Diplomacy: Still Our First Line of Defense
The euphoria surrounding Secretary of State Colin Powell’s successful effort last November to negotiate a unanimous Security Council resolution on Iraq has already dissipated. Having herded the cats and mice on the Security Council into unlikely unanimity, Secretary Powell enjoyed almost universal praise for the success of his patient diplomatic efforts. The media described the outcome: peace got a new lease on life; war was averted or at least postponed. Diplomacy enjoyed a brief popular renaissance and a respite from the almost universal disdain and criticism that columnists and policy makers alike had heaped upon it over recent months.
We have been reminded again, as that tortuous process played itself out, that successful diplomacy requires compromises. Both sides have to abandon initial demands. Both sides have to accept imperfect outcomes. Obligations are imposed on both. Participants must see gain, if not unconditional victory, from the result. And so it was in New York. The United States got what it wanted in terms of a tough, clear mandate for inspections and the recognition of Iraq’s material breach of previous resolutions. Other members succeeded in removing some of the most egregiously exigent inspection conditions and deleted any automaticity with regard to future use of force. But the administration hawks have come to realize that this was no free ride for the United States. We have had to accept the constraints inherent in that diplomatic success. In practical terms, we are less free to take unilateral action than we were before.
As a result of this ambiguous outcome, enthusiasm for diplomacy, already weak on the conservative right, has further weakened. Few now speak of diplomacy as the answer to the Iraqi conundrum. Attention has shifted from America’s number one diplomat, the Secretary of State, and the department of diplomats he leads to the new head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Committee (Unmovic), the experienced senior Swedish diplomat Hans Blix. Already criticisms of Blix have begun to surface, suggesting that he, like all diplomats, is feckless, unconstrained by principle and more concerned with consensus than results. His willingness to take into account the sensitivities of his Iraqi interlocutors is criticized as appeasement; his low profile, somewhat understated style and his cautious, business-like approach to his mission are described as weaknesses, even though his commitment to a tough, effective inspection regime seems clear. But plainly he is no Neville Chamberlain proclaiming the arrival of peace in our time.
How did diplomacy get such a dubious reputation? Diplomacy, or rather diplomats, have never enjoyed great popularity in the United States. The stereotype of cookie-pushing, effete elitists has long been perpetrated in the press, in movies and on television. Diplomats are known to prefer champagne to Bourbon and branch water and to fall too easily under the spell of their interlocutors, victims of that dread disease localitis. They are presumed to be incapable of a muscular defense of U.S. interests. Senator Henry Wooten’s 18th-century characterization of them as men sent abroad to lie for the good of their country is widely believed, with the result that far too often, American diplomats are seen as duplicitous, if not outright disloyal. The State Department’s Arabists, for example, are often lumped together in this category of spineless, unpatriotic public servants who are prepared to abandon Israel and America’s interests. Failure to achieve peace in the Middle East is more often mentioned than successes in the cold war, in Panama or at Camp David and Dayton.
Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), one of the most influential of all writers on military strategy, once asserted that war is nothing more than the continuation of political action (i.e., diplomacy) by other means. The hawks now argue that soldiers must now take over where diplomats have failed. The truth, however, is that we need diplomacy today more than ever, particularly in that part of the world, the Middle East, that constitutes the western end of the axis of evil.
Whatever the outcome of Unmovic inspections, American diplomats are going to be called on to be ever more active in carrying out their traditional roles of reporting, representation and negotiation. Building a consensus for a military response from the Security Council, should the inspection regime fail or falter, will require extraordinary diplomatic efforts, both at the United Nations in New York and in capitals around the world. Obtaining commitments for an allied war effort or for an eventual peace-keeping and reconstruction effort will be equally daunting. But that, in fact, is what diplomacy is all about. It is the art of persuading others through a patient process of give-and-take to adopt measures congruent or consistent with one’s own national objectives. The purposeful use of carrots and sticks will be essential. Diplomacy is an art form that requires professionals with extensive language and area skills, the ability to communicate complex messages without ambiguity and a deep commitment to American values and the national security of the United States. We are fortunate to have many such men and women in the U.S. Foreign Service.
But even if war is averted, either because the inspections succeed in destroying Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or because the Iraqi regime self-destructs under external political and economic pressure, diplomacy will have a vital ongoing role. Sanctions will have to be lifted or modified, political tactics changed and investment and trade expanded. Under either scenario, the United States, rich and powerful though it is, cannot do it all alone. We will need partners. They will have to be wooed, cajoled, courted and persuaded. Diplomats will have to do the heavy lifting. This is not something that soldiers either want to do or can do.
But American diplomats have other vital roles to play. Whatever transpires, they will be a critical source of information for our government. They will be on the cutting edge of efforts to project America’s image to cultures, societies and institutions that may be deeply suspicious of our motives, values and staying power.
On the first score, Washington cannot make rational policy choices without a wide range of data about the countries with which we have to deal and that we wish to influence. American diplomats on the ground will be expected to report in depth about the attitudes, policies and inclinations of governments throughout the Middle East and beyond, and about the political and social pressures that those governments face as they make their decisions to support or oppose the United States. In the 1980’s in Central America, one of our embassies was asked by the White House to increase its reporting of bad news. According to the White House, the President’s policy needed bad news if it was to succeed. The answer was clear and unequivocal. Diplomats report all of the news, both good and bad. Without comprehensive reporting of the situation on the ground, Washington is unlikely to make sound policy. Good information is the basis for good policy.
Unfortunately in the Middle East, we operate with one hand tied behind our backs. America is not present in Baghdad, or Teheran or Tripoli. What we know must come from intelligence or third country sources. These, of course, are enormously useful, but they require policy makers to see and interpret the policies of both our friends and foes largely through the eyes of others, not our own. Unfortunately for many years, in administrations of both political parties, we have come to regard an American diplomatic presence as a reward for good, or at least acceptable, behavior. Our regional adversaries, such as North Korea, or Iran, Iraq or Cuba have been punished for their misdeeds by the withdrawal of American diplomats. The result is that we have limited reliable, firsthand information about these countries and few channels for directly interacting with them. We are the losers more than they.
An equally serious problem is the fact that, because diplomats are not on the ground, we are thereby inhibited from influencing nongovernmental entities. An increasingly important aspect of America’s interaction with the world is what is now know as public diplomacy: the effort to affect political, social and economic groups in a foreign society in ways that enhance their understanding of our policies, sympathy for our motives and appreciation for the strengths and values of our democratic society. Today civil society is as important a source of power as formal government structures. Dropping leaflets over potential battle zones, or even broadcasting rock music programs laced with U.S.-generated news is no substitute for direct interaction with people and institutions.
Clearly, as the Iraqi crisis plays out, we will need to step up our public as well as traditional diplomacy throughout the Middle East, in the Muslim world at large and with friends and foes on every continent. Telling America’s story will have new relevance and new urgency. Maintaining alliances, building coalitions and marshalling resources will take on ever greater saliency. Diplomacy will continue to be, not only America’s first line of defense, but also its first line of offense in a world of uncertain challenges and continuing risks.
The region where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers flow and nurture life, and where many locate the mythic garden—the paradise of God—is, of course, present-day Iraq. And even where the biblical narrative is necessarily interpreted in terms of myth, waging war in this holy topography should make us pause and reflect. Perhaps we will realize that the dissension and enmity, the self-serving and the loss of ability to discriminate between things profitable and things hurtful, which caused the first human beings to lose paradise, force each generation, including our own, to live outside of Eden.
As the United States considers taking military action, we are reminded of the words of Jesus, borne out in history again and again, that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Moreover, the weapons we fashion for war—the flaming swords (Gen 3:24)—will be used in turn by the angel standing guard at the door to paradise to preclude us from entering therein.
May the God of peace give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk 1:79), that we might be able to rejoice at last with the poet John Milton: “I who erewhile the happy Garden sung/ now sing Recover’d Paradise to all mankind” (Paradise Regained).