How Diplomacy Fails
Remarks to the Hammer Forum Review of the Diplomatic Lessons of 1914 for 2014
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
The Hammer Museum
Los Angeles California, 19 August 2014
We are here to discuss what we can learn from the failure of diplomacy to prevent, halt, and wrap up World War I. We just heard a masterful review of what happened from Geoffrey Wawro. He has already said most of the things I wanted to say. So he’s left me with no alternative but to actually address the topic I was asked to speak about, which is the failings of today’s American diplomacy in light of the deficiencies of diplomacy in 1914.
There are in fact some very disquieting similarities between the challenges statecraft faced back then and those it faces today.
The eve of World War I was also a time of rapid globalization, shifting power balances, rising nationalisms, socioeconomic stress, and transformative military technologies. The railroad networks, barbed wire, dynamite, repeating rifles, machine guns, long-range artillery, aircraft and submarines that altered the nature of war then are paralleled by today’s cyber and space-based surveillance systems, drones, precision-guided munitions, sub-launched and land-based anti ship missiles, missile defense and penetration aids, anti satellite missiles, cyber assaults, hypersonic gliders, and nuclear weapons. Changes in the European political economy set the stage for World War I. Changes in technology made it different from previous wars.
Armed conflict between major powers today would reveal that warfare has again mutated and developed new horrors for its participants. But some factors driving conflict now would parallel those of a century ago. In 1914, as in 2014, a professional military establishment, estranged from society but glorified by it, drew up war plans using new technologies on the fatal premise that the only effective defense is a preemptive offense. Then, as now, these plans evolved without effective political oversight or diplomatic input. Then, as now, military-to-military interactions within alliances sometimes took place without adequate supervision by civilian authority, leading to unmanageable policy disconnects that were revealed only when war actually broke out.
As the 20th century began, successive crises in the Balkans had the effect of replacing the 19th century’s careful balancing of interests with competition between military blocs. This conflated military posturing with diplomacy, much as events in the East and South China Seas, the Middle East, and Ukraine seem to be doing today. Then, as now, decisions by the smaller allies of the great powers risked setting off local wars that might rapidly expand and escalate. Then, as now, most people thought that, whatever smaller countries might do, war between the great powers was irrational and therefore would not occur. And then, as now, the chiefs of state and government of the great powers practiced attention deficit diplomacy. They were so engaged at the tactical level that they had little time to give full consideration to the strategic implications of their decisions.
Ironically, in light of what actually happened, few would dispute that the factors inhibiting war in Europe in 1914 were greater than those impeding it today. European leaders were not only personally acquainted but, in many instances, related to each other. They and their diplomatic aides knew each other well. There was a common European culture and a tradition of successful conference diplomacy and crisis management for them to draw upon. European imperialists could and had often solved problems by trading colonies or other peripheral interests to reduce tensions between themselves. None of these factors exist today to reduce the likelihood of wars between the United States and China or Iran, or NATO and Russia, or China and Japan or India – to name only the pairings warmongers seem to enjoy talking about the most.
On the other hand, alliances today facilitate cooperation. In practice, they no longer, as they did in 1914, oblige mutual aid or embody preconcerted common purposes. This welcome but dishonorable fact reduces the moral hazard implicit in American defense commitments to weaker allies and diminishes the prospect that they might act rashly because the U.S. has their back. It also reduces the danger of automatic widening and escalation of local wars.
No one wants war of any kind. But, as events in Europe in the summer of 1914 remind us, discounting the possibility of war and not wanting it are not enough to prevent it from happening. And, as the president suggested in his commencement address at West Point this May, we need to find alternatives to the use of force to advance our interests in the 21st century. That means strengthening our capacity for diplomacy.
It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is equally true that those who learn the wrong lessons from history must expect reeducation by painful experience. So it’s not surprising that, since the end of the Cold War, American diplomacy has suffered repeated rebuke from unexpected developments. Some of these have taken place in the Balkans, where World War I was kindled – and where we have arranged a ceasefire, installed a garrison, and called it peace.
But most challenges to our problem-solving ability are coming from other places and are producing still worse results. Consider the north Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, Israel-Palestine, 9/11 and our ever-intensifying conflict with militant Islam, regime change in Iraq, the Russo-Georgian war, the Arab uprisings (including that in Syria), “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, the “pivot to Asia” amidst tussles in the South and East China Seas, the collapse of Sykes-Picot and the rise of Jihadistan in the Levant, and the Ukraine crisis, among other tests of American statecraft. It’s hard to think of anything that’s has gone right.
It’s worth asking what we have got wrong. Clearly, military strength alone is not enough to guarantee international order or compel deference to U.S. desires. So Americans are looking for a more restrained and less militaristic way of dealing with the world beyond our borders.
The president nicely captured the national mood when he said that “our military has no peer,” but added that: “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
That insight implies that we should be skilled at measures short of war, that is: diplomacy. For many reasons, we are not. To set aside militarism and redevelop the capacity to shape events abroad to our advantage without a feckless resort to force, we need to unlearn a lot of bad habits and to reexamine some of the presuppositions guiding our approach to foreign affairs. Military overreach cannot be offset by diplomatic incapacity.
Part of what is required is correcting dysfunctional assumptions about how to deal with ornery foreigners. Denouncing them and breaking off dialogue with them is petulant. It doesn’t solve problems. Refusing to meet with another government until it accepts and meets our moral standards is a sure recipe for impasse. “Come out with your hands up or we won’t talk to you” is not a persuasive way to begin negotiations. Declaratory “diplomacy” and sanctions entrench confrontation. They neither mitigate it or address its causes. We are seeing that effect now with Russia in Ukraine.
Short of the use of force, without tactfully persuasive conversation very few people and no nations can be convinced to change course. It is difficult to get an adversary to yield when he believes his political survival as well as his dignity depend on not surrendering. So as long as we know what we are going to say and what effect it is likely to have, it is better to talk than not to talk. Those with whom we disagree need to hear directly and respectfully from us why we think they are wrong and harming their own interests and why they are costing themselves opportunities they should want to pursue and risking injuries they should wish to avoid.
It takes time to establish the mutual confidence necessary for such dialogue. It is counterproductive to stand on our side of the oceans and give other nations the finger, while threatening to bomb them. It does not make sense to react to problems in other nations by severing communication with them. As Winston Churchill observed, “the reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment but to secure a convenience.” Yet, for example, we routinely withdraw military attachés following military coups. Since our attachés are the only American officials who know and have credibility with the new military rulers, this is the equivalent of gagging, deafening, and blinding ourselves – a kind of unilateral diplomatic disarmament. Our diplomatic technique badly needs an upgrade.
But the more fundamental problem for U.S. diplomacy is the moral absolutism inherent in American exceptionalism. Our unique historical experience shapes our approach to our disadvantage, ruling out much of the bargaining and compromise that are central to diplomacy. In our Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, we demonized the enemy and sought his unconditional surrender, followed by his repentance, reconstruction, and ideological remolding. The American way of international contention formed by these experiences is uniquely uncompromising. Our rigidity is reinforced by the mythic cliché of Hitler at Munich. That has come to stand for the overdrawn conclusion that the conciliation of adversaries is invariably not just foolish but immoral and self-defeating.
The Cold War reduced most American diplomacy to proclaiming our values, holding our ground, containing the enemy, and preventing inroads into our sphere of influence – the zone we called “the free world.” Despite occasional talk of “rollback,” with few exceptions, our approach was static and defensive – the diplomatic equivalent of trench warfare. In this formative period of American diplomacy, our typical object was not to resolve international quarrels but to prevent their resolution by military means. So we learned to respond to problems by pointing a gun at those who made them but avoiding talking to them or even being seen in their company.
Without our realizing it, Americans reconceived diplomacy as a means of communicating disapproval, dramatizing differences, amplifying deterrence, inhibiting change, and precluding gains by adversaries. For the most part, we did not see diplomacy as a tool for narrowing or bridging differences, still less solving them by producing win-win outcomes. We seem to be having trouble remembering that diplomacy’s usual purpose is to do these very things.
The experience of other nations causes most to see diplomacy and war as part of a continuum of means by which to persuade other states and peoples to end controversies and accept adjustments in their foreign relations, borders, military postures, and the like. Given Americans’ history of isolationism alternating with total war, we tend to see diplomacy and armed conflict as opposites. We describe war as a failure of diplomacy, not as a sometimes necessary escalation of pressure to achieve its aims.
Americans suppose that diplomacy ends when war begins and does not resume until the enemy lies prostrate before us. We imagine that wars end when the victor proclaims his military mission accomplished rather than when the vanquished is brought to accept defeat. Lacking a tradition of war termination through diplomacy, we have great difficulty successfully ending wars, as Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya all attest. We have yet to internalize the need to reconcile enemies to the political consequences of military outcomes and to translate these outcomes into peace agreements – binding acceptances of a new status quo as preferable to its overthrow.
The failure of diplomacy in World War I left most Americans with a very jaundiced view of it. Will Rogers summed this up when he said “the United States never lost a war or won a conference” and added “take the diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall flat in a week.” As a nation, despite our seven decades of superpower status, Americans still don’t take diplomacy seriously. Most of us see it as an expression of weakness – so much namby-pamby nonsense before we send in the Marines. And, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we still seem convinced that diplomacy is an amateur sport.
We show this in how we staff our country’s statecraft and diplomacy. Our military and our spies are professionals. But, for the most part, our foreign policy is crafted, led, and executed by ambitious amateurs – ideologues, the paladins of special interests, securocrats playing games of musical sinecures, political spin doctors, and the occasional academic. Our ambassadors in important capitals are selected as a reward for their campaign contributions, not for their experience in diplomacy or competence at advancing U.S. national interests abroad. All too often these days, our politicians fiddle while the world turns, leaving the diplomatic ramparts unmanned as crises unfold. As an example, we had no ambassador to Moscow for the five months in which Russophobes and Russians pulled down an already rickety Ukraine, detached the Crimea from it, and reignited East-West confrontation in Europe. On August 1, the U.S. Senate cast its last votes of the season, leaving 59 countries with no American ambassador.
America’s dilettantish approach to national security is unique among modern states. We get away with it – when we do – mainly because our diplomacy is supported by very bright and able career officers. But our foreign service works in an environment contemptuous of professionalism that more often than not leaves its officers’ potential unrecognized, unmentored, and underdeveloped. (If the highest ranks of the diplomatic profession in the United States are reserved for men and women who have made a lot of money in other professions and avocations, why should our most talented young people – even those who want to serve our country – waste time apprenticing as diplomats? Why not do something less dangerous and more lucrative, then buy your way in at the top?) Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the United States has come to be known for its military prowess, not its foreign affairs literacy, the wisdom and imagination of its statecraft, or the strategic sophistication and subtlety of its diplomacy. This is proving dangerous. In an increasingly competitive world, diplomatic mediocrity is no longer good enough.
Americans must now consider whether we can afford to continue to entrust our diplomacy to amateurs. Hastily-arranged presidential phone calls, hopscotch huddles with foreigners by the secretary of state, scoldings of foreign leaders by U.S. spokespersons, suspensions of bilateral dialogue, sanctions (whether unilateral or plurilateral), and attempted ostracism of foreign governments are racking up a remarkably poor track record in the increasingly complex circumstances of the post-Cold War world. So is the dangerous conflation of military posturing with diplomacy. If we Americans do not learn to excel at measures short of war, we will be left with no choice but to continue to resort to war to solve problems that experience tells us can’t be solved by it.
To prosper in the multipolar world before us, Americans will need to be at the top of its diplomatic game. We are a very long way from that at present. And time’s a wasting.