Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr: Diplomacy as Risk Management

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island, 17 April 2018

This is the third and last of three connected lectures on diplomatic doctrine.  The series was preceded by an introductory presentation.  This lecture deals with diplomacy as risk management.  The first lecture described diplomacy as strategy; the second as tactics. 

At its most basic level, diplomacy is the management of foreign relations to reduce risk to the nation while promoting its interests abroad.  In this task, diplomacy’s success is measured more by what it precludes than by what it achieves.  One can never prove that what didn’t happen would have happened if one had not done this or that.  But, for the most part in foreign affairs, the fewer the surprises and the less the stress, the better.

The ideal outcome of diplomacy is the assurance of a life for the nation that is as tranquil and boring as residence in the suburbs.  And, like suburban life, in its day-to-day manifestation, diplomacy involves harvesting flowers when they bloom and fruits and berries when they ripen, while laboring to keep the house presentable, the weeds down, the vermin under control, and the predators and vagrants off the property.  If one neglects these tasks, one is criticized by those closest, regarded as fair prey by those at greater remove, and not taken seriously by much of anyone.

Viewed this way, the fundamental purpose of U.S. foreign policy is the maintenance of a peaceful international environment that leaves Americans free to enjoy the prosperity, justice, and civil liberties that enable our pursuit of happiness.  This agenda motivated the multilateral systems of governance the United States created and relied upon after World War II – the Pax Americana.  Secretary of Defense Mattis has called this “the greatest gift of the greatest generation.”  Institutions like the United Nations. its specialized agencies, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization, and related organizations like the World Trade Organization sought to regulate specific aspects of international behavior, manage the global commons, provide frameworks for the resolution of international disputes, and organize collective responses to problems.

In the aggregate, these offspring of U.S. diplomacy established and sustained widely accepted norms of behavior for many decades.  International law drew on consensus to express these norms as rules.  To the extent they were accepted internationally, these rules constrained state actions that could damage the common interests of the society of nations the rules had brought into being.  Despite its uneven performance, the Pax Americana assured a relatively high degree of predictability in world affairs that facilitated peaceful international interactions.   It did so on the same philosophical basis as the rule of law in domestic affairs – a belief that rules matter and that process legitimizes outcomes rather than the other way around.

Today, that philosophy and its ethical foundations are under attack both at home and abroad.  For the time being, at least, Washington has set aside the rule-bound international order and the market-driven economic interactions it enabled.  The United States is discarding the multilateral strategic framework that it built to restrain the behavior of lesser states in the last half of the 20th century.  In its place, the Trump administration is experimenting with neo-mercantilist theories that seem to have been crowd-sourced to right-wing talk radio.  Washington seeks to maximize U.S. leverage over trading partners by dealing with them only on a bilateral basis.  Trade and investment are increasingly government-managed and hence politicized rather than freely contracted between private buyers and sellers.  So far, it must be said, bird-brained bilateralism is proving no substitute for the complex regulatory regimes it is replacing and the supply chains it is disrupting.

With the fading of previously agreed codes of conduct and the principle of PACTA SUNT SERVANDA [“agreements must be kept”], what could once be taken for granted in managing relations with other states must now be repetitiously renegotiated and affirmed bilaterally.  But Washington has demoted diplomacy as a tool of American statecraft in favor of primary reliance on military and economic coercion.  Escalating uncertainties are driving nations toward unrestrained unilateralism and disregard for international law.  As this century began, the United States popularized contemptible practices like the assassination and abduction for questioning under torture of foreign opponents.  A lengthening list of other countries –  China, north Korea, Russia, and Turkey, to name a few – have now brazenly followed this bad example.  More issues are being deferred as intractable, addressed ad hoc, or dealt with through the threat or use of force.

In this new world disorder, the need for diplomacy to tend fraying relationships is manifestly greater than ever.  The Congress and public, as well as the U.S. military, sense this.  They have resisted efforts by the Trump administration to slash budgets for peaceful international engagement by the U.S. Department of State and related agencies.  Still,  the American diplomatic imagination has not been so myopic and enervated since before World War II.  Nor have U.S.  investments in diplomacy, Americans’ expectations of their diplomats, or international trust of the United States been so low.

Diplomatic preparedness requires constant attention to other nations and their views.  Showing that one’s government is interested in and understands what others think encourages them to be more receptive to one’s own ideas.  Attentiveness to their needs, views, and doubts signals willingness to work together and cultivates willingness to cooperate in defending common interests.  The regular nurturing and reaffirmation of relationships is what makes it possible to call on a network of friends in times of need.  Responding politely and considerately – in the least offensive way one can – to others’ messages conveys respect as well as substance.  It invites their sympathetic study of the logic, intent, and interests behind one’s own messages.

Constant diplomatic intercourse promotes stability and predictability.  It inhibits inimical change, reducing the risk that amicable states will become adversaries or that adversaries will become enemies.  And it  provides situational awareness that reduces surprise and enables governments to respond intelligently and tactfully to trends and events.

All this may seem obvious.  But it takes a sustained commitment by national leaders, public servants, and well-trained diplomats as well as reliable funding to carry it off.  In the contemporary United States, none of these is now assured.  The safety net provided by routine diplomacy as I have just described is increasingly neglected.  The resulting disarray in American international relationships is shaking our alliances, eroding cooperation with our international partners, raising doubts about U.S. reliability, causing client states to seek new patrons, and diminishing deference to U.S. national interests by friends and foes alike.   Increases in military spending demonstrate eagerness to enhance warfighting capabilities.  But greater capacity to wreak havoc does nothing to rectify the doubts of foreign nations about American wisdom, reliability, and rapport in our conduct of relations with them.

U.S. military power is as yet without effective challenge except at the regional level.   But, on its own, it is proving consistently incapable of producing outcomes that favor our national security.  It is a truism that those who cannot live by their brawn or their wallets must live by their wits.  Neither war nor the threat of war can restore America’s lost political primacy.  Only an upgrade in American competence at formulating and implementing domestic and foreign policies, coupled with effective diplomacy in support of credible American leadership, can do that.

In recent years, Americans have become better known for our promiscuous use of force and our cynical disregard of international law than for our rectitude and aspirations for moral excellence.  U.S. foreign policy has featured unprovoked invasions and armed attacks on foreign countries, violations of their sovereignty through drone warfare and aid to insurgents, assassinations and kidnappings, interrogation through torture, the extrajudicial execution of citizens as well foreigners, universal electronic eavesdropping, Islamophobia, the suspension of aid to refugees, xenophobic immigration policies, and withdrawal from previously agreed frameworks for collective action on issues of global concern, like climate change.  This sociopathic record inspires only the enemies of the United States.  It is not a platform that wins friends, influences people in our favor, or encourages them to view us as reliable.

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