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Why diplomacy has not returned

President Biden speaks on coronavirus vaccination efforts in the East Room of the White House
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President Biden gave a backhanded criticism of the foreign policy agenda of Donald Trump in his inaugural address when he declared that “we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” A month later at the Munich Security Conference, Biden said that “diplomacy is back.” After decades of endless wars and the rising military aspect of American foreign policy, fondness for diplomacy on the world stage is welcome. But is it genuine? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be no.

On his very first day in office, without consultation with one of our closest allies and trading partners, Biden canceled the Keystone pipeline, killing thousands of American and Canadian jobs. A short month later, and to the chagrin of Democrats in Congress, Biden bombed militias backed by Iran in Syria to “send a message” to Tehran. Less than a month later, he labeled Vladimir Putin a “killer” who would “pay a price” for election interference and said that he believes the Russian leader “has no soul.”

His remarks prompted Moscow to withdraw its ambassador to the United States. Not a day later, his foreign policy team arrived in Alaska to meet with Chinese officials. Rather than finding common ground, the American officials opened the meeting with harsh criticisms of Chinese behavior, leading to a fierce response from Beijing, an exchange between the two powers which was widely viewed as lacking diplomacy.

His foreign policy team has also been critical of European support for the Nord Stream pipeline that will bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. Some in Congress want Biden to move forward with sanctions on firms participating in pipeline construction. If he moves to throttle the pipeline, as some in Congress desire, the breach in relations with Germany would be catastrophic. One senior representative of the country said the result could be a “major portion” of the allied Christian Democrats and Bavarian Christian Social Union turning against the United States.

So within a short few months, Biden has caused a significant breach with Canada, a possible breach with Germany, has chosen military action over diplomacy with Iran and, most ominously, has brought our relations with China and Russia, two nations that are an existential threat to the United States, to perhaps their lowest points since the Cold War. These are not foreign policy snafus. This is a string of serious fiascos.

The evident American inability to engage in genuine diplomacy is not limited to the administration. Virtue signaling and moral condescension toward other nations is now an inherent feature of American elites. Ever since Woodrow Wilson and his utopian promise to make the world “safe for democracy,” many American elites have conducted themselves with this kind of boastful moral superiority on the world stage.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that the United States is “indispensable” and that “we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” A short time later, the younger George Bush asserted, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Does one really think that a country with such excessive pride in its moral superiority can engage in genuine diplomacy with other nations? Simple partisans will take comfort in our stumbles on the world stage, but a more thoughtful analysis of the situation would point to serious cultural issues that afflict American elites. The arrogant moral condescension which has been taking place at American universities has produced a generation of American officials who now bring on their puffed up moral superiority to so many meetings with the representatives of other nations.

The best diplomats need a keen understanding of the interests of their own country, but they also need humility in carrying out their mission. True diplomacy takes the ability to consider that we may not be right about everything. Other nations have interests and their own point of view. Yet American elites have come to believe themselves as the real humanitarians on the world stage. Such hectoring of other nations is a common feature of American diplomacy in the modern era. With this arrogant attitude, then more foreign policy failures will come.

William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with Catholic University. He is the author of “Democracy and Imperialism.”

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