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On Diplomatic Professionalism

By Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Chas Freeman was US Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1993-94 and, among other postings, served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and he was Nixons principal interpreter during his 1972 visit to China.

In a world of shifting power balances, Americans can no longer compete internationally with wealth and weaponry alone. We live in a world in which other nations no longer automatically defer to the United States. Our national margin for error has demonstrably narrowed. In several regions war has already replaced the Pax Americana. It threatens to do the same in still others. Our highly professional military remains peerless, but our diplomacy – our first line of defense – increasingly lacks traction. Our country needs to get a lot better at diplomatic reasoning and the practice of diplomacy. To match the professionalism of our competitors, we must professionalize our own diplomacy. But what is diplomatic professionalism? 

The members of professions warrant that they possess expertise that distinguishes them from amateurs. Lawyers, theologians, soldiers, and physicians affirm they can conduct and resolve disputes, parse indignation to extract right from wrong, apply force to impose their nation’s will on opponents, or sustain or restore health more effectively than lay, non-experts can. Their profession of unique competence in efficient problem-solving is the source and raison d’être of their authority.  

Every profession develops its own mode of reasoning and specialized vocabulary. The specialized knowledge of professionals is crystallized in doctrine drawn from the experience of previous generations of practitioners. The doctrines professionals espouse, and their distinctive associated vocabularies, define the questions with which they deconstruct issues, provide the tools of critical thinking with which they understand problems, and supply a menu of choices for dealing with relevant factors and interests.  

Diplomacy is a political performing art whose objective is to alter foreign behavior to the advantage of the diplomat’s government and homeland. The professed expertise of diplomats is the management of relations between states and peoples to advance and defend their nation’s interests and augment its security and well-being. To this end, diplomats use measures short of war, define feasible purposes for nonetheless necessary uses of force, organize or disrupt coalitions of foreign states and peoples, and translate the results of war or other forms of international competition into the most advantageous and sustainable modus vivendi possible. 

To advance the interests in their charge, diplomats seek to convince foreign decision makers that the choices they are urging them to make would be more beneficial than costly to their nation than those it otherwise might favor. To induce their interlocutors to agree to what they advocate, they employ both peaceful persuasion and reminders of the power of their state, including its potential to impose pain on its opponents. For adjustments in relations or behavior to last, diplomats must invent and arrange non-zero-sum outcomes that will be seen by the parties as superior to repudiating what has been agreed or resorting to subversion or the use of force. 

To formulate arguments that can persuade foreigners that it is in their interest to do what the diplomats’ government desires them to do demands skill at cross-cultural communication based on empathetic comprehension of foreign histories, political systems, cultures, languages, and perspectives. Such expertise is essential for diplomats to be able effectively:  

  • To advocate and promote foreign understanding of their state and society and its policies and beliefs, 
  • To persuade foreigners to identify their own national interests with those of the government the diplomats represent, 
  • To enable their own government to understand how best to protect and advance its interests in its interactions with others, 
  • To propose policies and programs and to carry out activities abroad to safeguard and promote the sovereignty, prosperity, security, and domestic tranquility of their homeland, 
  • To settle or mitigate disputes with foreign states and peoples, 
  • To build coalitions of foreign support for their nation’s policies and to weaken and divide competing coalitions, and 
  • To quell controversies and restore international tranquility by reconciling antagonists to the outcomes of conflicts and confrontations that they are tempted to resist. 

These tasks of diplomacy require acuity of observation and skill in negotiation as well as grounding in the principles and practices that make diplomacy a learned profession. These reflect thousands of years of recorded experience, transcend the differences between states and peoples, and define the profession of diplomacy. The lessons of millennia are ignored at a nation’s peril.

Like lawyers, diplomats both negotiate the terms of contractual obligations and serve as advocates for the parties (in their case, governments) to disputes. But unlike lawyers, they cannot appeal to a judge, jury, or other third party to enforce agreements or sustain them.  Moral or legal opinions may define the desired outcomes of disputes and inspire fervor in those seeking them, but they do not determine outcomes. The peaceful resolution of differences in international relations depends on diplomats bringing the parties’ perceptions of their national interests and relative power into alignment. If they cannot do this, the parties to international disputes will attempt to impose their desired outcomes unilaterally.

The absence of supranational enforcement authority means that the understandings diplomats contrive must either be self-executing or voluntarily implemented. To be able to implement treaties and agreements, those who conclude them must convince domestic elites that they are more congruent with the national interest than available alternatives. This is true even on those rare occasions when the parties to disputes can be persuaded to submit them to a neutral third party for arbitration. The parties to an accord must be brought to see keeping their word as more advantageous to them and their interests than attempting to impose better terms by resorting to coercive, or subversive measures.  

A great part of diplomacy is the patient cultivation of friendships with foreign officials in positions of authority or likely in time to occupy such positions. To achieve this, diplomats must demonstrate empathetic appreciation of the distinctive norms, beliefs, and perceptions of those they seek to befriend and influence. They work with and among foreigners who, by definition, have notions and perspectives that differ from their own and those of their compatriots.  They must show respect to people they do not believe deserve it, not as tribute to their character but as a demonstration of their own. Diplomats should never insult someone else unintentionally as this is generally, though not always, counterproductive. They must master the art of tactfully refraining from giving offense while avoiding the hypocritical endorsement of discreditable ideas and patterns of behavior. Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.  Hypocrisy begets both distrust and contempt.

Diplomats understand that insisting on blaming one side or the other for a confrontation is more likely to entrench differences, exacerbate animosities, and reinforce confrontations than to reduce them. They are specialists in problem-solving that benefits their country rather than in humiliating the other side. While insisting that the government they represent is in the right, they habitually focus on determining what each of the parties could gain or lose from resolving their differences or setting them aside, rather than on assigning blame or extracting admissions of culpability.  

Overt threats tend to evoke recalcitrance rather than acquiescence in opponents, so diplomacy relies more on implicit menaces than on explicit threats or ultimatums. For the same reason, diplomats seek to discover and design affordable incentives for better behavior that can obviate a resort to coercive or punitive measures. Dismissing another state’s demands as non-negotiable ultimata rather than as an unacceptable initial bargaining position is a mistake, especially when these demands involve its vital strategic interests. Failing to test its position through dialogue can leave it with no alternative to the use of force.

If international differences cannot be composed or resolved through negotiated compromise, diplomats typically seek a basis on which to set them aside for later resolution. This can provide opportunities to craft circumstances that will eventually cause the parties to see alternatives to ongoing or escalating confrontation. Sometimes refusing to negotiate is a form of negotiation designed to gain time.  But acquiescence in impasse requires buttressing the status quo with military or other deterrent threats. This entails risks.  

Apparently disconnected trends and events can transform issues that had seemed deferable into matters of perceived urgency for one side or another. With time, unresolved disputes may become more, rather than less irritating and explosive.[1]  The balance of power may shift, with one side gaining a convincing new capacity to impose a solution on the other. Abandonment of efforts to settle disputes with the potential to escalate or erupt into violence is therefore strategically unwise. This is especially true in the nuclear age, in which wars between nuclear powers risk escalation to levels that have the potential not just to destroy the combatants but to put an end to the human species.

Even when differences between states seem irreconcilable, diplomats will seek to reduce the risk of confrontations leading to war or to limit the potential scope and consequences of conflict with reciprocal arms control and disarmament agreements. The prerequisite for a partial relaxation of tensions [détente] to manage risk is respect for the other side’s right to have views of its own – erroneous as they may appear – and de facto acceptance of them as an unresolved factor in interactions with it. The recognition and accommodation of clashing interests is essential to manage relations between states without warfare.    

War is the ultimate argument of statecraft and a not-infrequent response to a refusal by another state to negotiate.  Its purpose is to compel adjustments of borders, behavior, and relations between states that cannot be achieved by mutual accommodation. Politicians start wars.  Soldiers fight them.  Diplomats limit and end them. War seeks to establish a new sustainable status quo – a peace — that is less threatening and more advantageous to the war’s initiator than the situation that it finds unacceptable.  It is the negotiation of change by violence. Like any kind of antagonistic interaction, war requires those who engage in it to have a clear sense of priorities, distinguishing between aims that are essential and those that are merely desirable.  

Diplomacy embodies an ethos that requires issues to remain open to peaceful resolution through dialogue.  Productive dialogue depends on perceived mutual reliability and trust. So, even when declaring war, diplomats bear in mind that they may be called upon to negotiate a post-war peace with the enemy. While their political masters may passionately denounce the enemy, diplomats must try to convey the reasons for the decision to go to war to the enemy’s representatives in as dignified and courteous a way as possible. All wars must end.  Preserving respectful relations with adversaries enhances diplomats’ ability to obtain their acquiescence in new relationships when war ends. Conversely, menacing enemies with post-conflict punishment deprives them of any incentive to compromise or capitulate and therefore prolongs wars.

War is a gamble. Those who start wars must first consider their minimal as well as their maximal objectives and how – whatever the outcome – they can end the war, on what terms, and with whom. Wars do not end when those who triumph on the battlefield proclaim victory but only when those who are defeated accept their defeat and resign themselves to the circumstances it has created. If the vanquished are decapitated and left without credible leadership, there will be no one with whom to make an effective peace. This is a common cause of postwar low intensity conflict and insurgency.[2]  

War is the province of militaries, but the formation and sustainment of alliances and ententes to conduct it is the domain of diplomacy. Diplomacy does not end when war begins, it sometimes provokes war, and it accompanies and supports it. War often involves complex logistical problems that depend on other countries agreeing to rights of transit, basing, the transport and storage of materiel, and legal immunities for forces engaged in these activities. The nation’s armed forces look to diplomats to help arrange such facilitation of their operations.  

The negotiation of terms for war’s termination, and the translation of battlefield results into stable postwar political adjustments in relations between the victors and the defeated are quintessentially diplomatic tasks. Diplomacy vindicates military sacrifices and consolidates battlefield achievements by translating them into a sustainable status quo. Former combatants must be brought to agree that, going forward, it is in their interest to acquiesce in the realities combat has produced, rather than to attempt to subvert or overturn the new status quo. In victory, magnanimity – appropriate restraint by the victors in their demands of the vanquished — is usually the key to sustainable outcomes. This is because war termination requires reconciling the vanquished to the losses they have suffered as well as satisfying the victor that it has gained what it wanted.  

Like physicians, with whom they share an ethic of doing no harm, diplomats soon learn that mitigating one problem will not eliminate the need to address others. Foreign affairs are an endless process in which the successful resolution of one issue as often as not complicates or creates still others. Every interaction on an immediate issue is also the negotiation of a longer-term relationship with an opponent and helps determine the extent to which future agreements with that opponent will be feasible. This is why diplomats take care not to deceive those with whom they deal. Trust, once forfeited, can never be fully restored. 

Diplomacy contributes to national well-being by exploiting unforeseen opportunities to advance state interests[3] or reducing wasteful defense spending through détente, arms control, or disarmament accords. A great deal of diplomacy consists of ensuring that the natural frictions inherent in relations between states and peoples are minimized and restrained,[4] that needless confrontations and blunders into warfare are avoided, and that when war does occur its scope and level of violence are appropriately constrained. Such risk management challenges the skills of diplomats at cultivating foreign counterparts and leaders and sustaining productive interactions with them as well as their relationships with their own government, which is inevitably focused more on managing the domestic politics of foreign relations than on those relations themselves. 

Diplomatic dialogue is the key to the fashioning of strategic relationships and the management of conflicting interests with foreign governments. Its conduct requires diplomats to approach the discussion of issues with firm objectives but an open mind about how best to achieve them and to keep their own views in reserve. It begins with their asking their interlocutors to explain how they see a situation at issue, how they believe it is likely to develop, whether they view this or alternative evolutions as likely to be helpful or hurtful to their interests. If so, why, and what do they plan to do to support desired outcomes or preclude unfavorable ones? Soliciting the views of those diplomats hope to persuade to do things they want them to do helps convince them they are being taken seriously and have something to gain by being reasonable. The insights they provide may also suggest how a diplomat can bring their views closer to his or her own government’s.

If diplomatic dialogue reveals analyses and interests that are in part congruent with those of the diplomat’s government, the way is open for a discussion of what each side might do separately in parallel or together to promote the outcomes both aspire to shape. If it reveals differing analyses but compatible interests, diplomats will want to understand the unstated presuppositions that explain these analytical differences and seek to persuade the other side to reconsider them. If the two sides’ analyses are similar but their appraisals of the consequences for their nations’ interests differ, diplomats will want to consider how best to persuade the other side that its interests are not incompatible with those of their own government and are therefore not a plausible cause for discord. 

It is at the strategic level that diplomacy can make its greatest mark.[5] The instruments of statecraft are warriors, spies, and diplomats.  “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence,”[6] while gaining and preserving every conceivable advantage for one’s state.  Today, major, often unpredictable shifts in the balance of power and the pattern of international relations are occurring, international law is increasingly disrespected, and the limitations of the use of force and the risks of war escalating to Armageddon have never been more apparent. No world power now enjoys automatic deference from others. The alignments of many regional powers are in play. The crafting of a new strategic order conducive to peace is the diplomatic challenge of our times. This is a task for well-trained professionals, not for those attempting to deal with a world order they have yet to realize no longer exists, still less for untutored amateurs.[7]


[1] A prime example of this is U.S. policies toward north Korea – the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK” – that have relied exclusively on military deterrence.  In the absence of follow-up to the 1953 armistice, which called for the conclusion of a peace in Korea, endless confrontation has resulted in the emergence of a previously unthinkable danger of a Korean nuclear strike on the U.S. homeland.  A similar focus on military deterrence by the United States accompanied by failure to promote a peaceful resolution of the Chinese civil war and the Taiwan issue has resulted in escalating risks of war, including a possible nuclear exchange, with the People’s Republic of China.

[2] The anarchy and insurgency that followed the U.S. disbanding of the Iraqi government after invading Iraq in 2003 are a classic instance of this.

[3] See, e.g., https://chasfreeman.net/diplomacy-as-tactics/

[4] See, e.g., https://chasfreeman.net/diplomacy-as-risk-management/

[5] See https://chasfreeman.net/diplomacy-as-strategy/ and https://chasfreeman.net/on-diplomatic-relationships-and-strategies/

[6] Talleyrand

[7] As François de Callières put it three centuries ago: “Diplomacy is a profession by itself which deserves the same preparation and assiduity of attention that men give to other recognized professions.  The qualities of a diplomatist and the knowledge necessary to him cannot, indeed, all be acquired.  The diplomatic genius is born, not made.  But there are many qualities which may be developed with practice, and the greater part of the necessary knowledge can only be acquired by constant application to the subject.  In this sense diplomacy is certainly a profession capable of occupying a man’s whole career, and those who think to embark upon a diplomatic mission as a pleasant diversion from their common task only prepare disappointment for themselves and disaster for the cause which they serve.  The veriest fool would not entrust the command of an army to a man whose sole badge of merit was his eloquence in a court of law or his adroit practice of the courtier’s art in the palace.  All are agreed that military command must be earned by long service in the army.  In the same manner it should be regarded as folly to entrust the conduct of negotiations to an untrained amateur.”

Photo: Public Domain. 2015 Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Program – Foreign Ministers and other Officials of P5+1 Iran and EU in Lausanne.

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