and an ability to think strategically and act tactfully.

   This will be the final installment of our year-long series on the function of a Cabinet in the executive branch of the United States government, and more particularly, how the State Department is tackling Joe Biden’s promise to Build Back Better.

   We’ll begin with a bit of history.

   The United States has been involved in foreign affairs since its inception as a nation. When George Washington became President, he appointed Thomas Jefferson as the country’s first-ever Secretary of State. Since that time, the State Department has always been considered one of the most prestigious agencies in the executive branch of government.

   With a staff of four clerks, a translator and a messenger, Jefferson established diplomatic posts in Paris and London, with ten additional consular offices scattered throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Having served previously as the Minister to France, Jefferson was a Francophile. He advocated for supporting France in their struggles against Britain, even as the French government was going through its bloodiest revolutionary phase.

   But President Washington had seen enough of battlefields and war. He opted for neutrality and argued against “entangling alliances.”

   Twenty years later, President James Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, issued a statement that eventually came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. Building on George Washington’s philosophy of keeping America distanced from messy European affairs, their document asserted that Europe should refrain from any further efforts to colonize or intervene in the New World. American was to operate within its own sphere of influence.

   Through a succession of presidential administrations in the 19th century, the men who served as Secretaries of State fended off aggression on the high seas and promoted westward expansion via a series of treaties and the wholesale removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands.

   They also began developing trade relationships with Asia and Latin America. Opening up to the world led to immigration issues that Congress later regulated with racist zeal.

   Of course, America’s ingrained racism was hardly a secret – its uncomfortable tolerance of a slave-dependent economy was causing disintegration of the nation’s cohesion.

   The final straw was the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. His Republican Party refused to recognize the legitimacy of slavery, and southern states preemptively began to secede from the Union. Lame duck President James Buchanan’s outgoing Secretary of State, Jeremiah Sullivan Black, did what he could to minimize the damage. He directed America’s diplomats to warn foreign powers against recognizing the Confederacy as legitimate.

   And when Lincoln’s choice for Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was approved, he also focused on blocking foreign recognition of the secessionist government throughout the duration of the Civil War.

   When Lincoln was assassinated five years later, Seward continued in his role as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. He negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia despite the derision of critics in Congress who called it “Seward’s Folly” or “Andrew Johnson’s polar bear garden.” Ultimately, Alaska proved to be a boon for resource-extraction industries. It also gave the United States the advantage of a strong strategic presence on the Pacific Rim.

   James G. Blaine, who served as Secretary of State in two non-sequential terms (under President James Garfield in the early 1880s, and again under President Benjamin Harrison in the 1890s), was interested in more engagement with Latin American nations. Succeeding presidential administrations and Secretaries of State became increasingly involved with affairs in South America – and a series of incidents including a Venezuela border crisis prodded the United States to dust off the principles set out by James Monroe four-score years before. European meddling in the Western hemisphere would not be tolerated.

   When William McKinley became President in 1897, the Spanish colony of Cuba was embroiled in conflict – local revolutionaries were fighting to shake off Spanish colonial rule. The yellow journalism tactics of publisher William Randolph Hearst and others inflamed a public outcry over Spanish oppression, and after the U.S. battleship Maine suffered a mysterious explosion and sank in Havana’s harbor, Congress and McKinley took action.

   But McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Sherman, did not see eye-to-eye with his boss’s foreign policy agenda. The Secretary opposed the bellicose attitude that Congress and McKinley were adopting toward Spain. He was ostracized as a result, and his subordinate, William R. Day, often substituted for him at Cabinet meetings. When Spain responded to a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba by declaring war on the United States, Sherman resigned.

   Day took over the helm of the State Department, and within 100 days the Spanish-American War was over and done, at great cost to Spain. By the end of that year, the U.S. and Spain signed a treaty that not only guaranteed the independence of Cuba, it also ceded Spain’s claim on Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S. and paved the way for Spain to sell the Philippines to the United States. Secretary Day also annexed the Hawaiian Islands before resigning from his post and being succeeded by John Milton Hay.

   Suddenly, the United States had gone from avoiding entangling alliances to becoming a colonial power with substantial footing in both the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific regions.

   But Filipino nationalists were having none of that without a fight. After the “splendid little war” (as Hay had called it) in Cuba, the Philippine-American War conflict was longer and more costly in terms of both military and civilian lives.

   By the turn of the century, McKinley had been assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt was President. Even more assertive than McKinley had been in his foreign policy stance regarding the Western Hemisphere, Roosevelt noticed that some Latin American countries were struggling to repay their debts to international creditors, and he worried that the struggle might prompt intervention from abroad. To discourage that, Roosevelt announced what would become known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: he said that the U.S. would take it upon itself to ensure that its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations, thus eliminating the need for foreign aggression, which would be “to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.”

   What that meant in practice was that over the following years, the U.S. justified its own military interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic to keep other intervenors away.

   (It’s worth noting that when Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, became President three decades later, he worked with his own Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, to try to distance the U.S. from its previous blunt-force military actions in Latin America. FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy sought to promote cooperation and trade instead of aggressive intervention.)  

   One of the Presidents who served in between the two Roosevelts was Woodrow Wilson, deeply idealistic and committed to George Washington’s tradition of non-intervention.

   “[I]n our might and majesty and in the confidence and definition of our own purpose,” Wilson said, “we need not and we should not form alliances with any nation in the world.”

   But Wilson’s lofty idealism was no match for the rough-and-tumble first half of the 20th century. Across the Atlantic, there were stirrings of need and greed and power. This devolved into a fearsome era when wars extended across great swaths of the globe.

   And yet, at the beginning of both World War I and World War II, the United States tried to avoid Europe’s power struggles and adhere to a neutral stance.

   While many embassies in Paris evacuated during the German invasion of Paris in 1914, for instance, the State Department kept the American Embassy open for business. It not only served the needs of U.S. citizens, but also provided humanitarian relief to many foreigners in Paris who had been stranded by the war, including hundreds of Germans and Austro-Hungarian subjects.

   Even so, Germany willfully disregarded the protections that should have been observed due to the United States’ neutral status. Hundreds of Americans perished when German submarines sank ships regardless of the flag they flew. At last, Wilson reluctantly set his ideals aside and went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war, coming around to the need to “make the world safe for democracy.”

   The United States’ entry into World War I was a decisive factor that led to victory for the Allied Forces. But Wilson’s dream of following up with the establishment of a League of Nations was only partially realized. The President believed that the League would be essential to helping countries sort through their differences in order to prevent war from happening ever again. Forty-eight nations signed up for this international experiment in peacekeeping, but Congress – and Wilson’s own Secretary of State, Robert Lansing – were not convinced it was a good idea.

   Bitterly disappointed and physically sickened, Wilson predicted the world would revert to war.

   Sure enough, only one generation later, the issues left unresolved from “The war to end all wars” were bubbling to the surface again, and a ruthless German politician began consolidating power on his way to assembling a lethal dictatorship.

   Once again, the United States maintained its neutrality for years while countries in Europe were thrust into war. America didn’t enter World War II until Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.

   The details of World War II have  been rehashed many times before – the point to make here is that it was the State Department, led by Secretary George Marshall, that assembled a comprehensive humanitarian effort after the war to rebuild war-torn western Europe. Marshall understood how damaging the aftermath of World War I had been, as the victors took punitive action against their former foes, thus relegating them to years of poverty and resentment. This time would be different, as the Marshall Plan was designed to support economic recovery and draw former foes into America’s economic orbit.

   World War II was followed by the nuclear-fueled Cold War, and most readers of this piece will be able to recall many other regional “hot” conflicts since then that have inflicted terrible costs in terms of human lives, human rights, environmental damage, and political instability.

   The profound shift that occurred in the 20th century was that the United States shed its isolationist tendencies to become, for better or worse, the world’s police presence: in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan… and with that shift, something else happened – this country began investing more heavily in defense, and less in diplomacy.

   For 2021, the final year that the Trump administration presented its budget proposal to Congress, the request for the Department of State and USAID was $41 billion. The request for Department of Defense was $740 billion – the U.S. DOD. is the largest employer in the world.

      Even with its relatively “puny” budget, today’s State Department employs a workforce of 11,000 Civil Service workers, 13,000 Foreign Service employees, and another 45,000 local employees at more than 270 diplomatic missions around the globe. (Remember how Thomas Jefferson had a staff of six in that inaugural State Department?)

   The State Department’s mission is to advance the interests of the American people through diplomacy, advocacy and assistance. But it also has the important task of finding common ground with others who may come from very different experiences and backgrounds.

   Late last year, then-President-elect Joe Biden announced that he wanted Antony Blinken to serve as his Secretary of State. Blinken had worked closely with Biden over the last couple of decades, and the two men had developed a rapport and trust that doesn’t happen overnight. A recent article in “Daily Beast” characterized Blinken as the “Biden whisperer.”

   Unlike his predecessors in the Trump administration, Secretary Blinken has been steeped in foreign policy over the course of his entire career – and it even runs in the family. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Blinken’s dad served as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and his uncle was the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium. The Secretary himself speaks French fluently.  

   Since being confirmed as Secretary of State, Blinken has been working with G7 countries of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom and traveling the globe to introduce a global edition of Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

   Build Back Better World, less alliteratively referred to as B3W, is seen by many as a belated response to the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that China launched eight years ago to beef up infrastructure projects and improve connectivity and trade relationships. China has already invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the initiative, which has projects in more than five dozen countries throughout Asia, Europe and Africa.

   Some critics of BRI have expressed concern about the massive carbon footprint of the program, and others are questioning whether this funding might not end up being a “debt-trap” for some countries.

   The United States has tried to work with global partners before in attempts to respond to BRI. But FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) and Blue Dot, both launched by the State Department in 2019 during Donald Trump’s presidency, didn’t seem to gain a lot of traction – although COVID-19 may have had something to do with that. B3W has attracted more international partners, which may give it the boost it needs to succeed.

   Blinken’s work this past year has also included the restoration of normal diplomatic channels that Donald Trump had disrupted during his presidency.

   For starters, Biden reentered the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization – these were longtime commitments that Trump had ended.

   Blinken is also reconnecting with NATO allies, and working in conjunction with Germany, France and the United Kingdom to bring Iran back into a nuclear agreement after Donald Trump withdrew from an international deal that had been crafted and signed with Iran during the Obama administration.

   The Secretary and his staff have schedules packed with meetings with foreign dignitaries and policy makers here and abroad. In the last month alone, Blinken traveled to Vatican City, Rome, COP 26 in Glasgow, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Latvia and Sweden.

   On his first trip as Secretary of State to sub-Saharan Africa he announced significant investments in infrastructure, agriculture, COVID vaccinations, the climate crisis and ocean plastic pollution.

   In Latin America, Blinken promised that the United States would be bringing a new approach to climate change and migration issues -- more specifically, he talked about addressing the problem of commodity-driven deforestation and coming up with new assistance to help support the livelihoods of farmers.

   And while the pullout of troops from Afghanistan in August had terrible optics as well as some tragic consequences prior to the final days of American troop presence in that country, it did bring a faltering and expensive and unpopular military effort to a close. And – this somehow got lost in the noise – in the six weeks prior to the troop pull-out, the U.S. orchestrated the largest airlift in its history, flying out more than 124,000 people, including 6000 American citizens.

   Other policy issues being handled by the State Department include distributing vaccines abroad, countering terrorism, combating drugs and crime, cyber issues, arms control, trade policies, humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement. The latter, according to State Department documents, is “among the most visible manifestations of a values-based foreign policy.”

   So that’s a wrap of the work being tackled by the State Department. These may never attain “joy to the world” status, but they do add up to an ambitious agenda that moves the needle toward hope and opportunity.


Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.



Barbara McMichael

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is based in the Pacific Northwest and writes about books and culture. She writes a syndicated weekly book review column called  “The Bookmonger” that focuses on Northwest books and authors. Her PR for People® Book Review is written exclusively for The Connector. 

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