Short Notes on US Diplomacy, as Now Practiced

Of course we no longer do diplomacy, at least as it is traditionally practiced.  That has been obvious since 2003 and there is always more to the story – but it’s just depressing.



1: the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations
2: skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility


The only conclusion one can reach after all these years is that somehow we have decided that it is important to arouse hostility – that’s how you get things done, that’s how things really change.  That’s how the State Department became the red-headed stepchild to the Defense Department – a place for the likes of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the family retainers, faithful but not terribly significant.  Hattie McDaniel had more influence in Gone with the Wind than these two did with the Cheney side of things at the White House (and at least McDaniel got an Oscar for her convincing performance, unlike Powell).


But over and over one comes across new evidence that arousing hostility really doesn’t get much done.  It doesn’t prove we’re strong and change things.  Arousing hostility at best, well, arouses hostility.  Things don’t get done.


The big news in the last week of September, or the news that most unsettled people again, was the story of President Bush rejecting exile options for Saddam Hussein, making the current war in Iraq even more inevitable than it already was – even if now it’s not really a war but a hostile occupation we have to manage, as the occupiers.  But this is old news, or more precisely, “too late” news.  What difference does it make now?   The president rejected that option, and we are where we are.


But Matthew Yglesias sees a broader context here.  The administration had a new approach to nuclear proliferation, the big issue.  We would reject the rule-based framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and find a way outside the bounds of international law to deal with the issue.  It wouldn’t be diplomacy of the old sort.  It would be bold, it would shake things up, and people would be amazed at the efficacy of our new way of doing things – and the previous president, Clinton, would look like wimp and a fool.  Rules are for fools, and we now had a better idea


That way, known as “counterproliferation” by its advocates, was, in essence, brute force. The US would break its non-proliferation treaty commitments by building a new generation of “bunker buster” nukes, turn a blind eye to nuclear activities by friendly states, and restrain WMD acquisition by hostile states through intimidation rather than a legitimate international process. Iraq was targeted not merely on its own terms but in order that Bush might make an example out of Saddam and send a message to the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea and other states. Cutting a deal with Saddam wasn’t an option.


Unfortunately, as a result of the same thinking, neither were any number of other moves that could have improved American policy. In particular, the invasion force needed to be small enough, and the reconstruction plan fast and cheap enough, that the US could credibly threaten to do it again if other countries didn’t get the message.


It seems being tough didn’t work.  “Muscular Diplomacy” may be a contradiction in terms, but even if it isn’t, there’s only so much flexing and snorting you can do before what you can or cannot actually do becomes painfully obvious.  Diplomacy is for the realists.  Kids play “King of the Hill.”  Adults work things out.  Snorting out threats is playground stuff.  It seems we wanted that for a time.  Much of the country just grew up.


There was some real-time active diplomacy the same week of course, our participation in the climate change talks at the UN.  The Washington Post’s Peter Baker sums that up this way, with a strange opening –


As he addresses a conference on climate change this morning, President Bush will face not only a crowd of skeptics but the press of time. For nearly seven years, he invested little personal energy in the challenge of global warming. Now, with the end in sight, he has called the biggest nations of the world together to press for a plan by the end of next year.


He did?  Yglesias suggest, well, not exactly


This turnaround just didn’t happen. The UN had a meeting on Monday aimed at building political momentum for a meeting to happen later in Bali aimed at kicking off negotiations toward an international treaty that will commit the world’s countries to binding reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Bush didn’t attend that meeting. Instead, he called this other meeting in an effort to subvert action on climate change. He hasn’t in the past “invested little personal energy in the challenge of global warming.” Rather, he’s invested plenty of energy in undermining efforts to respond to the challenge of global warming and continues to do so by continuing to oppose mandatory emissions reductions.


This isn’t brain science (it’s climate science – ha!) to move to address the challenge of global warming you need to move to address the challenge not just say you’re addressing it while not doing anything. You need to, that is, unless all you really want is for Peter Baker to publish a misleading article about what you’re doing in The Washington Post.


The New York Times’ John Broder may have got it right


The president’s calls for each country to decide for itself how to rein in pollution, and his refusal to embrace mandatory measures, have set the United States apart from other countries, and this morning’s appearance at the State Department conference probably did not do much to change that situation.


“Smart technology does not just materialize by itself,” John Ashton, a special adviser on climate change to the British foreign secretary, said afterward. Mr. Ashton, who has said that voluntary measures are ineffective, said “smart technology” requires government commitment and investment, and he noted that Mr. Bush did not state a specific goal for reducing carbon emissions.


Broder also quotes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – “Every country will make its own decisions reflecting its own needs and interests.”  And Yglesias offers the obvious


The trouble, of course, is that we’re facing a common problem here. It’d be nice for each country to be able to make an individualized determination of its view of the growth-warming tradeoff and then we all see how it plays out, but that’s not the nature of the atmosphere or the climate. Any sensible approach needs to be sensitive to the different needs and circumstances of different countries, but unless it’s driven by a common purpose and a common commitment it won’t accomplish anything. Which, of course, is the point.


He also points to Kate Sheppard here saying the obvious other thing – the point of the summit isn’t to bolster Bush’s legacy, instead, it’s all about “fanciful promises, denial of what needs to be done to tackle climate change, and subversion of the efforts of everyone who actually gets it.”


We just don’t do this diplomacy thing at all, and everyone outside the United States isn’t fooled by any of this.  The Guardian (UK), reports on the “climate summit this way


European ministers, diplomats and officials attending the Washington conference were scathing, particularly in private, over Mr Bush’s failure once again to commit to binding action on climate change.


… The conference, attended by more than 20 countries, including China, India, Britain, France and Germany, broke up with the US isolated, according to non-Americans attending. One of those present said even China and India, two of the biggest polluters, accepted that the voluntary approach proposed by the US was untenable and favoured binding measures, even though they disagreed with the Europeans over how this would be achieved.


A senior European diplomat attending the conference, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting confirmed European suspicions that it had been intended by Mr Bush as a spoiler for a major UN conference on climate change in Bali in December.


“It was a total charade and has been exposed as a charade,” the diplomat said. “I have never heard a more humiliating speech by a major leader. He [Mr Bush] was trying to present himself as a leader while showing no sign of leadership. It was a total failure.”


Or it wasn’t a total failure.  It seems to have raised hostility, significantly.  That’s what we do now, even if it never works.


Of course, President Giuliani will make this crew look like Talleyrand, Metternich and Dag Hammarskjöld all put together.  We seem to be locked into this.  Maybe it’s part of our national character.  You remember that classic line from Damon Runyon – “‘Shut up,’ he explained.'”  That’s us.


Do you wish it were not so?  Neville Chamberlain! Neville Chamberlain! Neville Chamberlain! Neville Chamberlain!


You get the idea.  The discussion was over long ago.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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