Sunday, May 14, 2006

Diplomacy as a Profession--Recovering from Vietnam 1976

This is a paper published in 1976 in an internal State Department publication for "dissenters" known as the Open Forum Journal. It can be read as a tissue of naivete, but even now, I think that that would not be the whole story.

In current 2006 thinking, I've been increasingly turning over the theme of peace vs war, which is part of a larger universe of cooperation versus conflict. Both cooperation and conflict, each in their way, generates a culture of its own, and each theme fits, with a different position and emphasis, into larger full cultures, say national or social group cultures. The Germans really do excel in cooperation (leaving aside whether or not it's authoritarian) and the Scotch-Irish of the British border areas and our own Appalachia, do run very easily to devoting enormous amounts of time to interpersonal and group conflict--think of the famous feuds, like Hatfield-McCoy.

At the moment am also under the influence of having recently read Tony Judt's Postwar, a History of Europe since 1945. The picture given in the earlier parts of the book of the devastation of World War II and the conflicts which were associated with it or took place under its cover, is staggering, and to the east of Germany, not only in the Soviet Union, but through a huge swathe of geography from Poland to Yugoslavia the losses of every kind were far worse than in the western countries we are more familiar with.

So strengthening the orientation of any of the government's major departments toward a sytematic and doctrinal goal of peace is not such a crazy goal in that light.

All of this now, of course, is in the perspective of the war in Iraq, and it must be said that as far as an outsider can see, the State Department did play that role of working to put the brakes on the rest of the government in the period of lead-up to our invasion. The effort to carry the issue to the UN, against the White House's reluctance, must be counted in that column, as well as efforts to exercise other forms of restraint, which made the Secretary very unpopular with the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz group. So, viewed from a distance, Colin Powell and the Department must get credit in this very bad episode for doing, of course in the end ineffectively, what I would have hoped the Department would do.

Open Forum Journal, Issue #11, November 1976

Diplomacy as a Profession: Recovering from Vietnam

Peter J. Lydon
Language Training, Foreign Service Institute

The Department of State and the Foreign Service clearly are emerging from a difficult decade, and it is not certain that we are completely out of the woods.

The war in Vietnam, of course, was the touchstone of attitudes and performances in this period. During the disastrous progress of that war, where was the Department of government responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs? Clearly, in the crunch, State had a relatively small part of the action (a fact which itself calls for study and explanation). But otherwise, the Department was as assiduous in laying the groundwork, as enthusiastic in supporting the early stages, and as blind and stubborn in avoiding reality and ignoring cruelty in the later period as any arm of the government.

During, and even after, a time of major institutional failure, few of us have been willing to examine the problem as deeply as it requires. Such an effort seems worthwhile now, and the opening of a new Administration is particularly opportune moment.

What the State Department is lacking at its core, it seems to me, is not a domestic constituency, nor Presidential favor, nor funds, but self-knowledge and self-confidence. Those who make up the Department and the Foreign Service need a consensual, thought-out concept of the role of State and the profession of diplomacy. Without such a concept, it is difficult to have a well-based conviction of our own value to the country. The following observations are put forward as a contribution from one point of view to the needed introspection.

Three Conceptual Roles for Diplomats

The profession with the clearest structure is almost certainly that of medicine: its job is to move people away from sickness toward health. There is usually no further difficulty of ends or purposes, and the skills exercised by the doctor are in the domain of technique and allocation of resources.

For diplomacy, we have to start somewhat further back than that, because basic goals are less clear. Certain important functions that are part of diplomacy do not present primary problems. Honest, complete and objective reporting, area and linguistic expertise, negotiating skill, and management ability will be necessary under any and all dispensations, so that we need not go into them here. But the basic purpose of diplomacy and its relation to other political institutions is perennially unsettled and unclear.

There are doubtless many possible fundamental thrusts for diplomacy, but I suggest that the problem can be usefully discussed in terms of three principal ones:

--the peaceful settlement of international disputes, tensions and clashes of interest;

--the conduct of our government’s foreign business in such a away as to advance the national interest, which classically is taken to mean to increase our national power; and

--assisting the President in foreign affairs, i.e., getting done for the President what he wants done.

In the first conception diplomacy stands in contrast and opposition to war, and to the use of force in affairs between nations. This is probably the popular understanding of the word rather than a historical reality. Diplomacy viewed in this way is specifically an instrument or a policy of peace. It is “successful” when it prevents or minimizes war, rather than when it assists in winning a war. Such an understanding of diplomacy tends to link together the diplomats of all countries and to set the diplomats of each state in opposition to those elements at home who are more ready to advocate a forceful approach in international affairs -- normally the defense establishment.

In the second conception, diplomats become more nationalist figures and more congenial stablemates of the military. Diplomacy, like war, is an instrument of any politics. It is an alterative method, not differentiated in its aims from force, merely in its efficiency. Diplomatic and military action are not seen as antagonistic to one another but complementary -- ideally to be orchestrated. Diplomats go first, and then troops if necessary. A key item of diplomatic currency becomes the implied or expressed threat of force.

In this conception, which is doubtless the oldest, a diplomat’s antagonist are the representatives of other nations’ interests. His colleagues and surrogates are his own military establishment, on whose strength in the end he trades. A principal catch is that, given the normal proportions in which numbers of men and budgetary support are distributed between defense and foreign ministries, the diplomats are usually the lesser of the partners; they most often play pilot fish to the whales. Seldom do they exercise genuine leadership.

The third, or Presidential Aide, view of diplomacy is the doctrine closest to current orthodoxy in the U.S. Government. (An AFSA editorial in the early seventies referred to the President as “our liege lord.”) Its major defect can be described as the “Lyndon Johnson” problem. A tradition of devotion and responsiveness to the President’s desires offers us no guidance, and leaves both the President and the career service exposed when the President is inadequate in foreign affairs. What happens when the President, who may well be a domestic paragon, either does not know what he wants to do abroad, or wants to what most of us see as the wrong thing?

Since World War II, the predominant balance point has probably fallen somewhere between categories B and C. To the extent that we have gotten a word in, let us say that we professionals have found ourselves in happy agreement with post-war Presidents on the pursuit of national interest, that is, the enlargement of American power.

Not simply in the persons of the successive Secretaries of State, but as an institution, the Department and Service have accepted militarized Communist/non-Communist antagonism as the primary reality of world politics, and thus have done their part in making it so. American extension of cold war principles to the third world in the form of armed counter-revolution has found little systematic and principled opposition, or even debate, in State.

If the national interest-Presidential aide concept of our work has been orthodox since the Truman Administration, or at least since Senator Joseph McCarthy’s assaults, it is this approach that must answer for State’s performance in Vietnam, and our situation since. In a word, we are out.

How did State lose to the Military Interests?

If we hold that diplomacy is the avoidance of violence and force, as I think many of us would like to hold, the Department in the recent past has to be seen as a group of men who did not believe sufficiently in their profession and themselves. Instead, finding little market for diplomatic talents, they tried to increase their appeal by joining and imitating their natural adversaries, the military. Full of the heady pleasures of conducting a militarized foreign policy backed by an immense military budget, we were too late in recognizing the inevitable --- that we were less adept in the management of force than those who had committed their lives to it as a profession.

At every turn of the wheel, we lost not only a sense of ourselves, and in some cases part of our self-respect, but we lost ground in the struggle for power with the military and the military-minded. The shoemaker who abandoned his last should not have been surprised as his failure to excel as a blacksmith.

Why did this take place? Over the long haul we were perhaps more concerned with individual career survival and organizational (read budgetary) health than we were with philosophical coherence and professionalism. It is sad to reflect, after all our exertions, that perhaps one of the reasons for our organizational exile, as well as for the intervening national tragedy of Vietnam, is that at no point were we capable of saying “No,” and autonomously choosing to exile ourselves.

It really does seem that Vietnam is at last behind us. A new administration is beginning. What then is to be done? It seems to me that the members of the Department and the Foreign Service should get it all out in the open, and work on the questions of who we are, and what have we learned. In such a debate, there would doubtless be effective advocates of the National Interest and Presidential Aide points of view. Many of our senior officers are deeply imbued with those outlooks.

I suggest, however, that the traditional conception of the national interest as a sort of power mercantilism, is irrelevant and consequently dangerous in the future world of unprecedented technology, especially in nuclear weapons, and of politically mobilized national populations. The value of each increment of further power depends on how much one already has. America is in a situation with perhaps few historical precedents. Many of its problems have stemmed not from insufficient, but from excessive power in our own hands.

The vocation of unspecified but efficient service to the President, right or wrong, it seems to me is essentially a passing of the buck. Such an abdication of responsibility leaves it up to the White House to decide who we are and what our work shall be. Our job is almost by definition structureless. While the highest levels of individual skill and responsibility could clearly be exercised in such a framework, this institutional outlook falls short of constituting a profession.

The path of coherence and of useful differentiation from the other national security organizations, is, I suggest, for us to return to the primitive, even the popular idea of diplomacy, with diplomats as the arrangers, pacifiers--- even handwringers on the bad days —seeking to establish and preserve non-violent solutions to conflicts and reduce friction among nations.

The preface to Diplomacy for the Seventies put it very well: the task is to “organize the peace.” But to raise this good phrase unequivocally above the domain of cant, we have to clarify its relationship to the American national interest. Organize whose peace? If the answer is “peace and prosperity for Americans,” then we are really back at our starting point. The new answer must be that the Department will take the assignment of organizing the peace as such. The peace, period. To make ourselves the advocates of the true long range interests, we have to distance ourselves from immediate, isolated American interests and their associated doctrines and mentalities.


Most international situations of an adversarial character fall into a pattern that includes 1) participants, and 2) more-or-less detached observers. Each participant judges the outcome of the encounter according to the degree in which his own interests have been satisfied. Particular emotions, and intensities of emotion , are associated with being a participant. “Face” is committed to the struggle. A critical domestic public is watching to see that goals are achieved. Bridges are burned. Self-esteem, or the quest for it, rigidifies positions and makes it difficult to maneuver freely; we know that one of the principal values of secrecy in negotiation is that it relaxes some of these participant role constraints. Rarely does it do so completely.

The non-participant’s perspective is much less emotional and quite different. Disinterested, he is able to judge the success or failure of a diplomatic result by broader standards. These include the degree to which an outcome reflects the balance of forces among all the participants, and related to this, what chances a solution has for durability and long-range utility. The outsider usually can evaluate better than any participant the interlocking satisfactions which must be present on all sides if an arrangement is to be self-enforcing. He is best placed to judge whether a solution will tend to favor subsequent conflict, or encourage cooperation among the parties.

The observer, with no ox to gore nor to be gored, is free to identify, and even to advocate a general best solution: Not the best solution for one involved country, but the best solution of the problem in the problem’s own terms.

I suggest that for us now the practice of diplomacy as the profession of peace means that as far as possible the Department of State should maintain the mental perspective of a cool observer rather than a heated participant. Pragmatism and hard-headedness are by no means excluded. Indeed, they will be needed more than ever, but the time perspective must be lengthened, and the primary goal, unambiguously, is peace.

We should make it our specialty to recommend within American governmental councils something other than the particular, the short-term, the American solution to international problems. Rather, we should work toward analyzing international problems habitually and characteristically with a view to eliciting and recommending the problem’s best solution. The State Department, long before the New York Times or the Swedish government, should be telling the President that an American demand is exaggerated or is harmful to an overall equilibrium. That is in our own country's best interest.

The true American interest will be found to be aimed at making the future habitable, at assuring that we and all the other participants can live in this world. On the international political and economic scene, the United States is now so big that what is best for everybody is fairly congruent with what is best for us.

A metaphorical example: General Motors today is of such a scale and power that the conditions of the 1920s, under which it competed ruthlessly with other manufacturers, no longer apply. For GM to perpetuate the mentality and policies of the zero-sum relationship with Ford and Chrysler would mean its corporate dismemberment under the anti-trust laws rather than prosperity, no matter how satisfying it might be to executives brought up to thrive on highly personalized nose-to-nose business competition. Clearly, such instincts in the auto industry are now seen as atavistic. GM has enlarged its perspective to look first to the interests of the auto industry as a whole, then to its own interests, demonstrating a solicitude for its rivals that doubtless makes the old-timers blush. In doing so, the company has been more rather than less faithful to its stockholders.

We can imagine that the executive in the production end of GM complain that this is a form of effete softness. No doubt, the corporation’s legal office, more sensitive to the problems of anti-trust legislation, find themselves fairly consistently advocating industry interests ahead of particular company interests, and pointing out the policy choices to realize such a perspective.


State’s vocation, I suggest, lies in taking up the analogous position in the National Security Council. State should form the habit of seeking out and advocating each problem’s optimum solution in the problem’s own terms, in contrast to trying to intensify American commitment to the quick-fix that makes us look good. In a systematic fashion, we should be the advocate of the long range over the short range, the larger perspective over the smaller – even (in a certain sense) the advocate of the future over the present and the past. There will never be a shortage of adversaries for an institution that takes up this stance. We need not fear that the other more nationalist side will not be represented, or that in many cases its arguments will not be valid and convincing.

Such a generally agreed-upon principle of professional action, comparable to the lawyer’s commitment to the idea of law and precedent, should give State a more stable identity. There might emerge some of that trust and cooperativeness whose conspicuous absence Chris Argyris remarked on in his study of reasons for bureaucratic inefficiency in State. The Department would be on a more self-respecting, if not necessarily chummier footing with the President.

A consequence of having standards as well as self-respect might be that State would simply say “count us out” when its opposition to a certain project had been overridden. It would not be a question of going on strike; the Department would obviously offer whatever physical cooperation and technical services were needed or requested to carry out such policies. Conspiring with the public or press to undermine Presidential policies would obviously be as illegitimate as it is now, and in a franker atmosphere, perhaps rarer.

On the other hand, State would be freer to make a case in the appropriate domestic decision forums against bad policies, and to decline responsibility for their results. The business of running off in all directions in pursuit of mandates to carry out every Presidential whim would not recur. Nor would the sterile and corrosive exercise of putting on a show of enthusiasm for bad policies.

A group of experts capable of saying a principled “No,” however, is also capable of saying a principled “Yes.” Such assent would take on much greater weight if it were known to have been reflectively and freely given.

A price of independence might well be periods exile from Presidential favor. We cannot expect to save our souls without allowing at least the possibility of some mortification of the flesh. But as we have seen, assiduous and ungainly efforts at pleasing the White House preceded the recent policy exile and personnel deflation. Adherence to principle is not the only cause of exile.

In sum, if we choose to study what our profession is, and practice it as honestly as we can, we can be a more valuable instrument of government than we have been in the last decade.

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