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How to Restore U.S. Diplomacy

What will it take for the United States to become as skilled at diplomacy as it is at waging war?

November 29, 2007

Diplomacy is the most difficult of the political arts. It requires empathy, which is especially hard for democracies — given their natural fixation on the views of their own citizen-voters and their concomitant disdain for the views of foreigners, who, after all, can’t and don’t vote.

The diplomatic record of American democracy is decidedly mixed. It combined unilateralism with pacifism and sanctimony in a uniquely American brand of fecklessness in the years before World War II, then surprised the world with its creative brilliance after the war.

Since winning the Cold War, we have again surprised the world — by reverting to ineffectual unilateralism, this time compounding it with militarism, swagger, self-righteousness and complacent ignorance.

Many Americans now equate diplomacy with appeasement and insist that we can talk to our enemies only when they come out with their hands up.

It’s been a while since we attempted the persuasive arts of diplomacy. We are more than a little out of practice.

And, frankly, our foreign service, staffed as it is with very intelligent men and women, remains decidedly smug and amateurish in comparison with the self-critical professionalism of our armed forces.

There are many reasons for this, including lack of training, professional standards and mentoring, funding and esprit as well as dysfunctional policies that have forced our diplomats to cower behind the fortifications of crusader castles like the “Green Zone.”

In part, however, it is because we persist in a spoils system that led the New York Herald Tribune to remark in 1857 that “diplomacy is the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle. A man not fit to stay at home is just the man to send abroad.”

As Abba Eban, one of the great diplomats of the past century, sadly pointed out, “The word ‘ambassador’ would normally have a professional connotation but for the American tradition of political appointees.

“The bizarre notion that any citizen, especially if he is rich, is fit for the representation of his country abroad has taken some hard blows through empirical evidence. But it has not been discarded.”

The abandonment in the 19th century of the practice of appointing politicians as generals or judges was the key to the emergence of the military and legal professions.

As long as its most senior positions are reserved for wealthy dilettantes, our U.S. foreign service will not attain the professionalism necessary for it to be able to match and collaborate effectively with our highly professional military.

The wide margin of error we traditionally enjoyed in foreign policy has narrowed. We can no longer afford amateurism in diplomacy, appointing our most senior representatives abroad for the good of the party rather than the nation, and leaving them to be educated by events.

Skilled work requires skilled workmen. Americans are now without peer in the military arts. To prevail against our current enemies, we must attain equal excellence in diplomacy.

Rediscovering diplomacy, professionalizing it, developing doctrine to coordinate other instruments of statecraft with it, and training to get better at it are essential components of the grand strategy for combating Islamic terrorism that we require. There is no doubt that we can do this. The only question is whether we will.

Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a three-part series extracted from a speech given by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman to the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles on October 4, 2007. The full text is available here. Return to part II.