The Democrats eager to replace George W. Bush in his current job talk about what they plan to do differently, and they talk a lot about "diplomacy." Here, for instance, in a major foreign policy statement by Barack Obama:

Throughout the Middle East, we must harness American power to reinvigorate American diplomacy. Tough-minded diplomacy, backed by the whole range of instruments of American power -- political, economic, and military -- could bring success even when dealing with long-standing adversaries such as Iran and Syria. Our policy of issuing threats and relying on intermediaries to curb Iran's nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism, and regional aggression is failing. Although we must not rule out using military force, we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran. Our diplomacy should aim to raise the cost for Iran of continuing its nuclear program by applying tougher sanctions and increasing pressure from its key trading partners. The world must work to stop Iran's uranium-enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy. At the same time, we must show Iran -- and especially the Iranian people -- what could be gained from fundamental change: economic engagement, security assurances, and diplomatic relations. Diplomacy combined with pressure could also reorient Syria away from its radical agenda to a more moderate stance -- which could, in turn, help stabilize Iraq, isolate Iran, free Lebanon from Damascus' grip, and better secure Israel.
Now, I find Obama a generally attractive candidate (he knows the art of making, as Andrew Sullivan says, "the conservative pitch for a liberal policy") and I may yet vote for him, or for Hillary C., who also talks this way.

But I have to wonder, what is the "diplomacy" they invoke, and whom do they intend to have it with? It's thrown up as a sort of magic word that seems to mean "getting good results without getting any Americans killed," but it does have a real meaning, or else it used to, and it presents a series of severe challenges for any modern-day American president who plans to use it as a policy.

Diplomacy, as I understand it, means "negotiation as a means to a peaceful resolution of disputes."

Democracies are historically terrible at it. America is no exception. Athenian diplomacy, too, was a more or less complete failure. Successful diplomacy relies on an aristocratic attitude, a closed and secretive system of rule, and a professional class of negotiators who form, along with their peers in other nations, almost a class and nation unto themselves. Henry Kissinger -- perhaps the least "American" figure in modern American history -- was the closest thing to a real diplomat we've had in my lifetime.

Condi Rice could be an effective diplomat in the old style, if given another 10 years at the job, which she won't get. A team of negotiators that changes wholesale with each new administration is not going to cultivate the necessary sensibility for diplomacy, which is one of the reasons America does poorly at this.

Democracies are suspicious of diplomats, and with some reason. One of the arguments in the U.S. Constitution for having the Senate, and not just the president alone, involved in treaty-making was that a president "would require superlative virtue" to avoid being influenced by personal pecuniary motives, if not outright bribes. Kissinger, in the Cold War's bi-polar world (the correct term, but also quite a suggestive image) represented the vicious diplomacy of the era of Richelieu, where national self-interest trumped all considerations of virtue and idealism.

The American system as it was set up in 1787 was not a pure democracy, and thus had opportunities for real diplomacy, which it occasionally practiced. Yet it fell into the same errors as the Athenians, in sending off teams of negotiators chosen to represent every political faction then with a hand on control. The diplomats thus feuded with each other [e.g. Adams and Clay at Ghent] and undercut the mission.

It would get worse in this century. The House of Representatives was explicitly excluded from American treaty-making because of its political and popular nature.

Accurate and comprehensive knowledge of foreign politics; a steady and systematic adherence to the same views; a nice and uniform sensibility to national character, decision, secrecy and dispatch; are incompatible with the genius of a body so variable and so numerous. [Federalist No. 75; italics in the original and worth noting.]
Yet since the Senate has become simply a more exclusive version of the House, subject to the same popular whims and mired in political passions, its role in foreign policy has been more complicating than helpful, to the point of view of a diplomat.

Dean Acheson, after Kissinger the great diplomat of the American century, had no end of trouble with the Senate, and he pointed out that it was a Senatorial prerogative, jealously guarded, to be indignant at foreign policy -- either at being "put on the spot" by being asked to make decisions about it, or at being "bypassed" by the administration.

This is not a partisan complaint; in recent history typically a Democratic president with a dynamic foreign policy has been frustrated by a Republican Congress: Wilson and Lodge, Roosevelt and Taft, Truman and Vandenberg.

If our democracy is one impediment to contemporary democracy, the state of the world we inhabit is another. Periods of one-nation domination and hegemony offer little scope for a diplomatist. The Romans contributed nothing to the art and history of diplomacy, and that is no accident. Their diplomacy consisted in little more than debating with their client peoples the number and gender of the hostages Rome would receive from them.

When diplomacy was most active and successful, during the "Concert of Europe" period, the leading nations numbered eight or more at a given time, and rich interchanges and alliances were accomplished.

Which brings up the "with whom?" part of my question. The Europeans, with whom a true diplomacy still might be possible, have taken themselves out of the game by having no serious interest in the world anymore except in terms of getting trade in China and oil from the Middle East.

Otherwise, we will be dealing principally with totalitarians, whose short-term objectives all are geared toward local dominance. Simply "talking to" someone is not diplomacy, despite what Obama seems to think. Not every conversation is diplomacy. Pleading for mercy is not diplomacy. A poker game is not diplomacy.

In a situation of hegemony, the interest of opposing nations is to topple our power or to weaken it by undermining the existing order. Stability -- the goal of diplomacy properly conceived -- is seen as benefiting the hegemonic power at the expense of others. In such a situation, international stability is not the goal of diplomacy or the thing to be preserved from the fires of disputes; rather it is the subject of conflict and dispute. Iran wants, ultimately, to have more power over us and over its neighbors, and for us to have less. It is difficult to imagine an American team seriously putting all that on the table for the sake of a diplomatic process, and I hope that is not what Obama means.

Finally, let us hope, too, that when people like Obama speak of "diplomacy" they do not mean the empty rhetorical exercises of the U.N. One of the last great practitioners of the old diplomacy, Harold Nicholson, lived long enough to see that organization operate and describe it accurately:

It would, in my view, be an error to take as an example of modern diplomatic method the discussions that are conducted in the Security Council and the Assembly of United Nations. We may resent the wastage of time, energy and money; we may regret that, in transferring to external affairs the system of parliamentary argument, a more efficient type of parliament should not have been chosen as a model; we may deplore that the invectives there exchanged should add to the sum of human tension and bewilderment. Yet it would be incorrect to suppose that these meetings are intended to serve the purpose of negotiation: they are exercises in forensic propaganda and do not even purport to be experiments in diplomatic method. Such negotiation as may occur in New York is not conducted within the walls of the tall building by the East River: it is carried out elsewhere, in accordance with those principles of courtesy, confidence and discretion which must for ever remain the only principles conducive to the peaceful settlement of disputes. ["The Evolution of Diplomatic Method," 1954]


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© June 11, 2007 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"