Diplomatic Amateurism and Its Consequences

Diplomatic Amateurism and Its Consequences
Remarks at the Ralph Bunche Library of the U.S. Department of State

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University
Washington, DC,  9 October 2015

Twenty years ago, I gave a book talk at the Foreign Service Club.  The talk celebrated the publication of the first edition of The Diplomat’s Dictionary.  That book had been conceived as the footnotes to another book, Arts of Power: Statecraft and Diplomacy.  Both books have long outlasted the club.  So has the issue I talked about there – “Diplomacy as a Profession.

My topic today is diplomatic amateurism and its consequences.  I will be brief.  I want to avoid the common error of confusing specific foreign policies with diplomacy itself, which is the manner in which foreign relations strategies are formulated and conducted.  I will lead off with a few general points about professionalism and how its absence incapacitates our nation internationally.  In the discussion that follows, I hope we can get into specific policies, get down to cases, and relate American diplomatic amateurism to the generally FUBAR condition of U.S. foreign relations at present.

I don’t see any reason to have to explain the essential contributions of diplomacy to national security to an audience at the Department of State.  Anyone interested in my views on this can have a look at what I said on the subject to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in June.  My remarks then, which were about the conflict between militarism and diplomacy and the consequences of treating diplomacy as a political appointment rather than a calling, have circulated widely on the internet.[1]  I won’t repeat them.

In other countries, diplomacy is a prestigious career in which one spends a lifetime, culminating in senior positions commensurate with one’s talents as one has demonstrated them over the years.  But, in the United States, these days more than ever, the upper reaches of diplomacy are reserved for wealthy dilettantes and celebrities with no prior experience in the conduct of relations with foreign states and peoples, national security policy, or the limitations of the use of force.  Policy positions in our government dealing with such issues are now largely staffed by individuals selected for their interest-group affiliation, identity, or sizable campaign contributions.  These diplomatic neophytes are appointed for the good of the political party with which they are affiliated and to reward their loyal service during political campaigns, not for their ability to do the jobs they are given.  It is assumed that they can learn on the job, then move on after a while to give others a chance at government employment.  But whatever they learn, they take with them when they leave, adding nothing to the diplomatic capacity of our government.

If you tried to staff and run a business or a sports team like this, you’d get creamed by the competition.  If you organized our armed forces this way, you’d be courting certain defeat.  You can judge for yourself how staffing and running a foreign policy establishment through the spoils system is working out for our country now that our margin for error has been reduced by “the rise of the rest” since the end of the Cold War.  Staffing national security policy positions and ambassadorships with people whose ambition greatly outstrips their knowledge and experience is a bit like putting teenagers in charge of risk management while entrusting lifeguard positions to people with no proven ability to swim.  Hit and run statecraft and diplomacy were never wise, but they didn’t matter much when America was isolated from the world or so powerful that it could succeed without really trying.  Neither is the case anymore.

The United States is now the only great power not to have professionalized our diplomatic service.  As the trove of diplomatic reporting spewed out by WikiLeaks shows, our career people remain very bright and able. But their supervisors are less prepared to carry out their duties than their counterparts in the diplomatic services of other great and lesser powers.  One of the 20th century’s greatest diplomats, Abba Eban put it this way

“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, nor should the idea of diluting a rigid professionalism with manpower from less detached sectors of society be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, when the strongest nation in the world appoints a tycoon or a wealthy hostess to head an embassy, the discredit and frustration is spread throughout the entire diplomatic corps in the country concerned.”

That was in 1983. Quite a bit before that, about 130 years before that, demonstrating that this is indeed a lengthy American tradition, the New York Herald Tribune observed, “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.”

These American observations, or observations about American diplomacy, contrast quite strikingly with the views expressed by the classic writer on diplomatic practice, François de Callières. Writing now almost exactly three centuries ago, in 1716, he said:

“Diplomacy is a profession by itself, which deserves the same preparation and assiduity of attention that men give to other recognized professions. The qualities of the diplomatist and the knowledge necessary to him cannot indeed all be acquired. The diplomatic genius is born, not made. But there are many qualities which may be developed with practice, and the greater part of the necessary knowledge can only be acquired by constant application to the subject.

“In this sense, diplomacy is certainly a profession, itself capable of occupying a man’s whole career, and those who think to embark upon a diplomatic mission as a pleasant diversion from their common task only prepare disappointment for themselves and disaster for the cause that they serve. The veriest fool would not entrust the command of an army to a man whose sole badge of merit was his eloquence in a court of law or his adroit practice of the courtier’s art in the palace. All are agreed that military command must be earned by long service in the army. In the same manner, it must be regarded as folly to entrust the conduct of negotiations to an untrained amateur.”

There is indeed every reason for diplomacy to be a learned profession in the United States, like the law, medicine, or the military.  But it isn’t.  When top positions are reserved for people who have not come up through the ranks, it’s difficult to sustain diplomacy as a career, let alone establish and nurture it as a profession.  Professions are human memory banks.  They are composed of individuals who profess a unique combination of specialized knowledge, experience, and technique.  They distill their expertise into doctrine – constantly refreshed – based on what their experience has taught them about what works and what doesn’t.  Their skills are inculcated through case studies, periodic training, and on-the-job mentoring.  This professional knowledge is constantly improved by the critical introspection inherent in after-action reviews.

In the course of one’s time as a foreign service officer, one acquires languages and a hodgepodge of other skills relevant to the conduct of foreign relations.  If one is inclined to reflect on one’s experience, one begins to understand the principles that undergird effective diplomacy, that is the arts of persuading others to do things our way, and to get steadily better at practicing these arts.  But, in the U.S. foreign service, by contrast with – let’s say – the military, there is no systematic professional development process, no education in grand strategy or history, no training in tactics or operational technique derived from experience, no habit of reviewing successes and failures to improve future performance, no literature devoted to the development of operational doctrine and technique, and no real program or commitment to the mentoring of new entrants to the career.  If one’s lucky, one is called to participate in the making of history.  If one is not, there is yet a great deal to learn from the success or failure of the diplomatic tasks to which one is assigned.

As an aside, I also don’t believe that, as an institution, the Department of State now understands the difference between bureaucrats and professionals.  (I’m not sure it ever did.)   Both have their place in foreign affairs but the two are quite different.  Bureaucrats are trained to assure uniform decisions and predictable outcomes through the consistent interpretation and application of laws, regulations, and administrative procedures.  Professionals, by contrast, are educated to exercise individual, ad hoc judgments, take actions, and seek outcomes autonomously on the basis of principles and canons of behavior derived from experience.  They are expected to be creative, not consistent, in their approach to the matters in their charge.

Some tasks that diplomats perform are, of course, primarily bureaucratic – for example, visa issuance.  But others – for example (to stick for the moment with consular work), aid to American citizens in trouble with the local authorities, are quintessentially professional.  It made sense to incorporate the consular service into the U.S. diplomatic service back in 1924.  Almost all of what diplomats do as diplomats, in terms of negotiating with foreigners, persuading them to buy American, or otherwise influencing them to the national advantage, demands professional rather than bureaucratic qualities and work style.  But the United States’ foreign service has denied itself the major benefits of professionalization and, with them, the ability to pursue the excellence in diplomacy our nation now needs to compete internationally.  The centrality of the spoils system in our politics ensures that there is no incentive to remedy this.

So the prospect is that we will bumble on abroad, unable to persuade other nations to follow us, unskilled at solving problems by measures short of war, incapable of ending the wars we start, powerless to halt the spread of anti-American terrorism with global reach, and far less effective than we ought to be in supporting our economic interests abroad.  At some point, perhaps after another  terrible tragedy like 9/11, it will dawn on us that we cannot afford to continue to treat diplomacy as simply a delaying tactic before we impose sanctions, start bombing, or send in the marines.  But by then a lot more time, lives, and money will have been lost.

There is an obvious alternative to this bleak scenario.  That is that the secretary of state – this secretary of state, who is the son of a foreign service office and who has personally demonstrated the power of diplomacy to solve problems bequeathed to him by his predecessors – will recognize the need for the U.S. diplomatic service to match our military in professionalism and seek to make this his legacy.  In the end, this would demand enlisting the support of Congress but much could be done internally.

There is nothing to stop the compilation of case studies to form a curriculum for instruction in the core skills of diplomacy.  If properly led, the foreign service could organize an effort to draw on its most experienced members to develop doctrine to inform and guide the conduct of diplomacy.  The Department of State and the foreign service are not the same, but the Department could support this endeavor by seeking to stimulate the study of diplomatic history and practice in our universities as an alternative to the arid abstractions of DOD-financed “international relations” theory.  (IR theory as currently constituted reflects its defense department funding and denigrates diplomacy by focusing on coercion rather than other means of obtaining foreign cooperation.)

These and many other things could be done to establish and raise professional standards even without legislation or new funding.  But the level of dissatisfaction with our diplomatic capabilities and performance in other government departments and agencies is such that it should not be impossible to muster support in the U.S. Congress for reforms that would seek to raise the professional level of the Foreign Service to complement and support our military as well as our economic and commercial interests abroad.  Where there is the will, there is always a way.  The question is whether there is a will to get our diplomatic act together rather than rest on our Cold War laurels.


[1] http://chasfreeman.net/too-quick-on-the-draw-militarism-and-the-malpractice-of-diplomacy-in-america/