Why Not Try Diplomacy?

Why Not Try Diplomacy?

Remarks to the University Continuing Education Association

March 28, 2008, New Orleans, Louisiana
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)


I want to speak to you this afternoon about diplomacy as an element of statecraft.  By now most Americans recognize that we are in a bit of trouble both at home and abroad.  What is to be done?  Is diplomacy a better answer than the use of force?

The late Arthur Goldberg, who was both a Justice of our Supreme Court and Ambassador to the United Nations, observed that “diplomats approach every issue with an open … mouth.”  A colleague and friend of mine, who served as Ambassador to China, once told me that “a diplomat is someone who thinks twice – before saying nothing.”  They set a high bar for a public speaker on diplomacy as an alternative to militarism, but I am willing to attempt it.

Americans believe in military power, and the United States has never spent so much on it.  Internationally, given our diminished political standing and the collapse of the dollar, military prowess may be our only remaining comparative advantage.  We certainly behave as though we think it is.

In current dollars, we are spending about 28 percent more on our military each year than we did during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and over one-third more than at the height of the Reagan defense build-up against the late, unlamented Soviet Union.   We are spending considerably more on military power than the rest of the world put together – three and a half times as much as the highest estimate for China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea combined; and at least 12,000 times as much as Al Qaeda and all other terrorist groups with global reach.  It is not clear what enemies justify all this money.  Whoever they are, if military expenditures are the key to national security, we’ve got them where we want them.

In the first ten years of this century, US defense outlays will total about five and one-quarter trillion dollars.  Military-related outlays in other parts of the federal budget – like homeland security, veterans affairs, and interest payments on war debt – will add another $2 trillion or so to this, for a cumulative total of something well over $7 trillion in military and military-related spending.  Our defense budget, including supplementals to pay for offensive operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,  is now about 5 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  Counting military-related outlays in other budgets, the percentage of our economy devoted to defense is around 7 percent.  We have a huge economy and, in absolute terms, that is a lot of military spending.

We need a strong military even though we’re not really worried about an invasion from Jamaica or Canada or Mexico or even Cuba or Iran.  Unlike other nations’ armed forces, what ours do is mostly not defense against foreign invasion or attacks on the homeland.  Our military is configured for offensive deployment in support of foreign policy.  It does deterrence, punishment, and conquest of real and potential foreign enemies.  That is why our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are in Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Bosnia and dozens of other places around the world that have neither the intent nor the capability to attack us.  It took 9/11 and its demonstration that we had no military means of preventing foreign attack on US civilians to get us to worry about the possibility that such attacks might occur.  We now have a separate department of government focused on that.

Somehow, however, despite all the money we’ve spent, the debt we’ve accumulated, and the sacrifices patriotic Americans have made in distant foreign lands, our leaders tell us that we have never been so threatened.  Given all the enemies we have been making recently, they may be right.  There is, of course, a time-tested political axiom in Washington that if something isn’t working the answer is to add money and do more of it.  So our president and the three major candidates vying to succeed him join in promising further increases in defense spending – without providing any indication of how these increases would buy us greater security.  It’s enough to make one wonder whether President Eisenhower wasn’t onto something when he warned Americans against the danger of nurturing a “military-industrial complex” that would give us a vested interest in military spending, regardless of the nature and level of the threat to our nation.

Massive military spending has, in fact, become an indispensable part of our political-economy.  In addition to buying remarkably capable and costly weapons systems, it feeds hordes of consultants and contractors and houses legions of academic specialists. These are very bright people who labor to develop theories of how military coercion might control foreign behavior.  They produce threat analyses to justify continuing US military build-up.  They consider how best to apply our military might abroad, and they work out the force packages and weapons system specifications to do it.   The intellectual energy that massive spending has focused on these topics – as opposed to means of influence that do not rely on the threat or use of force – has revolutionized the American approach to foreign policy.  One should never underestimate the impact of either federal spending or the resulting focus of the academy!

And one should never underestimate the ability of politicians to ignore millennia of human experience and to aspire to expediency if the academy gives them an opening to do so.  Most of our leaders, in both major political parties, now espouse a reversal of the longstanding American view that coercion, especially through military means, is a last resort to be brought into play only when diplomacy – in the form of persuasion, diplomatic bargaining, alliance-building, and other measures short of war – has failed.  In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the sequence approved on both sides of the aisle was to shoot first, then send in the diplomats to mop up.  Since this hasn’t worked out too well, there is now a lot of talk about how to recruit more diplomats and buy more mops.  That’s probably a good idea, but it might be more effective and cheaper to involve the diplomats at the outset and avoid creating such a mess in the first place.

It used to be thought that the purpose of war is to secure a more perfect peace.  That is an objective that invokes diplomacy to translate military triumph into new arrangements acceptable to both victor and vanquished.  It implies war planning focused on the question: “and then what?” and the conduct of war in accordance with a strategy that unites political, economic, informational, and intelligence measures with military actions and a well-crafted plan for war termination.  In Iraq, a brilliant general has belatedly come up with a credible campaign plan but his plan is still unconnected to a strategy.  Our plan to end the fighting is apparently to hang around until the Iraqis decide to make peace with each other.  That might take a while.  In the strategy-free zone that is contemporary Washington, no one wants to second-guess a celebrity general, but any reading of David Petraeus’ manual on counter-insurgency must lead to the conclusion that, in Iraq, “victory” remains undefined and missing in action.

Sadly, theories of coercion and plans to use military means to impose our will on other nations have for some time squeezed out serious consideration of diplomacy as an alternative to the use of force.  Diplomacy is more than saying “nice doggie,” till you can find a rock.  Weapons are tools to change men’s minds but they are far from the only means of doing so.  As we are learning from our misadventures in the Middle East, they are also seldom the most reliable or least expensive.  The weapons of diplomats are words and their power is their persuasiveness.  Talk is cheaper than firepower and does less collateral damage, so it makes sense to try it before blazing away at the adversary.

There is another reason to regard force as a last resort.  It creates ruins that cannot easily be rebuilt and resentments that cannot be easily be overcome.  War is a form of demolition; its results are messy and its effects on those it touches are uncertain.  In the age of globalization, moreover, military invasion is as likely to incubate terrorists with global reach as it is to overthrow governments and seize terrain.  It makes sense to exhaust diplomatic remedies first, not to follow a script of “Ready! Fire! Diplomacy!”

Diplomacy is the art of pursuing the internationally possible.  Its main drawback is that it involves the unpleasant task of interacting persuasively with usually disagreeable adversaries and sometimes tedious friends.  Despite the example of useful, wide-ranging dialog with our Soviet enemies (conducted on the sound theory that one should never lose contact with the enemy diplomatically or militarily), a generation of American leaders seems to have concluded that we shouldn’t talk to people who disagree with us till they come out with their hands up.  But not talking to those with whom one disagrees is the diplomatic equivalent of unilateral disarmament.

Figuring out why others are doing things and explaining to them why Americans disagree with this and why they should, in their own interest, do things our way is the opposite of appeasement.  And it is more likely to achieve results than ducking such encounters while loudly proclaiming that those we disdain to speak with already know what they need to do to appease us, so we don’t need to reason with them.  Substituting reliance on the intuition of our adversaries for diplomatic communication with them leaves few options.  We can live with a surging mess or we can slap on some sanctions.  When these fail, as they inevitably do, we can send in the B-2s and Abrams tanks.  These are not good choices.  The approach they impose creates more problems than it solves.

Our next president will inherit a daunting list of challenges: apparently interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; withering alliances; diminished international prestige and deference to our leadership; deepening estrangement between the United States and the Islamic world, a mounting threat to our homeland from the growing ranks of anti-American jihadis; a war-fatigued, equipment-depleted, disenchanted, and still untransformed US military; an increasingly lawless world order; and the emergence of a widening range of regional challenges to US influence and interests from the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez Frías, and Vladimir Putin..

He or she will have to deal with all these issues while wrestling with a budget and economy in chronic deficit; mounting national debt amidst a credit crisis; recession; inflation; insolvent pension systems; decaying infrastructure – complete with collapsing bridges, pot-holes, and gridlock; a medical system that extracts rapidly inflating payments from middle class Americans without caring for the poor, sick, and destitute among us; and other developments that, collectively, undermine America as a model that other nations wish to emulate.  It is tempting to conclude that anyone who wants to be president under these circumstances is prima facie mentally defective and unfit for the office.  Still, some poor soul will be inaugurated next January 20 and will have to deal with all these issues and then some.

The new president might start by shaking off the constipated notion that diplomacy is, like military posturing, just a way of conveying menace or containing or deterring threats.  These things are, of course, part of diplomacy.  And it’s true, as Al Capone once sagely remarked, that “you will get farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”  Diplomacy is largely about adding the strength of others to one’s own, but its greater mission is to take the political offensive by transcending the conventional wisdom and identifying or creating opportunities, and seizing them to the national advantage.   That is what Truman did with the Marshall Plan and the formation of NATO.  It is what Nixon did with his opening to China.  It is what Carter did at Camp David.  It is what Reagan did with Gorbachev at Reykjavik.  The next president should look into how to restore our atrophied diplomatic capabilities so as to lift us from the mire into which we have sunk.

Resorting to diplomacy will not be as easy as it may sound.  Secretary of Defense Gates has recently begun to speak to the lopsided priorities apparent in our budget, which underfunds diplomacy and forces the US military to do all sorts of things that would be more appropriately and better done by civilian foreign affairs personnel.  Gates points out that there are fewer professional diplomats in our Foreign Service than there are personnel in military bands or a single carrier battle group.  What our country spends on a year’s diplomatic and consular operations worldwide is less than what we spend in six days of military operations in Iraq.

You get what you pay for.  In this case, that’s a superbly professional and supremely lethal military and an anemically staffed and undertrained diplomatic service led by inexperienced political appointees on sabbatical from high incomes.  As one of the last century’s greatest diplomats, Israel’s Abba Eban, said of this peculiarly American practice,

“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.”

It has been 196 years since an amateur general – Andrew Jackson – last commanded US troops in battle not far from here.  But to lead our diplomatic work abroad, especially in countries where the standard of living is high and the danger of anti-American violence is low, we still depend on amateurs who must learn on the job, hoping that their experienced subordinates will help them overcome their ignorance of the local language, paper over embarrassing gaffes, and avoid catastrophic mistakes.  And in Washington, where Iraq has just reminded us how dangerous it can be to allow civilian armchair generals to substitute their military judgments for those of military professionals, we now staff our foreign policy apparatus almost entirely with people with no diplomatic experience.  No other country in the world so values ideological reliability and party loyalty over professional knowledge and expertise.  Only in America….

I am reminded of the story of a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Mac Toon, a crusty career diplomat who went aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean for a meeting with the admiral who commanded its battle group.  At the end of their discussion, the admiral leaned over to ask, “what’s it like being an ambassador?  I’ve always thought that after I retire I might want to try it.”  Ambassador Toon replied, “that’s funny.  I’ve always thought that, when I retire, I might try my hand at running a carrier battle group.”  The admiral said, “That’s ridiculous.  A naval command requires years of training and experience.”  But so do the management of foreign policy and diplomacy, if the ship of state is not to be sailed onto the rocks or beached in the desert.

It is a truism that 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.  We do not have the margin for error we once did.  But even if we devote the equivalent of a whole week’s worth of the Pentagon budget to the arts of peace – rather than the three days or so we now do – fixing our Foreign Service will take time.  As our military know better than anyone, it takes decades to train, exercise, and professionalize personnel.  After years of overemphasis on military means of conducting our foreign relations, getting up to diplomatic snuff will also require a serious investment in intellectual infrastructure comparable to that we have devoted to the military arts.

If we build a diplomatic capability to match our military prowess, we will gain a key building block of national strategy.  But a bigger, better Foreign Service  will not in itself create such a strategy.  Nor will it solve the underlying problem of national strategic illiteracy.  We suffer from what one of our most sophisticated foreign policy practitioners, Chester Crocker, has called a “statecraft deficit.”  It is inspiring to observe the professionalism of our military, which is the most competent in history.  It is painful to observe the extent to which military requests for direction from the civilians whose control they are taught to revere go unanswered.  The fact is that we – and those we elect and appoint to lead us – are remarkably poorly prepared for the preeminent role in world affairs we now play.

Our educational system bears major responsibility for this.  Most Americans can’t find Louisiana, let alone Iraq or Afghanistan, on the map.  Many are unversed in history, still less diplomatic history.  Few have been exposed to any instruction in how to reason about foreign affairs or statecraft and its diplomatic, intelligence, and military tools.  Almost none have been tutored in strategy.  This is understandable.  It is largely a reflection of two factors, both of which have changed.

First, until recently, the American homeland was apparently invulnerable, and the United States was the leader in most fields of human endeavor.  Foreign policy was therefore something we inflicted on others without fear of reprisal, not something they did unto us.  And we didn’t think we had much to learn from foreigners.  Foreign affairs and national security didn’t seem like anything the average American citizen had to worry about.  But 9/11 changed that forever.

And, second, the formative influences of the Cold War, during which the United States led half the world against Soviet communism, are still with us.  Then, the capacity of the Soviet Union to annihilate us imperiled our very existence.  Its predatory ideology menaced our values; its imperial ambitions threatened our interests and those of many other nations..  The threats to both values and interests became so thoroughly merged that we forgot how to distinguish the two, though they are very different in their functions and import.

Attempts at historical revisionism by the proponents of militarism notwithstanding, the fact is that we won the Cold War by patient adherence to a strategy of containment, not by butting heads on a battlefield.  Containment relied on diplomacy – on measures short of war – to build and sustain alliances backed by the deterrent power of great military strength.  Some may profess to regret that we did not join in battle with the Soviet Union to roll back its empire.  I am glad we substituted patience for belligerence.  Our strategy did not vary over forty years.  It formed the foreign policy outlook of three generations  We did not have to think about strategy.  In many ways, we appear to have forgotten how to do so.

We now face a world in which our personal security and that of our communities is threatened, but our national existence is not.  As a people and as a nation, we are challenged from many directions and in many ways, not by a single “evil empire” that we can count upon to rot away from within.  To secure our domestic tranquility against foreign assault and to lead the 21st Century as we did the last one will demand of us a higher level of strategic conceptual ability and civic literacy than we have had to demonstrate for decades.  And it will require instruments of statecraft adequate to the task – diplomatic, informational, and intelligence capabilities of the first order, backed by military power without peer and a prosperous, attractive, and open society.

Two millennia ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca advised the Emperor Nero of the vital importance of setting objectives.   “If a man does not know to what port he steers, no wind is favorable,” he pointed out.  It was good advice, even if Nero didn’t take it.  It is worth pondering in our current circumstances.  Our debate about the challenges before us is almost entirely tactical not strategic; cast in terms of our politics rather than external realities; and focused on preventing change rather than turning it to our advantage.

Yet, for example, we risk reaping the whirlwind if we simply leave Iraq.  We cannot do so safely and responsibly without defining realistic objectives and using our withdrawal to advance toward them.  If we continue to aid and abet counterproductive behavior by all sides in the Middle East, we should not be surprised when they turn on us.  If we do not define a feasible end-game in Afghanistan, we will just incubate more anti-American terrorists while expanding the world’s heroin supply.

If we cannot decide what sort of international monetary reserve system should replace the currently collapsing one and persuade other stakeholders to act with us to fix it, we will drift into increasing economic misery.  We must develop a plan to reunite the Atlantic region behind the rule of law and other Western values or see these eclipsed by ideas from other regions of the world that are rising to new prominence.  Without a vision of mutually beneficial coexistence in our hemisphere, events and the anti-American dreams of others will bring needless trouble right up to our borders. If we are not positioned to help as Cuba, North Korea, Burma, and other troubled nations enter periods of transition, we must expect that they will change in ways that create new problems for us and their neighbors.  If we have no positive agenda for enlisting Chinese and Indian power in common causes, they may well apply their power in ways that undercut ours, annoy us, or even injure us.

It has been a long time since Americans had a positive vision or clear objectives for these and many other pressing issues.  I could go on, but the afternoon advances, and New Orleans beckons.  Let me close with the obvious point that we cannot hope to appeal to the conscience of humankind if we do not continue to embody its aspirations.  If we do not restore our country’s good name, others will not follow when we lead or share the burdens we take up.  To regain the cooperation of allies and friends, we must rediscover how to listen, how to persuade, how to be a team player, and how to follow the rules we demand others follow.

We must do this because we Americans cannot successfully address the problems we confront on our own.  Our need for foreign partners has never been greater.  Fortunately, the world’s desire for partnership with America has not really gone away.   Beneath the layers of resentment and animosity laid down by our recent behavior, there is still much goodwill toward the United States.  This “fossil friendship” will not last forever.  For now, however, it is a resource that American diplomacy can mine to rebuild the respect of allies and friends for our leadership and to unite them behind an American vision of a better world.  A return to diplomacy, not threats and the use of force, is the surest path to the reassertion of American leadership.  It is time to rediscover and explore that path.


Thank you.