As Diplomacy Lies Dying: Why U.S. Reliance on Hard Power Leaves the 21st Century More Unstable and Less Safe

by Luke A. Drabyn

Promoting global peace and security through aggression—backed by $610 billion in defense expenditures—will ultimately result in a more dangerous 21st century. Rather, the United States should redistribute funds toward programs that will foster enduring peace—particularly through language learning, geography, and international exchange.


 (Image: Wikipedia Commons/Davidmartindel)

Within the past two years, the world has witnessed several momentous geopolitical events. On February 23, 2014, the Russian Federation illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, causing uproar in the West but resulting in only economic sanctions—hardly a slap on the wrist for such a flagrant violation of international law. After more than 50 years, the United States and Cuba last month agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to carve out swaths of territory and spread terror throughout an already war-torn Middle East. And finally, after years of arduous negotiations, the United States and Iran, along with five other nations, have agreed on a historic deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Understanding and appropriately handling these and future global events will require continued leadership from the United States, given its intimate involvement in these affairs and its status in the international community. Unfortunately, the current climate surrounding the discipline and practice of foreign affairs suggests U.S. citizens and lawmakers alike are ill-equipped to provide this leadership. This is a dangerous trend that must be reversed, and fast.

In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Georgetown University Professor Charles King offers a sobering assessment of the sordid state of international studies in the United States today. He maintains, correctly, that the potent ascent of the United States as a global hegemon was aided by generous federal funding geared toward programs promoting regional and global studies. Says King:

The rise of the United States as a global power was the product of more than merely economic and military advantages. Where the country was truly hegemonic was in its unmatched knowledge of the hidden interior of other nations: their languages and cultures, their histories and political systems, their local economies and human geographies.

This is no longer true. Paradoxically, despite the emergence of myriad social media networks and the expansion of news outlets available to anyone with an Internet connection, Americans are becoming increasingly out of touch with the global events unfolding around them. This ignorance induces a more bellicose outlook on foreign policy options.

How Learning Geography Makes the World a Safer Place

Something as seemingly negligible as understanding geography matters to both national and international security. The authors of a recent study on Ukraine state this plainly: “Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want their government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda.”

The study, which surveyed over 2,000 Americans shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, asked respondents two things: first, how the United States should respond to the situation in Ukraine; and second, to locate the country on a map. Those who guessed Ukraine was farther from its actual position tended to advocate more forcefully for U.S. military intervention. Overall, only 16 percent of respondents (roughly one in six) correctly guessed the former Soviet state’s location.

Similarly, a recent Politico piece entitled, “Iran? Is That the One We Invaded?”, chronicles the author’s quest to find one person in the state of Indiana who could correctly locate Iran’s elusive location. None could do so, save for an astute cab driver, the last person the author asked. Roughly 75 percent of Americans aged 18–24 who were surveyed were unable to place a finger within Iran’s borders.

This is nothing short of embarrassing: Ukraine is about the size of Texas and Iran is nearly the size of Alaska. And Americans’ terrible knowledge of geography is not exclusive to Iran and Ukraine: similar studies of regions long critical to U.S. foreign policy, such as Afghanistan in South Asia and Iraq in the Middle East, reaffirmed this ignorance-is-close-to-hawkishness trope. More worrisome are the policy repercussions of this geographic cluelessness: a nationwide proclivity for military aggression, not diplomacy.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”—But in 2016, Try Riyadh, Not Rome

In his 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad, author Mark Twain proclaims, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

This quote still rings true in 2015, and is arguably more relevant now than ever before. Spending time abroad learning exotic languages and making friends from various corners of the earth fosters international understanding and promotes peace, but these benefits are greatest when Americans explore countries beyond those found in Western Europe. Plenty of Americans continue to learn languages and travel abroad. Yet, from a national security perspective, they are learning the wrong languages and travelling to the wrong locations.

The number of U.S. students studying abroad annually in foreign countries has risen almost fivefold, up to nearly 290,000 by the most recent estimates from only 62,000 in 1987. As positive as this trend may seem, consider that this still represents less than 1 percent of all U.S. students nationally. Moreover, these students are overwhelmingly travelling to allied countries in Europe that pose little to no threat to the United States. A survey from 2014 shows that nearly a third of all U.S. study abroad students went to the United Kingdom (13 percent), Italy (10 percent), or Spain (9 percent). Roughly 60 percent remained in these countries for fewer than eight weeks—hardly enough time for a truly immersive experience.

The number of U.S. students travelling to countries and regions deemed critical to U.S. national security—particularly China, Russia, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—was markedly lower. Only 2 percent of U.S. students opted to study in the MENA region and just 5 percent chose to study in China. Additionally, the number of students traveling to China and Russia decreased by more than 3 and 12 percent, respectively, between the 2011–12 and 2012–13 academic years. In short, though a brief, two-month visit to London, Rome, or Madrid may garner the envy of family members and friends, the U.S. national security establishment would much rather see you spend upwards of six months or more in Beijing, Moscow, or Riyadh—but students are not paying attention. They continue to flock to Western Europe.

The dismal figures surrounding language learning in the United States are staggering, and do not bode well for global mutual understanding—and by extension, the promotion of peace and security in the 21st century. For the first time in 20 years, language enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities is on the decline. And unlike their European cousins across the pond, Americans are complacent with knowing only one language.

“Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom,” says Amelia Friedman, executive director of the Student Language Exchange. Furthermore, “only 7 percent of U.S. college students are enrolled in a language course” at all. Of these, 95 percent of course enrollments are in European languages. Growth in Chinese language enrollment has gradually slowed to 2 percent this year. Enrollment in both Arabic and Russian declined 7.5 and 17.9 percent, respectively.

This toxic combination of widespread geographic illiteracy, a Eurocentric perspective on the world, and pervasive apathy toward language learning is a recipe for disaster. China and its 1.4 billion people, for example, must not be relegated to an obscure, misunderstood foe reminiscent of the Cold War, but rather, as a cooperative though independent ally for a new and prosperous 21st century.

Real Versus Perceived Threats to U.S. National Security

Miniscule federal funding for diplomacy and peaceful exchange relative to the U.S. defense budget is partially to blame for this outcome. The U.S. Department of State’s entire fiscal year 2015 budget is less than $50 billion, which makes up just over 8 percent of the U.S. Department of Defense’s prodigious counterpart. Funding for federal exchange programs is approximately $600 million. This includes funding for the Fulbright Program, one of the most respected flagship international exchange programs, which is only $236 million—or, just about as much as the United States spends in 2.5 days on the war in Afghanistan. (Note: This war began in 2001—consider just how many Fulbright and Boren students the United States could have sent abroad in the intervening years.) Congress actually intended to slash the Fulbright program’s budget by $30 million this year, before an impressive lobbying campaign took place, resulting in a meager increase of $1.8 million.

If we combine this ignorance-fueled propensity for aggression with $610 billion in annual defense expenditures, it becomes much easier to imagine how costly and unnecessary violence abroad (e.g., the war in Iraq) can occur. Put in perspective, the United States spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany—whose total defense expenditures add up to just over $600 billion. Thus, the United States can, and has, turned to military strength instead of diplomacy. Anything the United States does militarily beyond its borders, from deploying drones to outright invasion, will have lasting and widespread repercussions throughout the world, given the massive defense resources at its disposal.

A closer look at these defense figures highlights just how egregious and mismanaged U.S. national security priorities are. Extensive media coverage of the Islamic State’s brutal beheading videos, for instance, has deceptively alarmed Americans so much that 84 percent now consider the group, and international terrorism generally, the most critical threat to American security. As a result, American taxpayers are paying over $600,000 per hour to fund U.S. military action against ISIS, with questionable results. Yet high-level government officials, from U.S. President Barack Obama and former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove, to prominent think tankers like Daniel Benjamin, have all suggested the true threat of Islamic terrorism is vastly overblown.

Conversely, only 44 percent of Americans believe that tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine represent a critical threat to national security. Americans are unaware, for instance, that within the past five years public perception of the United States within Russia has plummeted steadily, from a 57 percent favorability rating in 2010 to only 15 percent in 2015. While the Cold War is over, the prospect of nuclear warfare—arguably the most existential threat to the United States and the rest of the world—is not.

Early last week, for instance, U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva argued that nuclear-armed Russia, not ISIS, is the biggest national security threat to the United States. The most up-to-date nuclear stockpile estimates, conducted by the Ploughshares Fund, show that Russia still has the largest number of nuclear weapons in the world, at 7,500—or 48 percent of the global total. Should Russian President Vladimir Putin play the nuclear card, as he has subtly hinted at within the past few months, media coverage of terrorists roaming throughout Syria and Iraq would disappear rather quickly.

Yet at the moment, most U.S. citizens—lacking an informed understanding of global politics and relying on the media’s ratings-driven interpretations—severely misjudge the gravest threats to U.S. national security. Without more emphasis on education and international exchange, distrust, fear, and misunderstanding will increasingly inform and harm U.S. foreign policy.

Unless and until the United States stops relying on hard power through its bloated defense budget to promote peace and U.S. national interests globally, the world will actually become more unstable. If U.S. lawmakers act now, they may still be able to redistribute funds toward programs that will incentivize students to increase language enrollment in more strategic languages and promote international exchange to more exotic locales.


Luke A. Drabyn is the Blog Manager for Charged Affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @LukeDrabyn. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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