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There’s a lot of theater to old school diplomacy. Someone like Richard Holbrook; during the Bosnia negotiations at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio he had luggage delivered (prominently) outside of the doors of the American diplomats present so that the other side would think, “Oh no! The clock is ticking, the Americans are going to pull out.” And it was a complete feint, but it worked and it got people back to the table at a tough time in the talks.
And diplomacy isn’t a dovish endeavor always, and in that case this was a state department official who was fully leveraging the threat of NATO strikes and doing a lot of saber rattling, a lot of larger than life bellowing and threatening and cajoling. Diplomacy doesn’t always look pretty or neat, but it is absolutely an antidote to and an alternative to military intervention.
There are some fundamental misunderstandings about what diplomats do around the world and I think that’s been exploited by politicians of both parties to characterize these brave men and women as dusty bureaucrats who don’t get a lot done. In fact these are individuals who get very little pay to uproot their families and move them around the world and work in dangerous places specifically to ensure our security as a nation. And they do everything from screening the dangerous individuals that seek to enter the United States of America to brokering the high-level political settlements that hopefully can spare our service men and women from being thrown into the line of fire as a first resort every time we encounter a conflict.
One of the consequences of sidelining diplomacy is you see a lot more of the work that was once the domain of diplomats coming out of the Pentagon and the CIA. You end up with the military industrial complex taking over the work of development. I served as a state department official in Afghanistan, for instance, and in that conflict, which was a particularly militarized setting—if you wanted to do just about anything, if you wanted to start a conversation with local leaders on the ground, if you wanted to build a well, you had to do it through the Army Corps of Engineers or through the various teams around the country—they were called PRTs, these provincial reconstruction teams where the military was stationed on the ground and had access to those communities.
We have created a universe in which if you try to get something done through the state department or USAID you end up with a cumbersome, lengthy process where they put out a request for applications, you wind up with a contract with a huge contractor based out of Washington DC who then subcontracts three times, and then finally brings in people from outside of Afghanistan to build a well in a spot where the ground water is salty, and no one is going to use the well.
We saw these kinds of boondoggles play out over and over again, and what I take away from that is that we have eviscerated the expertise and capacity on the diplomacy and development side, and we need to fix it. Not that we need to throw this out, not that the answer is running everything through the military—which totally, appropriately has different goals, is designed to effect change on the battlefield in a short-term tactical sense. We need a separate core of experts who know the regions and know the pressure points and are specifically tasked with looking at the long-term implications years down the line.
I think one of the reasons that there is so much denigration of the diplomat in our political conversation is that the results of diplomacy do require patience and can be less immediate than things going “boom.” And I say that without any aspersion casts on things going boom and the brave men and women who dodge those explosions and are in the line of fire.
But we need both, and both are important kinds of public servants. And Americans, I hope when they read this book and when they look at the history of diplomatic endeavor of recent American events they see that the diplomat deserves the patience that they need to be afforded—that if you give it the time and understand that the results might look imperfect and buckle down and say, “Okay, we’re going to keep talks going no matter how tough they get,” you very often end up with results and results that can save lives.
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