Afghanistan Doesn’t Have to Spell the End of Transformational Diplomacy

U.S. diplomats must continue to be active and energetic agents of change.


On August 15, 2021, the U.S. military started evacuating U.S. Embassy staff in Afghanistan. Photo by AP.

In its long history, American diplomacy has had three main goals: survival, expansion and transformation. Survival diplomacy was practiced by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, when the republic was young and weak, and later by the likes of Charles Francis Adams in London during the Civil War, when the union was under threat. Expansion diplomacy grew U.S. territory across the continent and beyond, often in concert with military victories, as the United States pushed into Mexico, the Caribbean, Hawaii and as far as the Philippines.

Transformational diplomacy is more nuanced, varied and enduring. Americans have practiced it since the very beginning. Even when the United States was new and poor, it hoped that it would be a “shining city on a hill” that other nations would use as an example of rectitude and democracy. This was, as Joseph Nye would later define it, “soft power.” Its goal was to change the world.

First, the United States offered itself as a model. Consuls sent abroad to protect U.S. citizens and expand commercial interests also acted as proselytizers for the American way of life. Later, as American power grew, it used economic, political and military influence to mold countries and societies. Sometimes, it went too far. In some capitals, U.S. representatives effectively acted as viceroys. Still, as a practical matter, creating democracies was smart and stabilizing, because democratic countries rarely go to war with each other. But deep down, Americans also felt that what they did was right.

George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 saying, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” He quickly changed his mind after 9/11, and his administration embarked on a massive campaign in Afghanistan that attempted to blend military, diplomatic and development tools to change society and empower local governments. In the Foreign Service, this became known as “expeditionary diplomacy.”

In 2002, the administration established the first provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Gardez, in Paktia Province, and located it on a U.S. Special Forces base. It was the model for other PRTs in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, with the participation of other coalition member-states from Europe and Asia. In Afghanistan, these military-civilian teams were led by military officers, with diplomatic and development professionals in supporting roles. In Iraq, the team-leaders were diplomats. The PRTs’ inadequacies were made clear early on by lessons-learned projects run by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, among others. Over the years, a special inspector-general exhaustively detailed our failure to rebuild Afghanistan in our own image.

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Meanwhile, back in Washington, Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, officially applied the “transformational” label to American diplomacy, pushing the new brand and emphasizing interagency cooperation as the means to this end. Starting in 2005, the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute ran a series of Transformational Diplomacy seminars, focused on “matching leadership skills to concrete challenges facing American interests.” The first was on democracy-building, followed by human rights, disease eradication, fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law. Transformation continued as a major foreign policy theme under President Barack Obama, at least in terms of public diplomacy.

It has been a week since Kabul fell to the Taliban. Our most ambitious, and certainly most expensive, experiment in transforming another country has failed. Observers have commented that this was not a military loss, because in order for the Afghan forces to have lost, they would have had to have fought in the first place. This was a political victory for the Taliban. In any case, the American model has been rejected. The lives and treasure we expended to transform Afghanistan have been wasted. It’s a cautionary tale in many areas: broad strategy, mission-planning, setting priorities, interagency coordination, among others.

But this event needs to be seen in the broader context of our diplomatic history. It also must be considered along with the many challenges still facing the United States and the American idea. China is trying to sell its flawed governmental model as an alternative to liberal democracy. Central European countries are sliding backward. The promise of the Arab Spring has faded. Iraq will remain an expensive long-term management problem for years. Russia looks gleefully at discord in the U.S. and somehow considers itself relatively stronger. All these geopolitical challenges — and there are many more — will only grow and evolve in the years ahead.

The United States must continue to practice transformational diplomacy. Its diplomats must be active and energetic agents of change, recognizing that, while we have made mistakes, our model remains preeminent. They must remember that the American idea is the organizing principle for a world order that is the best alternative to all the others. We shouldn’t put Afghanistan behind us. Rather, we should learn from our mistakes and apply these lessons to our continued mission to be the shining city on a hill that meets its own standards and helps its neighbors to do the same.