Mama, please don’t listen to Tom Friedman

I’m only just getting around to objecting to Thomas Friedman’s column yesterday. Its title is “In the Age of Pirates,” but he makes the same regrettable conflation of pirates and varied other “non-state actors” and “failed states” that results in the endless list of “baddies” cited in the “Linked Up” piece below. The conclusion that Friedman draws from this oversimplification of foreign policy challenges is, unsurprisingly, oversimplified: “‘Mama, don’t let your children grow up to be diplomats,’ he cautions, for “[t]his is not the great age of diplomacy.”

But this is increasingly an age of pirates, failed states, nonstate actors and nation-building – the stuff of snipers, drones and generals, not diplomats.

Strangely, though, Friedman’s actual solutions are more nuanced than this cheesy formulation would suggest. He stresses the need to build the responsive state institutions — “the pulleys and wheels,” he calls them — that would help “failed states” better control their countries’ interactions with the rest of the world. And an easy conclusion to draw from his call for “much more effective leverage” on recalcitrant regimes is that it will take concerted efforts from a unified international community to make a difference in altering these countries’ destructively antagonistic foreign policy calculus.

Besides increased international investment and engagement (building “pulleys and wheels” is at least metaphorically, and possibly literally, part of UNDP’s job description in Afghanistan, for example) what do these two approaches have in common? Neither of them can be effectuated through “snipers, drones, [or] generals.” These military options — contrary to the sweeping lessons being trumpeted by many over the dramatic, bullet-driven piracy rescue the other week — are almost inevitably ad hoc and unsustainable, a la the whack-a-mole theory of terrorist eradication. Diplomacy, on the other hand, will be an integral part of whatever slant our long-term strategy adopts.

Different kinds of threats may require different kinds of diplomats, but with Cold War military standoffishness fading ever further into the background, this is exactly why we need more, not fewer, of Mama’s boys and girls signing up for the Foreign Service.

(image from flickr user Charles Haynes under a Creative Commons license)