Ambassador Freeman on American statecraft — It’s hard to think of anything that has gone right.

— Domani Spero
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Ambassador Chas Freeman was the U. S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1989 to 1992 ) during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Chester Crocker during the historic U.S. mediation of Namibian independence from South Africa and Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola.  More notably, he was the principal American interpreter during the late President Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong in China in 1972. He did tours in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. In the 1990s, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.  He is the author of several books including a favorite of ours, the The Diplomat’s Dictionary published by the U.S. Institute of Peace Press. We  previously blogged about Ambassador Freeman here and here.

On August 19, he gave a speech at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles California on How Diplomacy Fails.  What’s racking up a remarkably poor track record?  “Hastily-arranged presidential phone calls, hopscotch huddles with foreigners by the secretary of state, scoldings of foreign leaders by U.S. spokespersons, suspensions of bilateral dialogue, sanctions,” etc, etc  —  for starters.  Glad to hear Ambassador Freeman bring these up.  We hope more would speak up.



We are republishing the text of the speech below; a must read as it explains a lot of what ails American diplomacy.

How Diplomacy Fails

We are here to discuss what we can learn from the failure of diplomacy to prevent, halt, and wrap up World War I.  We just heard a masterful review of what happened from Geoffrey Wawro.  He has already said most of the things I wanted to say.  So he’s left me  with no alternative but to actually address the topic I was asked to speak about, which is the failings of today’s American diplomacy in light of the deficiencies of diplomacy in 1914.

There are in fact some very disquieting similarities between the challenges statecraft faced back then and those it faces today.

The eve of World War I was also a time of rapid globalization, shifting power balances, rising nationalisms, socioeconomic stress, and transformative military technologies.  The railroad networks, barbed wire, dynamite, repeating rifles, machine guns, long-range artillery, aircraft and submarines that altered the nature of war then are paralleled by today’s cyber and space-based surveillance systems, drones, precision-guided munitions, sub-launched and land-based anti ship missiles,  missile defense and penetration aids, anti satellite missiles, cyber assaults, hypersonic gliders, and nuclear weapons.  Changes in the European political economy set the stage for World War I.  Changes in technology made it different from previous wars.

Armed conflict between major powers today would reveal that warfare has again mutated and developed new horrors for its participants.  But some factors driving conflict now would parallel those of a century ago.  In 1914, as in 2014, a professional military establishment, estranged from society but glorified by it, drew up war plans using new technologies on the fatal premise that the only effective defense is a preemptive offense.  Then, as now, these plans evolved without effective political oversight or diplomatic input.  Then, as now, military-to-military interactions within alliances sometimes took place without adequate supervision by civilian authority, leading to unmanageable policy disconnects that were revealed only when war actually broke out.

As the 20th century began, successive crises in the Balkans had the effect of replacing the 19thcentury’s careful balancing of interests with competition between military blocs.  This conflated military posturing with diplomacy, much as events in  the East and South China Seas, the Middle East, and Ukraine seem to be doing today.  Then, as now, decisions by the smaller allies of the great powers risked setting off local wars that might rapidly expand and escalate.  Then, as now, most people thought that, whatever smaller countries might do, war between the great powers was irrational and therefore would not occur.  And then, as now, the chiefs of state and government of the great powers practiced attention deficit diplomacy.  They were so engaged at the tactical level that they had little time to give full consideration to the strategic implications of their decisions.

Ironically, in light of what actually happened, few would dispute that the factors inhibiting war in Europe in 1914 were greater than those impeding it today.  European leaders were not only personally acquainted but, in many instances, related to each other.  They and their diplomatic aides knew each other well.  There was a common European culture and a tradition of successful conference diplomacy and crisis management for them to draw upon.  European imperialists could and had often solved problems by trading colonies or other peripheral interests to reduce tensions between themselves.  None of these factors exist today to reduce the likelihood of wars between the United States and China or Iran, or NATO and Russia, or China and Japan or India – to name only the pairings warmongers seem to enjoy talking about the most.

On the other hand, alliances today facilitate cooperation.  In practice, they no longer, as they did in 1914, oblige mutual aid or embody preconcerted common purposes.  This welcome but dishonorable fact reduces the moral hazard implicit in American defense commitments to weaker allies and diminishes the prospect that they might act rashly because the U.S. has their back.  It also reduces the danger of automatic widening and escalation of local wars.

No one wants war of any kind.  But, as events in Europe in the summer of 1914 remind us, discounting the possibility of war and not wanting it are not enough to prevent it from happening.  And, as the president suggested in his commencement address at West Point this May, we need to find alternatives to the use of force to advance our interests in the 21stcentury.  That means strengthening our capacity for diplomacy.

It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  But it is equally true that those who learn the wrong lessons from history must expect reeducation by painful experience.  So it’s not surprising that, since the end of the Cold War, American diplomacy has suffered repeated rebuke from unexpected developments.  Some of these have taken place in the Balkans, where World War I was kindled – and where we have arranged a ceasefire, installed a garrison, and called it peace.

But most challenges to our problem-solving ability are coming from other places and are producing still worse results.  Consider the north Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, Israel-Palestine, 9/11 and our ever-intensifying conflict with militant Islam, regime change in Iraq, the Russo-Georgian war, the Arab uprisings (including that in Syria), “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, the “pivot to Asia” amidst tussles in the South and East China Seas, the collapse of Sykes-Picot and the rise of Jihadistan in the Levant, and the Ukraine crisis, among other tests of American statecraft.  It’s hard to think of anything that’s has gone right.

It’s worth asking what we have got wrong.  Clearly, military strength alone is not enough to guarantee international order or compel deference to U.S. desires.  So Americans are looking for a more restrained and less militaristic way of dealing with the world beyond our borders.

The president nicely captured the national mood when he said that “our military has no peer,” but  added that: “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

That insight implies that we should be skilled at measures short of war, that is: diplomacy.  For many reasons, we are not.  To set aside  militarism and redevelop the capacity to shape events abroad to our advantage without a feckless resort to force, we need to unlearn a lot of bad habits and to reexamine some of the presuppositions guiding our approach to foreign affairs.   Military overreach cannot be offset by diplomatic incapacity.

Part of what is required is correcting dysfunctional assumptions about how to deal with ornery foreigners.  Denouncing them and breaking off dialogue with them is petulant.  It doesn’t solve  problems.  Refusing to meet with another government until it accepts and meets our moral standards is a sure recipe for impasse.  “Come out with your hands up or we won’t talk to you” is not a persuasive way to begin negotiations.  Declaratory “diplomacy” and sanctions entrench confrontation.  They neither mitigate it or address its causes.  We are seeing that effect now with Russia in Ukraine.

Short of the use of force, without tactfully persuasive conversation very few people and no nations can be convinced to change course.  It is difficult to get an adversary to yield when he believes his political survival as well as his dignity depend on not surrendering.  So as long as we know what we are going to say and what effect it is likely to have, it is better to talk than not to talk.  Those with whom we disagree need to hear directly and respectfully from us why we think they are wrong and harming their own interests and why they are costing themselves opportunities they should want to pursue and risking injuries they should wish to avoid.

It takes time to establish the mutual confidence necessary for such dialogue.  It is counterproductive to stand on our side of the oceans and give other nations the finger, while threatening to bomb them.  It does not make sense to react to problems in other nations by severing communication with them.  As Winston Churchill observed, “the reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment but to secure a convenience.”  Yet, for example, we routinely withdraw military attachés following military coups.  Since our attachés are the only American officials who know and have credibility with the new military rulers, this is the equivalent of gagging, deafening, and blinding ourselves – a kind of unilateral diplomatic disarmament.  Our diplomatic technique badly needs an upgrade.

But the more fundamental problem for U.S. diplomacy is the moral absolutism inherent in American exceptionalism.  Our unique historical experience shapes our approach to our disadvantage, ruling out much of the bargaining and compromise that are central to diplomacy.  In our Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, we demonized the enemy and sought his unconditional surrender, followed by his repentance, reconstruction, and ideological remolding. The American way of international contention formed by these experiences is uniquely uncompromising.   Our rigidity is reinforced by the mythic cliché of Hitler at Munich. That has come to stand for the overdrawn conclusion that the conciliation of adversaries is invariably not just foolish but immoral and self-defeating.

The Cold War reduced most American diplomacy to proclaiming our values, holding our ground, containing the enemy, and preventing inroads into our sphere of influence – the zone we called “the free world.”  Despite occasional talk of “rollback,” with few exceptions, our approach was static and defensive – the diplomatic equivalent of trench warfare.  In this formative period of American diplomacy, our typical object was not to resolve international quarrels but to prevent their resolution by military means.  So we learned to respond to problems by pointing a gun at those who made them but avoiding talking to them or even being seen in their company.

Without our realizing it, Americans reconceived diplomacy as a means of communicating disapproval, dramatizing differences, amplifying deterrence, inhibiting change, and precluding gains by adversaries.  For the most part, we did not see diplomacy as a tool for narrowing or bridging differences, still less solving them by producing win-win outcomes.  We seem to be having trouble remembering that diplomacy’s usual purpose is  to do these very things.

The experience of other nations causes most to see diplomacy and war as part of a continuum of means by which to persuade other states and peoples to end controversies and accept adjustments in their foreign relations, borders, military postures, and the like.  Given Americans’ history of isolationism alternating with total war, we tend to see diplomacy and armed conflict as opposites.  We describe war as a failure of diplomacy, not as a sometimes necessary escalation of pressure to achieve its aims.

Americans suppose that diplomacy ends when war begins and does not resume until the enemy lies prostrate before us.  We imagine that wars end when the victor proclaims his military mission accomplished rather than when the vanquished is brought to accept defeat.  Lacking a tradition of war termination through diplomacy, we have great difficulty successfully ending wars, as Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya all attest.  We have yet to internalize the need to reconcile enemies to the political consequences of military outcomes and to translate these outcomes into peace agreements – binding acceptances of a new status quo as preferable to its overthrow.

The failure of diplomacy in World War I left most Americans with a very jaundiced view of it.  Will Rogers summed this up when he said “the United States never lost a war or won a conference” and added “take the diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall flat in a week.”  As a nation, despite our seven decades of superpower status, Americans still don’t take diplomacy seriously.  Most of us see it as an expression of weakness – so much namby-pamby nonsense before we send in the Marines.  And, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we still seem convinced that diplomacy is an amateur sport.

We show this in how we staff our country’s statecraft and diplomacy.  Our military and our spies are professionals.  But, for the most part, our foreign policy is crafted, led, and executed by ambitious amateurs – ideologues, the paladins of special interests, securocrats playing games of musical sinecures, political spin doctors, and the occasional academic.  Our ambassadors in important capitals are selected as a reward for their campaign contributions, not for their experience in diplomacy or competence at advancing U.S. national interests abroad.  All too often these days, our politicians fiddle while the world turns, leaving the diplomatic ramparts unmanned as crises unfold.  As an example, we had no ambassador to Moscow for the five months in which Russophobes and Russians pulled down an already rickety Ukraine, detached the Crimea from it, and reignited East-West confrontation in Europe.  On August 1, the U.S. Senate cast its last votes of the season, leaving 59 countries with no American ambassador.

America’s dilettantish approach to national security is unique among modern states.  We get away with it – when we do – mainly because our diplomacy is supported by very bright and able career officers.  But our foreign service works in an environment contemptuous of professionalism that more often than not leaves its officers’ potential unrecognized, unmentored, and underdeveloped.  (If the highest ranks of the diplomatic profession in the United States are reserved for men and women who have made a lot of money in other professions and avocations, why should our most talented young people – even those who want to serve our country – waste time apprenticing as diplomats?  Why not do something less dangerous and more lucrative, then buy your way in at the top?)  Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the United States has come to be known for its military prowess, not its foreign affairs literacy, the wisdom and imagination of its statecraft, or the strategic sophistication and subtlety of its diplomacy.  This is proving dangerous.  In an increasingly competitive world, diplomatic mediocrity is no longer good enough.

Americans must now consider whether we can afford to continue to entrust our diplomacy to amateurs.  Hastily-arranged presidential phone calls, hopscotch huddles with foreigners by the secretary of state, scoldings of foreign leaders by U.S. spokespersons, suspensions of bilateral dialogue, sanctions (whether unilateral or plurilateral), and attempted ostracism of foreign governments are racking up a remarkably poor track record in the increasingly complex circumstances of the post-Cold War world.  So is the dangerous conflation of military posturing with diplomacy.  If we Americans do not learn to excel at measures short of war, we will be left with no choice but to continue to resort to war to solve problems that experience tells us can’t be solved by it.

To prosper in the multipolar world before us, Americans will need to be at the top of its  diplomatic game.  We are a very long way from that at present.  And time’s a wasting.


Frankly, we’re exhausted watching Secretary Kerry fly here and there. We know he meant well, but what does it say when he is required to do the work that his ambassadors or special envoys should be doing?  As to the spokespersons, we have to confess that there are days, and there are many of them, when we are overwhelmed with great envy that the Pentagon has a Rear Admiral Kirby behind the podium. Well, boo! for me.

The original material is located at  Republished here with Ambassador Freeman’s permission.

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Protecting Diplomats Post-Embassy Attacks: More Fortresses or Rethinking Fortresses?

The Skeptical Bureaucrat in his blog points out that the USG investment in new, secure, embassy buildings paid off very big for those employees who were inside the safe havens in Tunis, Khartoum, and Sanaa during the embassy attacks several days ago.  He writes:

Where the host government fulfilled its obligation to protect the integrity of diplomatic premises, the mobs were kept back. Where the host government did not do so, our missions had to rely on physical barriers – their walls, doors and windows – to keep the mobs outside.

Physical barriers themselves are not absolute protection, of course, but are there just to delay the attackers until the host government acts, if it ever does.You cannot keep people out of embassy compounds for long if the local authorities don’t show up. However, you can keep people out of your embassy office building for a good long time, maybe even long enough for them to give up and leave, if the building was built for that purpose.

Of course, if it were more than a mob attack, people may not just give up and leave; or may do so only after there is considerable damage in life and property.

In the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and several breaches into our embassy compounds, diplomatic security will be in the front burner once more.  Like Yogi Berra says, it’s dejavu all over again. The 1998 East Africa embassy bombings happened in an off election year (but during the Lewinsky scandal), the Benghazi attack happened right smack in the middle of a presidential election. So while there will be calls for resignations, investigations and whatnots, this year, it will be louder than usual.

There will be calls for more secure embassy facilities in addition to the now standard requirement for 100-foot setback from vehicular traffic and nine-foot-tall walls.  Former Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian once said, ‘O.K., we built a 16-foot wall, but there is such a thing as a 17-foot ladder.’  As we’ve seen this past weeks on live tv, the 100-foot setback and nine-foot walls were not a deterrent to rioters who scrambled quickly up those walls and spread easily to wreck havoc inside the compound.

Before the embassy attacks happened, the new 1 billion US Embassy in London reportedly inspired by English architecture, was already planned to include a moat, er, reflecting pool to “prevent the possibility of a vehicle getting to the embassy to cause damage.” Take a look. Somebody must have already calculated the upkeep and utilities for a building such as this, but we have not seen the figures.  For more on the new embassies, read  former FSO, Dave Seminara’s piece in The Washington Diplomat, America’s Embassy Building Boom Fortifies Diplomacy, Security Abroad from April this year.

Aerial view of the new Embassy building © KieranTimberlake/studio amd via US Embassy London/Flickr

Continuing on this road, the next stop might be a concentric fortress for an embassy needing the very best protection.  As with the concentric castles of the 12th century, the concentric embassy will be surrounded by a moat and entrance will be by drawbridge. It will be protected by an inner wall built of thick stone with towers positioned at intervals, and another lower stone wall that’s just as thick.  Apparently, in the old days, the space between the two walls was known as the ‘death hole’ because those trapped within the walls certainly die from being picked by archers one by one.

The Krak des Chevaliers as it was in the Middle-Ages. From Guillaume Rey : Étude sur les monuments de l’architecture militaire des croisés en Syrie et dans l’île de Chypre (1871). Via Wikipedia

Finally, we promised not to fall off our chair if there will be calls for our diplomats to get more weapons training in addition to a week of crash and bang for those going to war zones and dangerous assignments. Or for our diplomats to be armed.

While we wait for the results of the yet to meet Pickering Accountability Review Board, we must note that the Benghazi office or as The Skeptical Bureaucrat calls it, the Non-Standard, Un-Fortress, Not-A-Consulate In Benghazi, is not even a typical new embassy compound. But it’s not by far, the only one. We have an American Presence Post and Consulates with one or two or a few American officers holding offices at rented floors in commercial buildings.  How do you turn those rented floors into fortresses?

Anthony C. E. Quainton, a former assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security says, “You can protect people where they work by building more fortified embassies. […] But how do you protect them all the time, in all places?”

That’s a great question — how do you protect them all the time, in all places?

Wendy Chamberlain, our former Ambassador to Pakistan and Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the current
President of the Middle East Institute has this piece in HuffPo:

In this brave new context the 1961 Vienna Conventions, based on the premise of the equality of sovereign states, seem quaint to say the least, particularly Article 22 which guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic facilities. Clearly we must not abandon the mission even though these newly emerging nations do not have the wherewithal to provide such security.
In transitional regions, we must rely on smaller, more agile missions, granting the ambassador greater control over the nature and size of his or her staff. While not minimizing the importance of personal contact, and the unspoken message our presence sends, we should engage NGOs and local platforms and deploy electrons in lieu of bodies whenever possible. We must be more Sun Tzu than Clausewitz, less bulky and bureaucratic, with the budgetary flexibility to change direction when need be and less reliant on embassy fortresses to secure our assets, even as we work to assist central authorities to build their security infrastructure. And perhaps it is time to take another look at our increasingly militaristic approach to international relations, driven to some degree by the fact that our enormously talented, competent military and its neatly measureable operational successes are politically easier to fund than the long, often messy slog of brick-making for building the foundations of civil society.

The ever sharp Chas Freeman, our former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and almost National Intel Council chair (until his nomination was derailed) has some thoughts about how to make our diplomats safer, and it has less to do with fortress embassies:

In his speech to the UNGA, Egyptian President Morsi recognized the “duty” of the receiving state to protect the diplomats assigned to it.  This is a useful reminder of an ancient truth. The farther we move into self-protection through the transformation of embassies into fortifications and motorcades into armadas, the more we undercut both the traditions and the effectiveness of diplomacy.  Diplomats add very little value if they mimic military invaders, cower behind walls, are inaccessible to local people, and venture forth only in armed convoys.  (I won’t visit U.S. embassies myself anymore.  It’s just too much hassle.  Then, too, as a onetime professional diplomat and proud American, I’m embarrassed by the zero-risk mentality on display.)

In procedural, if not in substantive terms, diplomacy is an inherently consensual and reciprocal, not a coercive or combatant activity.  We should be thinking hard about how to return the responsibility for the protection of diplomats as much as possible to the host nation, where it belongs.  If a host nation cannot or will not discharge that duty, we would be well advised to end or severely to limit our presence there, impose reciprocal restrictions on its representation here, enlist others in punitive sanctions against it, and plan to communicate with it by Skype, etc. or in neutral third countries rather than face-to-face.

It is truly striking (though not surprising in the midst of a presidential election and given the role of talk radio in dumbing down our national dialogue) that debate here focuses so singlemindedly on how we can protect ourselves or — as many Americans argue — arm our diplomats to blow away those who appear to threaten them.  We should be attempting to strengthen the host nation obligation to protect diplomats that is implicit in the Vienna Conventions, find ways to enforce this obligation, and criminalize or assign liability under international law for failing to discharge it, not designing more elaborately crenelated crusader castles for our diplomatic outposts in the Middle East or elsewhere.

By taking up the gun and relying on the parapet rather than the security services of the host and the law to protect us, we are inadvertently endorsing the notion that there can be no safety in the rule of law.  In an odd way, by building fortresses and preparing to blaze away at those who display anger as they approach us, we encourage the very violence we should be attempting to preclude.  Our obsessions with monopolizing security responsibilities for our installations and personnel unintentionally contributes to the irresponsibility of receiving-state governments, degrades the idea of the sanctity of envoys, and erodes the prospects for rule-based order internationally.  To make our diplomats safer, we need better diplomacy vis-à-vis foreign nations and international organizations much more than we need higher bastions.

The Inman Report of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security following the Marine barracks bombing and the April 1983 US Embassy bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, has been influential in setting security standards, not just with the embassy design, but also with physical and residential security, training, use of armored vehicles, etc. The idea of an accountability board as a “board of inquiry […] convened in the event of a security incident involving loss of life, grievous injury or massive property destruction due to terrorist or other violence” also originates from the Inman Commission.

The Crowe Accountability Review Board following the 1998 twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania “observed that many of the problems identified in that landmark report [Inman] persist..”  It faults “the collective failure of the US government over the past decade to provide adequate resources to reduce the vulnerability of US diplomatic missions to terrorist attacks in most countries around the world. Responsibility for this failure can be attributed to several Administrations and their agencies, including the Department of State, the National Security Council, and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the US Congress.”

Following the release of the Crowe Report, there were changes in work place security including co-location of US agencies in the host country, additional funding for capital building programs, better crisis management and procedures including Crisis Management Exercise conducted regularly in our posts overseas.

The Crowe ARB in 1999 also recommended that the Department look specifically at reducing the number of diplomatic missions by establishing regional embassies located in less threatened and vulnerable countries with Ambassadors accredited to several governments. The State Department did exactly the opposite, of course, by opening missions not only in vulnerable countries but in the middle of war zones.

It is too early to tell how the Pickering ARB will impact the conduct of diplomacy abroad or the life of USG employees overseas.  We’re sure there will be changes, we just don’t know if there will be more fortresses in the future or less.