The Neglected Art of Diplomacy

News Abroad

Mr. Weisbrode is the author of The Atlantic Century: Four Generations of Extraordinary Diplomats who Forged America's Vital Alliance with Europe (Da Capo, Nov. 2009).

It has become a commonplace that the post-Bush era is one of the unclenched fist. Gone are the days of military “cakewalks,” shock and awe. George W. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, repeatedly urges jaw-jaw over war-war.

The notion that diplomacy and the use of force are alternative “tools of national power” or, at worst, mutually exclusive policies, ought to seem absurd. But this is the legacy, not only of the Bush years, but also, I'd argue, of the Vietnam War and the strains it placed upon officialdom. A generation of American leaders has been brought up with a kind of Manicheanism: to some, bombs are the necessary catalysts to negotiation; to others, bombs are just evil. To only just a few traditionalists, it seems, dropping bombs represents a diplomatic failure, however necessary it may be as a last resort.

Such reductionism in foreign policy thinking is compounded by the periodic rivalries between the State and Defense Departments (and the White House), and the widespread but bizarre perception that negotiations (and “diplomacy” itself) are the weapons of the weak. Obama has rightly ridiculed the perception. But he will need to show some results for his critique to take hold. He won’t get those results if his diplomacy continues to be as tentative and under-managed as it has been to date.

This is hardly his fault. The machinery of American diplomacy warped much during the past few decades; dozens of departments, agencies and now increasingly non- or quasi-governmental organizations exercise roles that, once upon a time, fell under the purview of the State Department. Even within the department, many of the top positions are held by outside appointees instead of by professionals who have come up through the ranks."Functional" expertise continues to outpace local and regional knowledge in career advancement.

None of that is new or inherently bad. It's just badly understood. The messy diffusion of authority perpetuates confusion and misapprehension among the general public about just what diplomacy is and does. We need, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. liked to say, much more education in the obvious than investigation of the obscure. Diplomacy, which once covered the entirety of a nation's foreign relations, has come to seem more and more episodic, the realm of special envoys and troubleshooters, and less and less centered on the nurturing of long term relationships. Much of the latter role in fact has been taken up by the U.S. military.

This is why I chose to write about American diplomats and their work on Europe during the 20th century. Revisiting their legacy is overdue. Europe and"Eurocentrism" were already passé among the policy jet set in the 1960s; remarkably, they have yet to recover.

Just think for a moment about how skewed a picture this has given us. The recent coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, was striking in its almost exclusive focus on the minds of leaders and the passions of citizens. The complex diplomacy framing the peaceful end of the Cold War and German reunification was barely mentioned. Of course these were great political events that affected millions. But they did not happen on their own, as the mere manifestations of popular will, or entirely at the hands of Gorbachev, Kohl, Reagan, and all the rest. Diplomats had been working toward these ends for decades. That they did so in relative anonymity makes the historian’s job harder but hardly justifies their disappearance in the name of academic or any other, fashion. For nobody can deny that the events were, essentially, diplomatic, in the true sense of the term.

It is indeed remarkable that so little is still known about diplomats outside the halls of government. Their own memoirs are almost never bestsellers. The rare exceptions are those by Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and George Kennan -- all written in what now seems like the distant past."International" historians and social scientists, despite relying on the official record, continue to go out of their way to highlight the roles of nearly everyone under the sun besides diplomats. Yet diplomats have been especially adept at transcending national, professional, cultural and many other boundaries. If any networks cry out for analysis, theirs surely do.

The damage of taking diplomats for granted was done a long time ago but it did not seem to matter so long as the United States remained rich and powerful. Those days now seem to be gone and we are having to redouble efforts to understand the means of diplomacy, and the minds and methods of diplomats. Edward Luttwak has told us to look to the Byzantine Empire for guidance. A former British ambassador to the US, Christopher Meyer, suggests a few lessons from his own country’s history. This is all for the good. Yet even they perpetuate the fallacy that diplomacy—especially that of the more cunning variety—is the province of a power in decline. Too little is understood about how diplomacy is wielded by the strong.

A diplomatic turn in American foreign policy sounds like a good idea but I suspect it won’t last very long. That is, unless we all begin to think, learn and, most importantly, teach a great deal more about diplomats.

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