This symposium essay appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Foreign service officers represent the United States of America. The substance of what is to be represented having become problematic in our time, we must preface our consideration of officers’ duties with a look at why it has become so, and of the choices in that regard.
History offers no shortage of envoys who went on to represent their country after revolution had replaced the institutions, interests, and objectives for which they had accepted the post originally. Often these diplomats were simply dismissed. If not, they were given the choice of justifying things repugnant to them or resigning. Dismissal is what happened to Jean Baptiste Ternant in 1793, after the overthrow of King Louis XVI, who had appointed him minister plenipotentiary to the United States in 1791. The official who dismissed him, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who served all his country’s regimes from 1792 to 1834 (antithetical as these were to one another during revolutions), is the prime example of a diplomat with a strong stomach.
One may argue equally that Talleyrand’s grip on office reflected faithfulness to his country’s permanent interests combined with faith that none of the revolutions had altered them, or that it reflected a shamefully easy conscience in the service of personal interest.
What, after all, was France? What is any country? It is always a set of people in a place, with an interest in not being governed by foreigners and in having a more rather than a less advantageous position vis à vis those foreigners. All countries have some institutions and traditions that give them their specific identity. Before 1789, France had a monarchy attached to the Catholic Church. People swore allegiance to the kings. The Church was one of the kings’ many appurtenances. But since that time, France has had republics and emperors, more or less secular, to which Frenchmen have sworn allegiance as well. France has remained France. Perhaps Talleyrand chose the proper course, as would the diplomats of countries that consist merely of people, territory, or interchangeable institutions. But the United States of America is not such a country.
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With regard to people, territory, and interests, the United States is like any other country. But when Americans swear allegiance, they do so not to any race or soil but to a Constitution that is more than a prescription for a set of institutions. That object of allegiance is founded on, and makes sense only in terms of, the Declaration of Independence that preceded it. Hence the oaths make sense only in terms of the Declaration’s words “all men are created equal,” “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” It is by no means clear whether the USA could or should claim anybody’s allegiance except on the basis of those words. As Walter McDougall has pointed out, the United States is a polity with the physiognomy of a church, and so allegiance to it can be seen as a religious act as much as a political one.
That is why attempting to channel Talleyrand in the service of the USA is problematic. Whereas most countries’ foreign ministries are substantially independent of domestic political changes and so represent something like permanent interests, American ambassadors represent presidents (albeit with the advice and consent of the Senate) who, in turn, represent changing domestic political trends. American diplomats are duty-bound to represent the presidents of the day. But they, too, just as much as any president, swear their allegiance to the Constitution and to all that it means.
In our time these domestic trends are revolutionary in the most profoundly American sense, because they affect our allegiance to the ideas expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration that alone make the United States uniquely and exceptionally itself. Also, they are of no small importance to what makes possible any country’s rational pursuit of any interest.
One example. On May 17, 2014, the Spanish daily El Mundo ran a photo of the U.S. embassy in Madrid flying the flag of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement along with the American flag. That embassy, like all U.S. embassies around the globe, was observing the month of May as LGBT month. That involves, among other things, placing articles by Americans in the local press extolling homosexuality. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” In Pakistan, whose laws impose two years’ imprisonment for “sexual acts against the order of nature,” the U.S. embassy stated publicly that it “stands” with those who oppose that law.
How is a foreign service officer to deal with priorities such as LGBT month or the Obama administration’s directive to seek out homosexuals for priority admission to the United States as refugees (as opposed to, say, persecuted Christians)? He (or she) must represent the priorities of the president and of his secretary of state rather than his or her own opinions on what these ought to be. And yet encouraging people to violate a foreign country’s mores and laws is an insult as well as a hostile act. It is certainly not “out of line” for any officer to tell his superior that doing such things conflicts with the embassy’s core mission. But orders are orders. More important, the officer must decide whether in following the priorities of the day he is doing something not just counterproductive but whether he is literally misrepresenting the United States—putting a face on his country both false and offensive to himself and, in the case of refugee admissions, changing his country’s sociopolitical identity.
Facing that choice, Talleyrand chose to represent the party of the day, and of the day after, and of the day after that. Given the nature of France, one may judge his choice wise. The nature of the United States is different. The choice is weightier.
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Foreign service officers, and all who deal with foreigners on behalf of their government, are the American people’s fiduciary representatives, neither more nor less. To the foreigners with whom he deals on America’s behalf, the lowest-ranking FSO is “the Americans” no less than is the secretary of state. As such, every officer’s words and deeds, acts of omission as well as of commission, every appearance and every attitude, every favor done or received, every honor and every slight given or endured, is wholly by, of, and for the American people and not at all for the officer. Acting as America’s fiduciary representative requires intellectual focus as well as personal character.
America is the officer’s client. Fiduciary representatives must know the client and sympathize with the client. That is why the foreign service oral exam used to test above all the applicants’ knowledge of America, its history, its institutions, its culture, its current issues, and even its sports teams. To keep the officer’s sentiments tied to America, the Service still grants each officer one month’s “home leave” in addition to vacation. But neither any exam nor any administrative arrangement can ensure what is most essential to fiduciary representation, namely exclusive focus on, and sympathetic understanding of, the client.
For all but Americans, the First Commandment of diplomacy, “Thou shalt seek the interest of no country but your own,” is superfluous. Few are tempted to outright treason. But since the early twentieth century, U.S. foreign policy has so confused America’s interests with those of mankind at large, and so minimized America’s exceptional nature, as thereby to tempt American diplomats to consider themselves representatives of more than their country. Some, by grasping at that chimera, lose their grip on the only responsibility that is truly theirs and end up representing nothing of substance.
Personifying one’s country requires fighting the temptation to “go native”; that is, to so involve one’s self with the host country’s ways and priorities, to value so highly “good relations” as to neglect the essence of fiduciary representation. Good relations are the means of representation, not the end thereof.
But even some who have held fast to the diplomat’s First Commandment—George F. Kennan most prominently—often show not just lack of sympathy but outright hostility to their fellow Americans’ way of life. Kennan’s diary evinces an attitude toward the rest of America akin to the Pharisee’s prayer in the Temple: “Lord I thank thee that I am not like other Americans.” He wished that Americans might “have their toys taken from them, be spanked, educated, made to grow up.” That would take “strong central power (far stronger than the present constitution would allow).” Meanwhile, Kennan expressed revulsion at the sight of well-fed, “shapeless, droopy” Americans, getting out of their cars “tired from not walking,” “a skin disease on the earth.” He told his diary: “I hate democracy; I hate the press . . . I hate the ‘peepul’; I have become clearly un-American.”
It is difficult for someone who considers himself on a higher plane of human existence to represent lower beings. Inevitably, such an attitude leads to undue sympathy for the nation’s enemies. That certainly was the case with Kennan, who saw Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s as “a great garden, well kept and blooming . . . populated by clean and healthy people.” Also, much as Kennan advocated a tougher policy toward Stalin, Kennan’s ruling-class perspective on America led him to value Communism’s purposefulness over what he saw as the meaninglessness of American life.
Americans, however, do view their lives as meaningful—largely in proportion to their religious faith. Anyone studying American life is compelled to note that Americans are far and away the world’s most religiously observant people. It is no leap of logic to point out that honest representation of the American people to foreigners would have to begin with this fact, without which nothing much that happens in America makes sense. To the extent that, by commission or omission, the diplomat minimizes or denigrates this fundamental facet of American life, he misrepresents his country.
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America differs from other countries, notably in Europe, in other regards as well—pervasive ownership and carriage of firearms, for example. Fidelity to truth and to his client obliges the diplomat to explain this fact as such, rather than to do so in terms of the audience’s, and of the American ruling class’s, aversion to that truth. It is not necessary to continue with such examples for us to see the threat to representation posed by the conflict between the American people’s ways and those of its ruling class, from which the diplomats are likely to be drawn.
Taking care of America’s business requires distinguishing it from the business of others. From our republic’s very beginnings, American diplomats have represented a country whose principles, mores, and institutions the rest of the world regarded with curiosity, strong attraction, revulsion, or hostility. As America’s power has grown, more have sought America’s advice, blessings, or aid in causes they have claimed to be akin to America’s own. Others have preferred to think of us as devils. But in our time as in earlier days, sound principle is, while never to stint pride in America’s own ways and always to fulfill anyone’s curiosity about them, to refrain from insult by proselytizing that indicts others as inferior.
As John Quincy Adams counseled, if we want others to leave us to our ways, it helps to leave others to theirs. Hence America must not enlist “under other banners than [its] own, were they even the banners of foreign independence.” Were America to do so, said Adams, she “would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
The fundamental reality of foreign relations is that it is about relating to foreigners—people who are unlike ourselves, who have loves, hates, and objectives of their own—people who are beyond our control. Taking differences seriously is the primordial requirement for dealing with them. That is why, in years past, the foreign service recruited its officers from among students of foreign languages and cultures, people who had spent years acquiring a facility in other languages and had become familiar with the assumptions embedded in their use.
In our time, however, the in-depth study of foreign languages and cultures has declined in proportion to the rise of English as the language in which so much of international intercourse occurs, as well as the influence of the (unintentionally ironic) concept of “diversity.” The latter is emblematic of our ruling class’s belief that it is “multicultural”—that its recognition of all cultures’ essential equality allows them to understand and, in a way, to subsume all cultures into their own, which they consequently suppose to be universal. Because multiculturalists thus negate the reality of all cultures, seldom do they bother with foreign languages, literature, or history. But this “multicultural” mentality is as rare, narrow, and peculiar as the mentality of the remotest Tibetan lamasery.
Hence U.S. diplomats, along with the rest of our ruling class, are ever more inclined to assume that, although people may look different and were raised in different cultures, in different religions or none, they really want the same things—especially if they speak English. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this regard, a study by the Gallup polling organization titled “What Muslims Want” found that, throughout the Muslim world, people agreed and disagreed with lists of sociopolitical propositions in roughly the same proportions as respondents in Western countries. But the study’s authors conceded readily that the words of those propositions (e.g., “freedom”) meant entirely different things to the Muslim respondents than they did to the Westerners.
Since seriousness in representation begins with avoiding such “mirror imaging,” the FSO should be ever aware that the identity of the persons to whom he is representing America depends on their culture, and on the features of that culture to which the regime that reigns over these persons gives priority.
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The world’s civilizations flow from very different views of God, man, and nature—that is to say, from different cults, different religions. Our civilization makes sense only in terms of the Bible’s Old and New Testaments—in terms of Moses’s Genesis and David’s Psalms, of Jesus’s gospel, as well as of Plato and Aristotle—of Jerusalem and Athens. Only those who are part of this civilization accept that God created man in His own image; that since men are neither animals nor gods, no man may treat another as if he were a god and the other an animal, and hence that all men are created equal; that duties to God are different from duties to Caesar; that the human mind can grasp natural phenomena because they occur according to the laws of nature; that nature exists for man’s use; that two contradictory propositions cannot be true at the same time in the same way and hence that grasping truth is possible and essential. To other civilizations, these propositions are indefensible, incomprehensible nonsense.
In our time, understanding people raised in other civilizations is more difficult than it used to be because all non-Western cultures, each in its own way, have weakened, addled, if not given up their most basic features, and adopted pieces—or perhaps only a patina—of Western civilization.
Africa is the most obvious example. Until recently, the mass of its people lived in tribal settings with animist mentalities. The bounds of the tribe were those of language and of humanity itself. The world was filled with spirits to be propitiated. Then colonial educators and missionaries, followed by the flood of modern communications and urbanization, created a class of persons who speak English or French, who profess and have identified with Christianity or Islam, and who mix these identifications with often exclusive tribal attachments. For a substantial number, Westernization has meant acculturation to secular ideologies and bureaucratic ways. Although they are no longer animists, the distinction between correlation and cause, taken for granted by Western philosophy and science, escapes many of them. Conspiracy theories thrive. What most Westerners regard as corruption, many Africans regard as the legitimate appurtenances of high social status.
Modern China’s ruling class is the result of the twentieth-century struggle between the followers of Sun Yat-sen, who professed republicanism and Christianity, and those of Mao Tse-tung, who professed Marxist Communism. Neither set of creeds had anything to do with China’s five-thousand-year-old civilization or with its two-thousand-year-old Confucian tradition. Today’s ruling party bureaucracy, nominally Communist, works much as did the ancient Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the language they speak and write is a version of Chinese so intentionally bowdlerized that it permits less access to the Chinese classics than to the Internet. The culture of modern Chinese, then, is complex. Five-thousand-year-old habits of obedience to authority, devotion to family, and a hunger for order and learning, codified by two thousand years of Confucianism, continue to exist, as do curiosity and openness to Christianity, whose fires are spreading beyond anyone’s control. It is no exaggeration to say that the soul of China is up for grabs and that, among the Chinese, the FSO can expect to encounter an amazing variety of people.
A generation ago, the notion that a “Trilateral Commission,” composed of American, European, and Japanese elites, might rule the world was all the rage. But its assumption that the Japanese people—worldly, urbane, and technically proficient—are commensurable with Westerners is ignorant. In fact, Japanese civilization’s core—the belief that race and circumstance set Japan apart from the rest of mankind—has remained constant despite its people’s integration into world affairs. Japan is a tribe of 125 million people that is as self-referential as any small tribe anywhere. Japan has seen significant cultural changes: while militaristic and prolific during the first half of the twentieth century, it became increasingly pacifist and collapsed in number during the second. But consensus and unity remain for it what custom is to Confucianism and the laws of nature and nature’s God are to Judeo-Christian civilization.
In our time the Muslim world is engaged in civil war. Three strands of political Islamism—Salafism, the Wahhabi sect, and the Muslim Brotherhood—animate some Muslims, while Islam’s Hanafi and Sufi tendencies move others. The Islamic world’s Westernized elites fight to ride these clashing waves. This struggle overlays the millennial conflict between Sunni and Shia, who are found in all three camps. In this war no one is fighting to distance Islam from the proposition that God dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad, which contains all that man needs to know or should know, and hence that reason—inquiry about natural causes and effects—is blasphemous. Intra-Islamic struggles, then, have not and should not be expected to change the Islamic mind’s fundamental hostility to other civilizations.
Islamic civilization’s sociopolitical aspects depend at least as much on the character of the peoples among whom Islam took root as they do on the Qur’an. Islamic civilization has always been divided by those who want to keep Islam close to its Bedouin roots and those who are rooted in societies very different from those of the Arabian Desert. But in our time, the Islam of the desert has the money to spread its ways.
Moreover, while Muslims have always followed customs repugnant to Westerners and treated women roughly, now as ever the practical ways in which Muslim peoples express hostility to other civilizations depends not on their social customs but rather on the balance of forces between Muslims and other peoples. Islam was the West’s biggest problem before its host was defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1683, and Muslim pirates continued to take Christian slaves until France took over North Africa in 1830. After that conquest, Muslims caused the West no trouble until their post-WWI decline. Hence, our troubles with the Muslim world stem less from its nature than from the balance of forces.
India’s millennial civilization was based on conflating man with nature while distinguishing sharply between castes of humans. In our time, the British made their version of Western civilization part of the mentality of the Indian elite by using English as the language of education. This led some Indians (and Pakistanis) to imitate British bureaucracy and others merely to follow the West’s fashions. But for millions it opened the possibility of personal achievement through academic excellence. India (and its Muslim rival on the subcontinent, Pakistan), however, is home to more than a billion people whose habits and outlook on life are deeply rooted and very foreign to us. The foreigner never knows with which of the many hybrid products of Hindu civilization’s soil he is dealing.
Nor should the FSO assume that the Europeans with whom he deals stand firmly on the ground of Western civilization. In fact, our civilization’s basic premises—mankind’s unique status in a created universe, human equality, and the imperative to discover truth and master nature—are most in question in the educational institutions that produce Europe’s ruling class, including diplomats. In fact, the world’s greatest struggles have taken place within Judeo-Christian civilization about those very premises. The ways of life most contrary to Judeo-Christian civilization have come from movements that sprang from it and made war from within, from medieval Gnostic sects to National Socialist and Marxist ideologies.
At any given time, in any given place, peoples and individuals among them will exhibit a peculiar mix of a civilization’s traits depending on what persons, habits, and ideas the ruling regime happens to favor or oppose. Plato observed that every city reflects the kind of person most prominent in it, and Aristotle that the nature of every polity changes along with its regime. We have experienced several possible Germanys, Russias, and Chinas. Germany, for example, was a very different country under the pre-1918 Wilhelmine monarchy than under the Weimar Republic of the 1920s or the Nazi regime of 1933–45, or in the 1950s Adenauer years. In our time, it is a peaceful, prosperous member of the European Union. Russia, Japan, and China, among others, have been sometimes passive and sometimes assertive, sometimes producers and other times destroyers of decency, domestic wealth, and international peace.
The importance of any regime’s nature to an American FSO depends on what role vis à vis America the regime is enabling and encouraging its people to play. This is a matter far more complex than categorizing regimes according to Aristotle’s typology of governments (rule by one, few, or many, in the rulers’ particular interest or in that of the whole) or to the modern American one (democracy good, autocracy bad; secular good, religious bad).
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America’s founding generation, concerned as it was to secure America’s peace, understood that wars arise out of passions and interests in all nations. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6: “The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable . . . the love of power or the desire of preeminence . . . jealousy . . . equality and safety . . . the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes and fears of leading individuals . . . personal advantage or personal gratification.” Amid the indecipherable welter of motivations, what mattered was who, at any time, was disposed to do what with regard to U.S. interests. Why mattered less.
For example, our founding generation cultivated excellent relations with Russia, despite the fact that no civilized government was more opposed to America’s founding principles than the czar’s. That cultivation proved fruitful because, at the time, Russia saw its geopolitical interest as opposed to that of the only countries that threatened America, Britain, and France. By the same token, during the early period of the Cold War, American statesmen, locked as they were in a death struggle with Soviet Russia, supported any and all governments against it. We were on the side of whomever because they were on ours. Pinning the label “democratic” on those thus supported was counterfactual and hypocritical.
The notion that democratic regimes, as such, are better in every way than nondemocratic ones is simply wrong. Only a narrow sect of Americans, and only in the past hundred years, has ever believed that all peoples, if given a choice, will behave in nonpredatory ways among themselves and with other nations. In fact, democracy is neither more nor less than rule by the demos, the people. As such it depends entirely on the character of any given demos at any given time. And in fact, most peoples throughout history, when they have had the chance to vote their preferences, have chosen to despoil or enslave their fellows before doing the same to their neighbors. Any diplomat who ignores, for example, that in general Serbs hate Croats, Hutus hate Tutsis, Arabs hate Jews, Sunni hate Shia, etc., and that where hatreds exist greater doses of democracy only fuel them, is likely to neglect his duty to focus on how the interests of any given regime may be congruent with the American people’s interest here and now.
This is no brief for despotism of any kind. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the character of any individual regime at any particular time is, well, individual and particular—that dealing with any regime requires attention to the particular rather than to the general.
The notion that spreading democracy is in America’s interest because America wants peace, and that democracies tend to be peaceful, is fanciful. The level of popular involvement in government is unrelated to a country’s propensity to peace or war. In the ancient world, democratic Athens and Rome boldly conquered empires. Europe’s democracies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were bloodier than their monarchical predecessors. Today’s European regimes are pacifist not because of any democratic penchant for peace but because they have lost the lust for war. Meanwhile, other peoples and regimes have become more warlike.
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A loose grasp of the distinction between regime and government has long bedeviled U.S. foreign policy. When the Franklin Roosevelt administration established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, it glossed over the fact that the USSR owned and operated the U.S. Communist Party and other organizations at war with America through the Comintern and the Foreign section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It did so by accepting the Soviet government’s patent lie that these organizations were private, acting on their own. By that acceptance, the U.S. government acquiesced in the war being waged against itself. By the same token, when terrorists from Muslim countries began to strike Americans in the 1970s, from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., the U.S. government was not innocent about the extent to which prominent citizens of these countries were inciting, financing, or outright orchestrating these attacks. But the U.S. government pretended that these governments were not responsible for terrorism.
The immediate political reality, however, is that every government is an expression of the larger regime it represents—of the persons who count the most within its territory. In short, the distinction between prominent people in any given country who are inside formal governing structures and those outside is more form than it is substance. That is why, under international law and by common sense, any and all governments are responsible for the activities that emanate from within their borders.
International relations transcend government-to-government representation through accredited diplomats. Diplomats themselves cultivate contacts with as many sectors as possible of the host society in order to present and press their own government’s points of view through as many channels as possible. That is very much part of the job. Governments and corporations hire lobbyists to press for specific actions by the host government. Washington, D.C., like other capitals, is awash with foreign agents, registered and unregistered. But governments sometimes take their political case directly to foreign peoples. Note well, however, that appealing to foreign populations over the heads of their governments is an inherently unfriendly act, akin to and often part of war.
This does not pertain to cultural activities such as those of the French government. No one takes umbrage at the corps of young Frenchmen who teach, from Peshawar to Penambuco, the language they believe to be the basis of civilization. But the U.S. Information Agency libraries associated with U.S. embassies and consulates, meant as repositories of information about the USA and sometimes the best libraries available in their respective area, have always played a more problematic role because they have been associated with a foreign policy of messianism, of “we know better than thou because we are better,” and have been treated accordingly.
The U.S. government’s representation of America directly to foreign peoples began in World War II and came of age in the Cold War for the best of reasons: many of the world’s peoples were ruled first by Nazi and then by Communist governments at war with America. The U.S. government’s message to such peoples—that they and we were really on the same side—was both true and standard wartime practice since time immemorial.
But direct representation to peoples who live under governments with which the U.S. is at peace is no different from what Edmund Charles Genet, revolutionary France’s ambassador, did to promote France’s causes with the American people directly in 1792, which caused even Thomas Jefferson, the most pro-France member of George Washington’s cabinet, to regard him as troublesome to America’s peace and to expel him as persona non grata. In sum, the FSO should never lose sight of the fact that fostering opposition to a government with which the U.S. is at peace blurs the line between peace and war.
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As executor and, at higher ranks, shaper of foreign policy, the FSO should understand the strength and limitations of the tools in his kit: diplomacy, economic suasion, subversion, and war. Recovery of these fundamentals, now largely misunderstood, is essential.
Diplomacy is neither more nor less than a medium for transmitting messages.
Its force is exclusively in the content of the message. What is variously called the “diplomatic process,” or “talks,” or “keeping channels open” has zero value in and of itself. The bitterest enemies have always found ways of communicating when the will to do so has been stimulated by the existence of messages that one side wants to send and the other is disposed to receive. Absent these factors, the diplomatic process is what Fred Ikle’s masterly text How Nations Negotiate calls “negotiating for side effects,” such as affecting third parties, gaining time or intelligence, or deception.
For the message to be worthy of attention, the recipient must believe that it is true. Hence, contrary to popular perception, lies, dissembling, and deception of any kind have short legs. Once upon a time, schools of foreign service used to stress the importance of precise, unambiguous language and of cultivating a reputation for accuracy and reliability in communications, in admonitions and promises, but especially in agreements. The Roman principle “pacta sunt servanda” (agreements are to be honored) is the only real basis of international law. In addition, it is fundamental to orderly international intercourse.
In recent decades, impelled by the desire to appear to be solving difficult problems and, especially, under the influence of Henry Kissinger, U.S. diplomats have used imprecision deliberately—“creative ambiguity” it’s called. Vague language that each side interprets differently has led to pretend agreements such as the so-called Paris Accords of 1973—a thin veil for U.S. surrender in Vietnam—and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States promised (but not really) to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s delivery of its nuclear arsenal to Russia. It has also led to “peace processes” that are thin cover for failing to deal forthrightly with war.
In short, diplomacy worthy of the name is the verbal representation of a compelling reality. The diplomat must be ever aware that if the person across the table is worthy of his job, he will constantly be asking why he should be paying attention to what is being asked of him, implicitly or explicitly. Hence good diplomacy is all about solvency—an excess of power over the requests made on the basis thereof—it is about making offers that the other side finds advantageous to accept and impossible to refuse, especially given the consequences of refusal. It is about gravitas.
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The giving of economic advantages and the imposition of economic penalties is a tool of statecraft both blunt and uncertain. While total economic embargoes and blockades are tools of war as deadly as atom bombs, ordinary “economic sanctions” do not cause states to abandon vital interests; and although it is easy enough to buy the favors of foreigners, it is impossible to compel the performance of favors thus bought. That is because the people who matter most in this world value power, prestige, and life itself more than they do wealth. They know that money does not make power, but rather that power means access to wealth.
President Lyndon Johnson believed he could entice North Vietnam’s dictator, Ho Chi Minh, to desist from trying to conquer South Vietnam by offering him a “Mekong Valley Development Project” that would enrich the North. “Uncle Ho won’t be able to resist this,” said Johnson. But because Ho understood that Johnson made the offer because he did not have it in him to muster the military means to defeat the conquest, he was encouraged to fight and win.
Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton thought that imposing limitations on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s capacity to sell oil on the world market would “keep him in a box.” But Saddam, and the rest of the world, grasped that the Americans had imposed the sanctions because they could not muster the will to undo Saddam totally. Hence Saddam and much of the rest of the world cooperated in turning the “oil for food” sanctions into a means for strengthening his regime and of weakening U.S. influence in the Middle East. Similarly, the “smart sanctions” that U.S. government has imposed on Iran to prevent its development of nuclear weapons convinced the rest of the world, as well as Iran, that the United States was not serious about its purpose. Why? Because the economic pain involved was small in proportion to the value that Iran placed on having the weapons. Such sanctions, like Johnson’s offer to Ho, signaled misunderstanding of the target as well as weakness rather than strength.
Beginning with President Jimmy Carter in 1978, all U.S. presidents have subsidized the government of Egypt (and, not incidentally, the Palestine Liberation Organization), expecting thereby to addict their leaders to U.S. money, thereby inducing them to be more favorable to American foreign policy than they would have been otherwise. But, while the recipients have been happy to get the money, no one should have been surprised that they have behaved in such a manner as to maintain and enhance their political standing with the people around them and on whom they depend for their power and for their very lives. Moreover, they quickly lost any fear they might have had that the Americans would cut off the money and ensured that the flow would continue by threatening that they would become more anti-American if it did not.
Here is the point: economic incentives and disincentives make sense as part of otherwise well-conceived, success-oriented plans that involve other means of statecraft. When used in isolation or as substitutes for other means, they are counterproductive.
Persuading parts of foreign bodies politic to join in altering their governments’ policies, and perhaps the governments themselves, is an art both ancient and pervasive that naturally makes use of any available means. The U.S. government’s post-1945 practice of confining that art to the more or less secret activities of an intelligence agency is unprecedented, unique, and has not worked out well. Relegating subversion to “covert action” tends to reduce it to a set of tricks performed by tricksters, not necessarily well connected to policy but rather to activities used as alternatives to policy—“something between a diplomatic protest and sending in the Marines” is the standard U.S. description. But making secret acts bear the weight of policy guarantees failure. Elaborating them at CIA decreases the chances that the government will understand their consequences. Nor is secrecy the point. While some of the means of subversion may be secret, the effects cannot be.
The point of subversion is to energize influential people to exercise influence in the direction you desire. But influencing the influential almost always takes a lot more than having a secret agent whisper in his ear or offer him money. Agents of influence are not spies. They are allies. Good ones cannot be bought. Nor can the exercise of influence be secret.
Subversion, like seduction, is all about finding a willing partner. While it involves the imposition of one’s will upon another, no one has ever been subverted without his cooperation any more than anyone has ever been seduced against his will.
The Soviet Union, for example, regarded Harry Hopkins—Franklin Roosevelt’s alter ego during WWII—as its agent of influence, and for the best of reasons. Hopkins worked intimately with Stalin’s envoys to remove U.S. officials to whom the Soviets objected and to move U.S. policy in directions the Soviets desired. Classic. But Hopkins would have been shocked had he learned that the Soviets believed he was in their pocket. He was flattered to believe that Stalin thought him an intimate, and delighted to further common goals despite retrograde American colleagues.
Finding a willing partner begins with looking among those who are predisposed to act as you would wish, and then encouraging them. Who should do that? Whoever would be most likely to be listened to. By what means? Never forget that the agent will act in what he considers his own, his friends’, or his country’s interest rather than yours, and that you are helping to set in motion people and events that you cannot control. The contrast between the two sets of agendas is inherent in the relationship.
The history of U.S. covert action is substantially one of sorcerers’ apprentices who stirred up and financed individuals and groups in the four corners of the world and then went their own way. In the Middle East, U.S. covert action brought forth Egypt’s Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In Latin America, it financed Fidel Castro and paved the way for the rise of Chile’s Salvador Allende—people who chose to be enemies of the United States. In Asia, first it foisted Sukarno onto Indonesia and then helped his bloody overthrow. During the Vietnam war, the CIA more or less covertly managed the country’s political and social factions as, a half century later, it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, with equally squalid results: mutual abandonment.
That history should warn the FSO that there is a better way to understand this tool of international power. Namely: subversion is a kind of conviction that mixes the attraction of possibly gaining one’s objectives with the fear of losing out, of being left on the losing side. Power is the great agent of subversion precisely because it inspires both hope and fear. Nothing is as subversive as an army whose enemies lie prostrate, a cause on the verge of triumph. Success seals the seduction and resolves conflicts between agendas because it is the proof of power.
This reality is the polar opposite of the latter-day American fad that “soft power” rules the modern world. Harvard’s Joseph Nye writes that, because people gravitate to the least-threatening, least-offensive government, the government with the greatest propensity to please, the European Union is “the superpower of soft power.” The FSO should ask: Will finding America inoffensive, accommodating, and pleasant lead these people to stand with her in her hour of need? What would it take to turn a government or a people who are now inclined against America to support her in a crisis?
Nothing so enhances a people’s chances of living safely as having won its last war, and nothing so invites trouble so much as having lost it. Precisely because success in war turns people your way while failure alienates, representing a victorious power is easy while representing a loser is laborious misery. Understanding what war is and the role it plays in international affairs is fundamental.
Every war, no matter how small it may appear at the beginning, is a matter of life and death. Its violence unleashes passions, calls into question all the participant nations’ reasons for being, and provides additional incentive and leverage to each regime’s domestic enemies. War places all the contenders’ existence in the balance.
War makes sense only as an instrument for securing our capacity peacefully to live the kinds of lives we want to live against those who would prevent us from doing so. The portal to our peace is a physical and moral victory over the obstacles thereto. War consists of the bloody commitment to destroy an enemy or force him to accept our own version of peace.
The timing, focus, and degree of violence to be used depend on strategy. The Soviet Union, for example, never declared war on its “enemies” in the West, and it certainly never attacked them, even though it understood itself to be at war with them from its inception to its demise. Rather, the Soviet Union pursued their destruction largely through subversion and indirect warfare, building the most intimidating armed forces possible and elaborating frighteningly reasonable plans for military victory. By contrast, the British and French declaration of war against Germany in September 1939, provoked by Germany’s conquest of Poland, was a phony war because the British and French had no intention of doing what was necessary to free Poland. There was, however, nothing phony about the Germans’ attack on France and Britain in 1940.
Not all international violence amounts to war. Occupations are not war. Neither do efforts at nation building amount to war.
Military operations, regardless of size or casualties, amount to war only if they serve reasonable plans for achieving a country’s preferred state of peace. In this sense, although Napoleon was a master of battles, he failed at war because his masterly moves were not well aimed at a state of rest. Though it is impossible to foretell the consequences of any war, statesmen worthy of their offices go to war only after being clear about the peace at which they aim; who or what stands in the way of that peace; the military and other operations that, if successful, will remove that obstacle; and their own capacity and commitment to carry out those operations. Without such calculations, war’s violence is truly senseless.
These views of your job are incommensurable. As you choose between them, keep in mind that questions about the meaning of the American people’s interests are answerable by the American people’s elected representatives through America’s constitutional process. But “the rights of men” as well as what the interests of any part of foreign humanity may be are concepts over which various foreigners have fought among themselves since time immemorial. Individual Americans may have opinions about such things, but your job is defined by your oath of office, to the Constitution of the United States. ♦
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. A former U.S. naval officer and foreign service officer, he also served on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Codevilla is the author of thirteen books, including War Ends and Means, Informing Statecraft, The Ruling Class, Advice to War Presidents, and A Student’s Guide to International Relations (ISI Books).