The Craft of Diplomacy

By Powell, Colin | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Craft of Diplomacy


Powell, Colin, The Wilson Quarterly


The words diplomat and diplomacy most commonly bring to mind ambassadors, consuls, and other officials engaged in foreign affairs. These words are also used more generally to praise tact and verbal finesse. But a more sardonic view of diplomacy and diplomats also remains popular among Americans. Sharing the traditional Jeffersonian antipathy to pomp and circumstance, many would second the popular 19th-century take on diplomacy as the patriotic art of lying to foreigners on behalf of one's country. Others see diplomacy as mere temporizing, affirming Will Rogers's definition: the art of saying "nice doggie, nice doggie" until you can lay hands on a good-sized stick. As for diplomats themselves, Ambrose Bierce once defined a consul as someone who, having failed to achieve public office from the people, achieves it from the administration--on condition that he leave the country. But Bierce even disparaged patience as "a minor form of despair disguised as a virtue."

The literary abuse of diplomats and diplomacy is mostly harmless. One could easily multiply examples of such descriptions without doing damage to the national interest in the process, but I am not so inclined. From 35 years in the army and another dozen or so as national security advisor, private citizen, and secretary of state, my view of diplomacy and diplomats includes neither scorn nor skepticism. To the contrary, I deeply respect both diplomacy and diplomats because I know how difficult and important it is to conduct a truly skillful diplomacy.

Three principles lie at the core of that skill. To introduce the first, we may observe that diplomacy is often taken--improperly--to be synonymous with statecraft. Statecraft encompasses both the internal and the external management of the state, and the relations between the two; diplomacy has to do only with external affairs. For example, managing the connections between the domestic economy and international commerce is a task of statecraft, not diplomacy. Negotiating free-trade agreements is a task for diplomacy as well as statecraft.

Put a little differently, statecraft involves the full ensemble of means at the disposal of statesmen. Statesmen can choose force as a means to deal with other states, in which case they rely on soldiers, and they can use the nonforceful methods of diplomats. Wise statesmen see an intrinsic link between these two means, and between power, which is the engine of force, and persuasion, which is the engine of diplomacy. Adroitly used, each means strengthens the other.

The first principle of diplomacy concerns the relationship between persuasion and the power to coerce others, whether by military or economic means. The principle is this: Power is a necessary condition for enduring foreign-policy success but not a sufficient one.

Clearly, power is necessary. Using force in statecraft is sometimes unavoidable because it is just not possible to reason with every adversary that threatens a vital interest. Before and even after September 11,2001, for example, we gave the Taliban ample opportunity to turn over Al Qaeda members lurking and plotting within Afghanistan's borders. The international community gave Saddam Hussein a dozen years to fulfill Iraq's international obligations, and offered him several "last chances" along the way. We were more than patient.

Patience is a virtue in diplomacy, but not invariably so. As Bierce implies, patience can degrade into passivity, allowing dangers to grow and important principles to be undermined. Beyond a certain point, it is more harmful to one's security and ideals to keep trying to reason with certain adversaries than it is to use force against them. Such circumstances are relatively rare, but we reached that point in recent years with respect to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In both eases, President George W. Bush patiently exhausted the nonmilitary means at his disposal, gathered allies, and acted.

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