by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, Washington, DC and Cambridge, Massachusetts, February, 2018
I am here to talk about diplomacy. This may seem an odd moment to broach the subject. Our president has told us that it doesn’t matter that his administration is not staffed to do it, because “I’m the only one who matters.” In other words, “l’état c’est moi.”
Now that it’s got that straight, the United States Department of State has set about dismantling itself. Meanwhile, the Foreign Service of the United States is dejectedly withering away. Our ever-flatulent media seem unconvinced that Americans will miss either institution.
I suspect they’re wrong about that. Diplomacy is an instrument of statecraft that Americans have not been educated to understand and whose history they do not know. It is not about “making nice.” Nor is it just a delaying tactic before we send in the Marines.
Diplomacy is a political performing art that informs and determines the decisions of other states and peoples. It shapes their perceptions and calculations so that they do what we want them to do because they come to see doing so as in their own best interest. Diplomacy influences the policies and behavior of states and peoples through measures short of war, though it does not shrink from war as a diversion or last resort. It is normally but not always overtly non-coercive. It succeeds best when it embraces humility and respects and preserves the dignity of those to whom it is applied. As the Chinese philosopher, Laozi put it: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.”
Napoleon called diplomacy, “the police in grand costume” but it is usually not much to look at. It seldom involves blowing things up, most of its action is unseen, and it is relatively inexpensive. Diplomacy’s greatest triumphs tend to be preventing things from happening. But it’s hard to prove they wouldn’t have occurred, absent diplomacy. So diplomats are more often blamed for what did happen than credited for what didn’t. Diplomats are even worse than sailors at marching. Diplomacy stages no parades in which ambassadors and their political masters can strut among baton-twirling majorettes or wave to adoring crowds. Nor, for the most part, does it justify expensive programs that generate the pork and patronage that nourish politics
All this makes diplomacy both obscure and of little or no direct interest to the central institutions in contemporary Washington’s foreign policy. As any foreign embassy will tell you, the U.S. Department of Defense and other elements of the military-industrial-congressional complex now dominate the policy process. Both are heavily invested in theories of coercive interaction between states. Both favor strategic and tactical doctrines that justify expensive weapons systems and well-paid people to use them. Activities that cost little and lack drama do not intrigue them. They see diplomats as the clean-up squad to be deployed after they have demolished other societies, not as peers who can help impose our will without fighting.
U.S. foreign policy is heavily militarized in theory, practice, and staffing. No one has bankrolled the development of professional diplomatic doctrine, meaning a body of interrelated operational concepts describing how to influence the behavior of other states and people by mostly non-violent means. So there is no diplomatic equivalent of military doctrine, the pretensions of some scholars of international relations (IR) theory notwithstanding. This is a very big gap in American statecraft that the growing literature on conflict management has yet to fill. The absence of diplomatic doctrine to complement military science eliminates most options short of the raw pressure of sanctions or the use of force. It thereby increases the probability of armed conflict, with all its unpredictable human and financial consequences.
Working out a diplomatic doctrine with which to train professional diplomats could have major advantages. Diplomatic performance might then continually improve, as military performance does, as experience emended doctrine. But developing diplomatic doctrine would require acceptance that our country has a need for someone other than dilettantes and amateurs to conduct its foreign relations. Our politicians, who love the spoils system, seem firmly convinced that, between them, wealthy donors and campaign gerbils can meet most of our needs in foreign affairs, with the military meeting the rest. The Department of State, which would be the logical government agency to fund an effort at the development of tradecraft and doctrine, is usually led by diplomatic novices. It is also the perennial runt at the federal budgetary teat.
Leadership of foreign policy by untrained neophytes was to a great extent the American norm even during the Cold War, when the United States led the world outside the Soviet camp and deployed unmatched political attractiveness and economic clout. Now retired and active duty military officers have been added to the diplomatic management mix. They are experts in the application of violence, not peaceable statecraft, to foreign societies. How is this likely to work out in the new world disorder? As the late Deng Xiaoping said, “practice is the sole criterion of truth.” So we’ll see. But while we wait for the outcome, there is still time to consider the potential of diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft.
The basis of diplomacy is empathy for the views of others. It is most effective when grounded in a sophisticated understanding of another’s language, culture, feelings, and intellectual habits. Empathy inhibits killing. It is not a character trait we expect or desire our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to have.
Language and area training plus practical experience are what enable diplomats to imagine the viewpoint of foreign leaders, to see the world as they do, to analyze trends and events as they would, and to evaluate the pros and cons of actions as they might. A competent diplomat can use such insights to make arguments that foreign leaders find persuasive. A diplomat schooled in strategy can determine what circumstances are required to persuade foreign leaders that doing what the diplomat wants them to do is not yielding to superior power but deciding on their own to do what is in their nation’s best interest.
Empathy does not, of course, imply alignment or agreement with the viewpoints of others, just understanding of them. It is not the same as sympathy, which identifies with others’ perspectives. Sometimes the aim of diplomacy is to persuade a foreign country to continue to adhere to established policies, because they are beneficial. But more commonly, it is to change the policies, behavior, and practices of other countries or individuals, not to affirm or endorse them. To succeed, diplomats must cleave to their own side’s interests, convictions, and policy positions even as they grasp the motivations and reasoning processes of those whose positions they seek to change. But they must also be able to see their country and its actions as others see them and accept these views as an operational reality to be acknowledged and dealt with rather than denounced as irrational or duplicitous.
To help policy-makers formulate policies and actions that have a real chance of influencing a particular foreign country’s decisions, diplomats habitually find themselves called upon to explain how and why that country’s history and circumstances make it see things and act the way it does. In the United States, most men and women in senior foreign policy positions did not work their way up the ranks. They are much more familiar with domestic interest groups and their views than with foreign societies and how they work. Explanation of foreign positions is easily mistaken for advocacy of them, especially by people inclined to dismiss outlandish views that contradict their prejudices as inherently irrational or malicious.
It’s good domestic politics to pound the policy table in support of popular narratives and nationalist postures and to reject foreign positions on issues as irrational, disingenuous, or malevolent. But diplomats can’t do that if they are to remain true to their calling. In a policy process driven more by how things will look to potential domestic critics than by a determination actually to change the behavior of foreigners, diplomats are easily marginalized. But when they are backed by strong-minded leaders who want results abroad, they can accomplish a great deal that military intervention cannot.
Let me give a couple of examples of how U.S. diplomacy has rearranged other states’ and people’s appraisals of their strategic circumstances and caused them to decide to adopt courses of action favored by the United States. These examples show both the complexities with which diplomacy must deal and its limitations in terms of its ability to secure assured outcomes.