Source: Maxime Bonzi, Creative Commons
Source: Maxime Bonzi, Creative Commons

American diplomacy has always been a cornerstone of American presence abroad, as we hold embassies or consulates in 190 countries, managing over 300 diplomatic missions. Career Diplomats are some of the most prestigious and well respected members of the United States Government. Working in tandem with US security forces, US diplomats protect and represent American interests. Even so, as the world becomes more interconnected and more dangerous, the future of the profession is in flux.

Recently, the Reiff Center and the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads hosted Ambassador Karen Stewart, the well-traveled and successful American Ambassador to Laos and Belarus. Ambassador Stewart entitled her talk “Diplomacy in an Uncertain World.” She discussed a variety of issues, all of which are of vital importance in fostering a more peaceful world.

Firstly, we must discuss, why is the world “uncertain” today? In a lot of ways, the world has become smaller and more manageable. Unlike the days of the past, I can use Google to stay on top of geography, world affairs, and the most recent fashion of the British Monarchy. Still, the interconnectedness and overall globalization has created new dangers for the world that were unknown in the 20th century. We can look to the Islamic State for an example of these dangers. What began as a radical outcropping of quasi-Muslim beliefs has grown into the most well-funded terrorist organization in history. Their use of social media and the internet in general has allowed them to become a serious threat to the entire world.

There are other more practical effects of the internet, as there now exists a constant flow of information to and from American embassies. So while information is at the fingertips, it now requires much more effort to siphon out the important components.

The world has changed in other ways as well. A great deal of research has gone into trends in global conflict. While many nuances to the trends exist, there are a few basic takeaways. International or state to state conflict has decreased dramatically in the past decades, and in its place, unstable and unpredictable intrastate conflicts have erupted. These warring state factions often follow an ideological (ethnic, religious, political) call, resulting in some of the bloodiest and horrific civil conflicts known to man. Here, think Sudan, Rwanda, and Former Yugoslavia.

Ambassador Karen Stewart
Ambassador Karen Stewart

Stewart and others say, we used to “know the enemy”. The World Wars and the Cold War provided a clear enemy with clear motives. The US knew where the Soviets were and where war would most likely happen. In today’s rapidly changing landscape, terrorists groups, which threaten US interests pop up quickly and unexpectedly, such as Yemen, Niger, or Libya. This ideologically driven enemy can pop up anywhere at any time. Moreover, the porous arms and financial networks have allowed these groups access to sophisticated funding routes and weaponry.

These groups threaten our safety and our very way of life. Threats, such as these, obviously necessitate a robust military, but also a strong diplomatic core. Diplomacy has the ability to diffuse anti-American sentiment, push for moderate politics, reduce tensions, and close access for dangerous insurgent groups. Moreover, diplomacy allows Americans to reach into damaged and hurt communities, such as Laos, and help in any way we can to bring justice and hope for the future.

Crises continue to rise up in new parts of the globe every day, and old tensions spark up here and there, requiring US attention. Even so, other factors have arisen that must be taken into account. Along with globalization and interdependence, there is a dynamic shift in global politics. While the US is still the most powerful actor on the international field, other powers are rising up and challenging the world order established in the 1990s, for better or for worse. Brazil, China, India, Russia, and others are exercising their new found powers. Young middle powers demand greater influence in world politics, but have not accepted the responsibility that goes with a higher world standing, which only adds to the pressures on the US military, economy, and diplomatic core.

There is a new shift of power, as discussed in earlier blog posts. An international community once solely dominated by states is now finding other actors encroaching on its monopoly. Insurgency groups, NGOs, and Multinational Corporations impact the international sphere in a way they never have before. Diplomats must now take these non-state actors into account in negotiations and in decision making.

Finally, as the older generation begins to die out, and the younger generation comes into full force, all of these issues will be heightened and exacerbated. Only time will tell how the youth will effect international affairs, but their strength and power has already been seen in places like Egypt, Hong Kong, and countless other examples.


What is American Diplomacy to do in this new and still changing world order? “Old” diplomacy simply will not be able to handle this new multileveled world order. Ambassador Stewart suggests that the future lies in building greater cooperation between the US and other regional bodies. Some of these are long standing and vital alliances, such as the European bloc, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The US must also maintain its influence and relationships with the global financial institutions, namely the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Still, new alliances must be strengthened, such as with the African Union and the rising Asian regional organizations.

NATO Headquarters, Brussels Source: Utenriksdepartementet UD, Creative Commons
NATO Headquarters, Brussels
Source: Utenriksdepartementet UD, Creative Commons

Through “coalition building,” the US will make a greater and more positive impact on global politics, while also maintaining its own security and international interests. Multilateral approaches are the future. 

What is a diplomat to do? In this world of changing politics and danger, how can US Diplomacy remain relevant? Through the glum outlook, Ambassador Stewart makes claims to an optimistic outlook on how the world will come out better than it was before. There is no guide book or perfect formula for US foreign policy, but withdrawing from global affairs would destroy any chance of a prosperous and safe world.

The role of the US diplomat must change with the world, and Stewart believes that this requires a focus on reducing corruption, and thereby improving trust of domestic governments. America must also support tolerance and pluralism in foreign states, thus reducing the likelihood of human rights violations by the state or non-state actors.

Diplomacy is alive and thriving, but it must be supported in its visions and goals, by the US government and the public. The American Diplomat must be willing to take risks, and engage with the people of their host countries, not just the leaders. In these ways, American Diplomacy will navigate this hostile and ever changing world, and in the end, Ambassador Stewart has given me some optimism about the future as well. What’s a Diplomat to do? A Diplomat must roll up their sleeves, go out, and work for a more prosperous and more peaceful world.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.