To Change the US-Russia Relationship, Reinvigorate the US State Department

The path to a healthier diplomatic engagement may lie in strengthening the professional service of the flailing State Department.

by Nicholas Smith Adamopoulos and Jacob Donald Fessler

For 230 years, the US State Department has been the international face of the country. From its humble beginnings as a six-person office led by Thomas Jefferson, the United States has relied on career diplomats in the State Department to represent the nation abroad. However, the State Department no longer appears to be the crown jewel of American statecraft, overshadowed by the President’s often mercurial personal relationships with foreign leaders. The State Department under President Donald Trump is defined by a dearth of Foreign Service Officers and poor morale. The administration advocates massive cuts to DoS while pushing political appointees rather than career diplomats for deputy secretary and ambassador positions. 

For US-Russia relations, it could not come at a worse time. 

This weakened State Department is in no position to encourage American allies in the face of Russian aggression or to attempt to salvage the rapidly imploding arms control regime so meticulously crafted during the Cold War. As long as these issues persist unabated, rapprochement between the United States and Russia in the near future appears increasingly unlikely. Moreover, the US-Russia relationship in the 21st century is increasingly defined by the personal interaction between President Vladimir Putin and the sitting president — a dangerous precedent that favors abrupt grandstanding over considered and intentional policy. 

Enhancing the State Department’s prestige and human infrastructure can lead to a safer U.S.-Russia relationship in both the short and long-term. While there may be little hope that the highly personalized nature of US-Russian affairs will end soon, career diplomats working daily with their Russian counterparts can help create a certain amount of diplomatic trust to counterbalance the high-level charades between Trump and Putin. As the United States and its European allies struggle to prepare for a more aggressive Russia while simultaneously signaling their nonaggression to Moscow, the base-level bonds forged between American diplomats and their Russian counterparts can serve as channels for trust-building, diffusing tensions before they have a chance to boil over. In a relationship marred by mistrust and uncertainty, every diplomatic channel matters. 

The most immediate and critical global security issue between Russia and the United States is salvaging the arms control agreements between the two nations. Any success in this endeavor will require the State Department to be in a much better condition than it currently is. In August, distrust at every level led the US to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), ignoring multiple opportunities to engage in dialogue that could have salvaged the treaty — a move which highlights the combative rather than cooperative nature of the US-Russian relationship on arms control. The same could happen in February 2021, when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires, leaving no arms control treaties left between the world’s two largest nuclear nations. History shows us that any future treaty will not be negotiated between Putin and the sitting president but through the experience of career diplomatic professionals. In the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States and Iran managed to work out a deal despite their decades of animosity — thanks in no small part to the career diplomats who ironed out details in late-night sessions throughout the negotiations. The arms control treaties now under threat were negotiated by US and Soviet career diplomats in the 1980s, long before Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev put their names to paper. This same level of professional diplomacy will be necessary in 2021 for New START or any other future agreement between the two nations. 

Arms control may be the most pressing long-term security issue today facing the United States and Russia specifically, but a reinvigorated State Department will lead to healthier diplomatic engagement across the board. Without a well-funded and widely-supported professional diplomatic service, the American relationship with Russia is relegated to one-off executive meetings, a lack of understanding, and a continued deterioration of relations. While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have rightly lambasted the Trump administration for their policies towards the State Department, Washington must come to a consensus on the critical importance of professional diplomacy for American national security. When the opportunity for cooperation between the United States and Russia arises, either today or in the future, it will be critical to have the appropriate human infrastructure in place to take advantage of that moment.

Jacob Fessler and Nicholas Adamopolous are second-year Masters in International Affairs students with a passion for US foreign policy and global security issues.

Photo by @72westy on Shutterstock

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