The Diplomacy 101 Lessons That Washington Forgot
While there isn’t a formal class at the State Department called Diplomacy 101, some training offered to new hires comes pretty close. Those basic tenets of statecraft, largely unchanged from Thucydides to Bismarck to Pompeo, are important to review in light of the widespread criticism of the Singapore Summit.
So welcome, everyone, to class. On the whiteboard are some of the main points we’ll cover. Number one, you make peace by talking to your adversaries. Diplomacy is almost always a process and rarely a big-bang scale event. Steps backward are expected along with steps forward. Realizing America’s foreign policy goals often means dealing with bad people. As an American diplomat, I purposefully flattered and befriended gangsters in Japan to help American citizens in trouble, Irish Republican Army terrorists when a change in administration in Washington saw them eligible for visas, and militia leaders in Iraq who sought deals during the surge. So has every diplomat, along with most intelligence officers and military officers. Many in the media have done exactly the same things to cultivate sources.
The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone Else from A to Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven-some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose country has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world, already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter. The only chance those weapons might someday be gone rests on such meetings.
Now, protocol is always tricky. President Obama had no obligation to bow to the Emperor of Japan, but decided to convey respect. Same with American male diplomats holding the hands of or exchanging kisses with their Arab counterparts; I kissed a lot of bearded men while on duty myself. Mistakes happen—Trump did not need to salute that North Korean general—but what matters most is the effect on your counterparts. No damage was done, and maybe even some additional humility was conveyed in a situation where offense could have easily derailed more important matters.
Hey, Senator Graham in the back, pay attention! Diplomacy 101 teaches that you can’t control how your adversary, or even your friends, will portray events. Signals to the international community are important, but if you get too concerned about controlling them, you’ll end up advising your boss that she’d better just stay in Washington. One expert writes, “Foreign policymaking is not an omnidirectional antenna that clearly emits messages in all directions, which are correctly interpreted and acted upon by the intended audiences. Indeed, refraining from pursuing diplomatic initiatives because of how an adversary might characterize that initiative is surely a signal of weakness. And in the case of North Korea, allowing the propaganda efforts of a totalitarian government to influence United States policy making priorities is just self-crippling.”
It’s different with created messaging directed at your adversary, because nobody else matters. Much mockery was piled on the video Trump played for Kim in Singapore, depicting himself as a great leader facing a history-bending decision. The video was full of symbols that resonate with Koreans, including sacred places and holiday images that mean little to outsiders. But the audience was one man, and the video was designed to do one thing: speak to Kim in a visual language he understood. Diplomacy 101 suggests everyone else should stand aside, the same way older folks do when people say such-and-such a new dance song is good or bad, knowing they’re not the intended audience.
Negotiations are rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high, the good news is that it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store, whatever form it takes, usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.
Diplomacy 101 also stresses that the most important purpose of a good first date is to make sure there’s a second. It doesn’t make sense to call it a failure if no marriage proposal follows dessert. Love at first sight is best left for the movies. A kiss goodnight is great, but international relations is a chaste process and demanding or expecting too much too early isn’t a long game strategy. Setting an artificial clock running alongside something as delicate as nuclear disarmament accomplishes nothing. Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes spanned administrations.
A future Diplomacy 101 class might examine the Singapore Summit alongside President Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the Shanghai Communique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again and somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.
There was no timeline for anything, no specific next steps listed, nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation, though Nixon did agree to the “ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan.” It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored, yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point that the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.
It is of course too early to fully assess the Singapore Summit, never mind to see if it will rank anywhere near the Nixon-Mao meeting. But we do know personal diplomacy has often been the right strategy, and that Americans have met with dictators, nuclear-armed and not, before. Simply amending “but Trump!” to those and other realities of diplomacy does not change them. Yet Trump is so central to many pundits’ views that they seem unable or unwilling to separate their personal loathing of him from what is actually happening, fearful of any hint of success. As the United States-North Korea relationship evolves, it is important to avoid valuing the sharp elbows of partisan politics over the earned lessons of Diplomacy 101. Class dismissed—for now.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.