Remember Statecraft? What diplomacy can do and why we need it more than ever
September 14, 2012
With strategic setbacks dwarfing successes and America’s standing in the world diminished, it is no surprise that the Bush foreign policy receives withering criticism. But too often the critiques are as simple-minded and misplaced as the policy itself. We face problems not because the Bush administration is too unilateral, for example. The Bush approach has been more multilateral than most critics admit. Nor do our problems stem excessively from the president’s penchant to think big or to have bold ideas. Nothing is wrong with being ambitious in foreign policy. Every American president since the end of World War II has defined our international purposes in grandiose terms. (Certainly the Marshall Plan was an ambitious effort to rebuild Europe and save democracy there.) Such grand purposes fit our self-image and the belief that we are, in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the “indispensable nation.”
But there is something profoundly wrong when our objectives (for instance, promoting democracy through regime change) are disconnected from the means we possess or can mobilize; when our understanding of the world is askew (as in Iraq) because our assessments are driven by ideology and not by reality; when our purposes are questioned because too often we are seen by others, including allies, as creating more insecurity than security (an example is the Middle East); when we are missing in action in cases where sustained U.S. mediation might ameliorate regional conflicts (Israeli-Palestinian) and improve the perception of America’s intentions in the process; or when our word or our threats count for little with friends and adversaries alike. It is in these areas that the Bush administration so often fails. Statecraft depends on seeing the world as it is, not as one wishes it might be. Good statecraft takes an unacceptable reality and transforms it; identifies the things that are important and frames objectives and purposes in a way that others can accept; employs extensive communication channels to build understanding and to reduce the possibility for misperceptions; and uses all available assets to promote national interests and to counter real and potential threats. Tangible or intangible, our own assets flow from the nation’s economic vitality and wealth, military power, diplomatic wherewithal, advanced technology, informational advantages, organizational talents, the appeal of our culture, and our potential for leverage.
Timing is to statecraft as location is to real estate. Because openings never last long on the international horizon, they must be recognized and seized before they are lost. Unfortunately, the Bush administration always seems to be a day late and a dollar short. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. When Yasser Arafat died and Abu Mazen won election as his successor on a platform of nonviolence—unprecedented for a Palestinian leader—we needed to act with urgency to demonstrate that Abu Mazen’s way worked. Similarly, when Ariel Sharon made the courageous decision to withdraw completely from Gaza, we needed to make sure that life got better in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. In other words, the Israeli departure should not have been the equivalent of throwing the keys over the fence and hoping for the best. Or when Saudi Arabia acted completely out of character and criticized Hezbollah last summer at the outset of the war with Israel, we should have seen the opening and immediately acted to mediate among the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Lebanese government to produce an Arab plan for ending Hezbollah’s status as a state within a state. We had a few days during the first week of the conflict to produce such an outcome while Hezbollah was on the defensive for provoking the war and before the Israeli bombing turned from being a lever into a liability.
In each case, the Bush administration missed the boat; its involvement was limited and hesitant, its actions more rhetorical than practical and never intensive. It treated these developments as if they were merely interesting, not historic. The impulse to get by on the cheap—whether militarily, economically, or diplomatically—has also bedeviled the administration’s most profound successes: removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Why the big ideas and the hesitant or limited means employed? Why the inability to intervene at strategic moments or to follow through?
In effective statecraft, objectives and means and effort (and the understanding of how to use leverage and persuade others) are all in sync. Past administrations, including Republican ones, have established ambitious objectives and achieved them. The George H. W. Bush administration did precisely that on German unification and the Persian Gulf War. Indeed, in both cases, skeptics thought the United States was overreaching. The administration’s leaders, however, proved that, with the skillful application of statecraft, ambitious objectives could be married to means and fulfilled.
Few in the State Department or the pundit class in Washington thought that a unified Germany could remain a member of NATO. It was too hard for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to swallow and too unsettling for our allies like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President François Mitterrand of France. And yet it happened, driven by the political leadership of the administration, not by the career specialists in the national security bureaucracy. Unlike the senior Foreign Service officers in the State Department and senior intelligence officials in the cia, President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and their trusted advisers, including Robert Zoellick and Robert Blackwell, saw a historic moment…