An Interview with Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr.

by Forum Staff on December 18, 2013

LB picAmbassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr. has served since 2008 as Chairman of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bloomfield was the U.S. Special Envoy for MANPADS Threat Reduction from 2008-09 (reducing the availability of shoulder-fired missiles to terrorist groups who could threaten aviation safety), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, as well as Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State for Humanitarian Mine Action from 2001-2005. He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (1992-93), Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs (1991-02), U.S. Delegation to Philippine Bases Negotiations (1990-91), U.S. Water Mediation in the Middle East (1989-90), and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (1988-89), among other policy positions in the Department of Defense (OSD/ISA) beginning in 1981.

In a conversation with The Fletcher Forum, Ambassador Bloomfield discusses the role of institutions and diplomacy in an increasingly globalized world and comments on a range of issues from national security policy to the ongoing crisis in Syria to climate change. He also offers savvy advice for aspiring world leaders pursuing international careers.


FLETCHER FORUM: The Stimson Center, for which you serve as Chairman, was awarded a 2013 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. In your view, how has The Center so successfully cut across political party lines to craft recommendations that are actionable and effective? And more generally, what unique role should think tanks and similar institutions play in forging solutions for the global challenges we face?

BLOOMFIELD: I am happy to boast about Stimson’s work, once it is clear that all credit goes to Stimson President and CEO Ellen Laipson, her staff, and the analytical team that earned the MacArthur Award. I see three principal reasons for Stimson’s effectiveness and, in some cases, its differences from other think tanks: first, an absence of ideological predisposition—neither partisan nor bipartisan, Stimson is non-partisan; second, a readiness to embrace challenging security issues without knowing what types of conclusions or recommendations might result from our inquiry; and third, a policy of independence from any influence by our funders, strictly enforced by our Board. Beyond these enduring traits, Stimson tries to pursue issues of trans-national significance where our analytical strengths and our ability to convene parties often with widely differing interests promise unique and impactful policy contributions.

FLETCHER FORUM: In your view, is there still an indispensable role for traditional diplomacy in an increasingly globalized world that now reflects the significant impact of non-state actors, civil society, nongovernmental organizations, and others? If so, what unique role can or should diplomacy play in implementing and impacting foreign policy?

BLOOMFIELD: My answer is yes. The question may be what is meant by traditional diplomacy. One of the changed aspects of today’s world is the greater participation of its population in an increasingly free market economy. Nothing happens in business without reaching terms of agreement—actions and goods delivered, and compensation rendered. This is no different from traditional diplomacy at its best, and if anything the world needs more, not less, skillful diplomacy aimed at taming the dangers of strong and weak states alike as well as non-state actors. In addition, governments need to become more attuned to the “street” in societies around the world, and to the youth demographic that underlies many sources of instability in today’s world. Finally, with the diffusion of power away from governments to individuals, NGOs, companies, movements and the like, diplomats and their governmental overseers must adapt by reaching out to access networks of influential and knowledgeable people, including journalists and NGO workers, in countries of interest.

FLETCHER FORUM: In this age of information, we are seeing digital technologies redistribute power and influence in key regions. In this evolving context, is a soft power approach to global politics—one that attempts to build “reputation power” to attract and co-opt rather than coerce—the best way to exert leadership in the world today? Why or why not?

BLOOMFIELD: Since 2001, we have seen the limits of a hard power-centric approach.  Even Donald Rumsfeld, a key architect of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, once remarked that terrorists could be recruited faster than the United States and its coalition partners could kill them. My concept of a national security strategy, and of American power, recognizes the foundational importance of both a superior military and a sound economy. Yet above even these elements of power, I accord primacy to the factor of national reputation. By this I mean that in order to deserve the status of leadership among nations, the United States must exhibit strategic wisdom about the problems commonly faced by governments and their people. One simple test of leadership is how ready others are to follow. In recent years that willingness on the part of other capitals, once assumed in Washington, has been called into question. There is room for re-examination of whether Washington—including both major political parties—is exerting leadership as effectively as it could be doing.

My answer does not distinguish between the types of policy tools to be employed. One expert on soft power, former Hungarian Ambassador to the United States Andras Simonyi—who formed a rock band and appeared twice on the Colbert Report while helping to integrate Hungary into NATO and the U.S.-led coalitions after September 11—has written about “spectral” power, which suggests a wider aperture of policy planning and execution than the U.S. foreign policy community has yet shown. As the question suggests, the power of global information connectivity is very significant. In my view, the U.S. Government has yet to come to terms with the potential challenges the information domain can pose to U.S. foreign policy, nor has it developed new tools that might help the United States to gain, instead of lose, leverage over foreign public opinion.

FLETCHER FORUM: The concept of security in the twenty-first century is changing, as we see the rise of non-state actors, cyber issues, and asymmetric warfare. How do you imagine the future of global security, and how must the United States adapt its policies or grand strategy to confront the unique security challenges of the twenty-first century?

BLOOMFIELD: In my view, governments have been too passive in analyzing this trend. The devolution of power away from governments—who achieved a monopoly of power in the mid-twentieth century at the height of the industrial age, with some very good and some very bad consequences—does not mean that we should sit passively by as armed non-state actors challenge the primacy of states. I strongly believe that U.S. security policy should be guided by a strategy to keep military-grade weaponry solely in the hands of governments. However, because we do not want to be supporting governments who misuse their power at the expense of the rights of their people, the United States should pursue a parallel interest in quality of governance and respect for rights—human rights, women’s rights, rights of minority communities, property rights, etc. Promoting good governance while reinforcing the norm that private entities should not be permitted to acquire and use paramilitary capabilities would be a useful focus for governments. We must reverse the tide of extremist and destabilizing non-state actors who do not observe international norms of law and conduct.

FLETCHER FORUM: The world faces an immense humanitarian and security crisis in Syria, as the death toll surpasses one hundred thousand and the number of refugees and displaced persons mount to more than six million. Can the United States tolerate the atrocities of the Assad regime, and are there serious consequences for non-intervention? Is there a place for morality in U.S. foreign policy and interventionism?

BLOOMFIELD: As difficult as it seems to be for U.S. officials, the American public, and many leading journalists to understand, standing aside as Syria implodes is a serious error in U.S. security policy. I recognize the widespread attitude in Washington that there is no useful way to influence the Syria crisis, and that the opportunity to do so is long past, if it ever existed. Yet as I have written recently in The National Interest, there are many non-military tools that we have not attempted to use, or even thought about using. Such tools include defection programs, information operations, an abdication/exile scenario for Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle, war crimes prosecutions, backed as necessary, by limited military strikes intended more to create uncertainty and disrupt Iranian and Hizballah arms supplies than to add to the large-scale destruction already done mainly by Syrian government forces.

FLETCHER FORUM: The Stimson Center has been a leader in addressing another distinct but equally important security issue: environmental security. In your view, are the rising stresses on global ecosystems and shared natural resources compromising economic development or undermining political stability in key areas of the world? If so, what can or should be done to mitigate the strains on the global environment?

BLOOMFIELD: I am one who respects good science, and regardless of the extent one believes or disputes that the warming of the earth’s atmospheric and ocean temperatures is caused by the increased burning of fossil fuels and other man-made activities, we ought to be thinking of the implications of these changes. The Stimson Center looks at those implications that cross boundaries, and seeks to convene stakeholders in productive political dialogues that promote cooperative initiatives. The effects of climate change may be positive for some and negative for others. What is important from a policy perspective is that responsible policymakers are thinking through steps to assure both physical and economic security in affected areas, whether the issue is rising seas, migrating populations, or distressed ecosystems on which peoples’ livelihoods depend. There is a broad and growing agenda of issues being addressed by Stimson in this area.

FLETCHER FORUM: Given your distinguished career in public service, what knowledge or experience would you share with aspiring public servants and young professionals interested in pursuing a career in international affairs?

BLOOMFIELD: My advice is to try to pursue opportunities that you truly find interesting, and ideally, try to work closely for, or with, a very accomplished person in your field of interest. Having a high-performing boss is a great way to learn what success looks like in your area. Getting close to the “action” in your field, whether or not the initial terms of employment are financially attractive, should be the priority. Beyond this, my advice to everyone joining the professional workforce is to accept whatever work or task you are given as an opportunity to excel. Always do things to your greatest ability, even if the task seems menial or insignificant; by always seeking to be your best, you will be ready when moments of opportunity strike and more senior professionals see how well you do things. Finally, never forget that all the issues you are studying involve real people; whether you are talking about a corrupt dictator, an idealistic young protester in Tahrir Square, a refugee fleeing from danger and famine, or a charismatic personality on the internet preaching extremism in the name of religion, all of these are people, and by remembering this you will instinctively know more about each than you might think reading about them in the news or intelligence reports. Even with hostile or culturally very different actors in the world, use your basic humanity in assessing their motives and objectives, and you will be well served.

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