Diplomacy: A Rusting Tool of American Statecraft

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 

Diplomacy: A Rusting Tool of American Statecraft
A Lecture to programs on Statecraft at American University, Harvard, and MIT [Republished with permission. The original text is available here]

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.

 

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Confirmations: Trujillo, Pence, Prado, Traina, Moley, Royce, and More

Posted: 12:04 am  ET

 

Late on March 22, the U.S. Senate confirmed the following executive nominations for the State Department, the Peace Corps, and a few other reps for international banks:

Exec. Cal. #616 Carlos Trujillo, of Florida, to be Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the Organization of American States
Exec. Cal. #752 – Robert Frank Pence, of Virginia, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Finland
Exec. Cal. #753 – Edward Charles Prado, of Texas, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Argentine Republic
Exec. Cal. #754 – Trevor D. Traina, of California, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Austria
Exec. Cal. #759 – Kevin Edward Moley, of Arizona, to be an Assistant Secretary of State (International Organization Affairs)

Exec. Cal. #761 – Marie Royce, of California, to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Educational and Cultural Affairs)

Also confirmed:

PEACE CORPS
Exec. Cal. #760 – Josephine Olsen, of Maryland, to be Director of the Peace Corps

EUROPEAN BANK FOR RECONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT

Exec. Cal. #330 Steven T. Mnuchin – to be United States Governor of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, United States Governor of the African Development Fund, and United States Governor of the Asian Development Bank.

Exec. Cal. #756 – Judy Lynn Shelton, of Virginia, to be United States Director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND

Exec. Cal. #331 Steven T. Mnuchin – to be United States Governor of the International Monetary Fund, United States Governor of the African Development Bank, United States Governor of the Inter-American Development Bank, and United States Governor of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development for a term of five years.

INTERNATIONAL BANK FOR RECONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT

Exec. Cal. #755 – Erik Bethel, of Florida, to be United States Alternate Executive Director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development for a term of two years

The nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Germany is still stuck in confirmation purgatory:

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Former Ambassador John Feeley’s Parting Shot: Why I could no longer serve this president

Posted: 4:25 am ET

 

Via WaPo:

I never meant for my decision to resign to be a public political statement. Sadly, it became one.

The details of how that happened are less important than the demoralizing take-away: When career public servants take an oath to communicate dissent only in protected channels, Trump administration officials do not protect that promise of privacy.

Leaking is not new in Washington. But leaking a sitting ambassador’s personal resignation letter to the president, as mine was, is something else. This was a painful indication that the current administration has little respect for those who have served the nation apolitically for decades. […] A part of my resignation letter that has not been quoted publicly reads: “I now return home, with no rank or title other than citizen, to continue my American journey.” What this means for me is still evolving.

As the grandson of migrant stock from New York City, an Eagle Scout, a Marine Corps veteran and someone who has spent his diplomatic career in Latin America, I am convinced that the president’s policies regarding migration are not only foolish and delusional but also anti-American.

Read in full below:

Here are a couple of goodbye videos from Panama:

 

Related posts:

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U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson to Retire After 31 Years of Service

Posted: 3:53 am ET

 

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Ambassador Anthony Quainton: “there are more and more hammers in the policy toolbox…”

Posted: 4:04 am ET

 

From Militarization and Marginalization of American Diplomacy and Foreign Policy via American Diplomacy
Ambassador Anthony C. E. Quainton 
Former U.S. Ambassador to CAR, Nicaragua, Kuwait, Peru
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, DGHR, and CT Coordinator

“[W]e are not facing a militarization of American foreign policy but the marginalization of diplomacy as the effective alternative to military force. The denigration and dismissal of soft power, even when it is renamed smart power, has led to a perception of diplomatic weakness and the concomitant rise of military influence on the policy process. It is a sad reality that there are more and more hammers in the policy toolbox and fewer alternative weapons. The result may be that a president anxious to make America great again and to demonstrate the effectiveness of American leadership and power may look for a place of his choosing to demonstrate American power. President Trump does not seem temperamentally interested in the prolonged and protracted process of diplomacy. His recent tweet questioning the utility of Secretary Tillerson’s efforts to engage the North Koreans in dialogue is an example of this skepticism. In these circumstances we should not be surprised if the United States were to decides to choose a target of opportunity in Iran or North Korea or Syria to show off its military might. This will not reflect the institutional militarization of American foreign policy but rather the emotional need of many Americans, frustrated by our loss of global standing to demonstrate that America can indeed be great again. Neither a resourced military nor an marginalized diplomacy should want that to happen.”

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Portrait of a Diplomat: Ambassador “Spike” Dubs (1920-1979) #athingofthespirit

Posted: 3:26 am ET

 

This year marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph “Spike” Dubs in Kabul. He was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan in 1978 following a coup d’etat. On February 14, 1979, Dubs was kidnapped by armed militants posing as police.

According to ADST, documents later released from KGB archives in the 1990s showed that “the Afghan government clearly authorized an assault on the kidnappers despite forceful U.S. demands for peaceful negotiations and that the KGB adviser on the scene may have recommended the assault as well as the execution of a kidnapper before U.S. experts could interrogate him.

FSO Bruce Flatin was the Political Counselor in Kabul at the time of Dubs’ assassination. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1993. Read more from his oral history interview in The Assassination of Ambassador Spike Dubs — Kabul, 1979. Bruce K. Byers who was USIS Press Attaché at U.S. Embassy Kabul from 1978-79 wrote Remembering Ambassador Dubs, and the Future of Afghanistan for American Diplomacy in 2009.  Ambassador Dubs is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Most recently, David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park posted  in The Text Message blog his Tribute to a Fallen Diplomat that includes a 1979 cable about Ambassador Dubs:

While the outline of his career covers all the bureaucratic bases, it does not reflect the ambassador’s achievements nor does it reveal the man.  The editors of the WASHINGTON STAR asked Warren Zimmerman, a former subordinate of Dubs at a posting in Yugoslavia and then working in the U.S. embassy in Paris, for a contribution about the ambassador.  In response, he prepared a draft under the title “Portrait of a Diplomat” that he sent to Washington in the following telegram, from the Central Foreign Policy Files (NAID 654098).

Clips from the Zimmerman’s February 1979 cable below. Click here to read the entire cable via NARA.

 

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Career Diplomat Lee McClenny Sworn-In as New U.S.Ambassador to Paraguay

Posted: 3:05 am ET

 

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@StateDept Lays Off 360 Local Staff at U.S. Embassy Yemen

Posted: 1:22 am ET

 

The State Department suspended its embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and American staff were relocated out of the country  in February 2015. Embassy Sanaa had previously announced the suspension of all consular services until further notice on February 8, 2015.

A January 10 Travel Advisory is a Level 4 Do Not Travel citing terrorism, civil unrest, health, and armed conflict. “Terrorist groups continue to plot and conduct attacks in Yemen. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.” The Advisory notes that the U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Yemen.

On February 11, Reuters reported that the U.S. Government has laid off 360 local staff in Yemen. Ambassador Matthew Tueller has reportedly written to to the LE staff saying that “new US State Department regulations about suspended embassies meant he could no longer keep them on.”  A State Department official confirmed the lay-offs to Reuters, saying: “We are extremely grateful for the service of each and every one of these individuals and hope to work with them at some point in the future when we can safely resume operations in Yemen.”

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Watch Out For the 90-Day Rule: Mandatory Retirement For Former Presidential Appointees

Posted: 12:54 am ET

 

Yo!

3 FAM 6215
MANDATORY RETIREMENT OF FORMER PRESIDENTIAL APPOINTEES
(CT:PER-594;   03-06-2007)
(State only)
(Applies to Foreign Service Employees)

a. Career members of the Service who have completed Presidential assignments under section 302(b) of the Act, and who have not been reassigned within 90 days after the termination of such assignment, plus any period of authorized leave, shall be retired as provided in section 813 of the Act.  For purposes of this section, a reassignment includes the following:

(1)  An assignment to an established position for a period of at least six months pursuant to the established assignments process (including an assignment that has been approved in principle by the appropriate assignments panel);

(2)  Any assignment pursuant to section 503 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended;

(3)  A detail (reimbursable or nonreimbursable) to another U.S. Government agency or to an international organization;

(4)  A transfer to an international organization pursuant to 5 U.S.C. sections 3581 through 3584; or

(5)  A pending recommendation to the President that the former appointee be nominated for a subsequent Presidential appointment to a specific position.

b. Except as provided for in paragraph c of this section, a reassignment does not include an assignment to a Department bureau in “overcomplement” status or to a designated “Y” tour position.

c.  The Director General may determine that appointees who have medical conditions that require assignment to “medical overcomplement” status are reassigned for purposes of Section 813 of the Foreign Service Act.

d. To the maximum extent possible, former appointees who appear not likely to be reassigned and thus subject to mandatory retirement under section 813 of the Act will be so notified in writing by the Director General not later than 30 days prior to the expiration of the 90-day reassignment period.

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Senate Confirms Joel Danies (Gabon) and Peter Vrooman (Rwanda)

Posted: 1:03 am ET

 

On February 15, the U.S. Senate confirmed the following career nominees to be U.S. Ambassadors to Gabon and to Rwanda:

Executive Calendar #617 – Joel Danies, of Maryland, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Counselor, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Gabonese Republic, and to serve concurrently as Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe.

Executive Calendar #667 – Peter Hendrick Vrooman, of New York, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Counselor, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Rwanda.

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