A Diplomat's Philosophy

By Grossman, Marc | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

A Diplomat's Philosophy


Grossman, Marc, Joint Force Quarterly


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One damaging consequence of Wiki Leaks has been the resurrection of the statement by Sir Henry Wotton, who served King James I as ambassador to Venice, that "an Ambassador is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." (1) There are questions to answer about how 250,000 State Department cables found their way to Wiki Leaks, but a lingering public impression that diplomacy is tainted because it is carried out by patriotic people pledged to the advancement of their country and may sometimes be better accomplished in private than in public leads to a larger challenge: trying to define a diplomatic world view. Is there a philosophy that describes diplomacy's uplifting qualities? In this essay, I draw on my career to consider, in light of Wiki Leaks, how I would describe a diplomat's philosophy.

Such a personal essay begins with three statements of what such a philosophy is not. First, it is not a consideration of a philosophy of international relations or a commentary on thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and their relevance to and impact on the international system in which diplomats work. Second, it is not a scholarly work. My perspective remains that of a practitioner of diplomacy. Third, this reflection is not designed to be universal. American diplomats may recognize the fundamentals of this philosophy, and perhaps some of our friends and allies will as well. However, as I will argue below, if pluralism is one of the foundations of this diplomat's philosophy, then we should not be surprised to find other diplomatic constructs operating around the world.

Four Principles of a Diplomatic Philosophy

If Sir Henry Wotton does not accurately portray a philosophy for a diplomat, what might constitute one? Let us consider four principles as a foundation: optimism, a commitment to justice, truth in dealing, and realism tempered by pluralism.

First, optimism. Twenty-nine years in the U.S. Foreign Service taught me that the best diplomats are optimists. They believe in the power of ideas. They believe that sustained effort can lead to progress. They believe that diplomacy, backed when needed by the threat of force, can help nations and groups avoid bloodshed.

This belief in optimism and the pursuit of action on behalf of the nation requires making choices, often between two poor alternatives. John W. O'Malley, in his book Four Cultures of the West, describes the prophetic, academic/professional, humanistic, and artistic cultures all as being part of larger Western philosophy. He puts statesmen in "culture three" (humanistic) because they are concerned with contingencies. O'Malley says a statesman must ask: "Is war required of us now, under these circumstances?" A statesman argues, therefore, from:

probabilities to attain a solution not certain but more likely of success than its alternatives. Like the poet, then, the statesman deals with ambiguities, very unlike the protagonist from culture two, who traditionally argued from principles to attain truth certain and proved to be such; cultures two and three represent, thus, two different approaches to problem solving. Like the prophet of culture one, the statesman of culture three wants to change society for the better, but to do so he seeks common ground and knows that to attain his end he must be astute in compromise. He does not shun the negotiating table. (2)

Henry Kissinger, in his book Diplomacy, made a similar observation:

Intellectuals analyze the operations of international systems; statesmen build them and there is a vast difference between the perspective of an analyst and that of a statesman. The analyst can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman's problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge for the statesman is the pressure of time. The analyst runs no risk. …

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