Friday, 21 January 2011


Throughout modern history the domain of foreign affairs in the hands of able diplomats who have distinguished themselves in the profession largely for tactics rather than substance has captivated the public, especially academics and politicians. During the era of Catherine the Great, Nikita Ivanovich Panin was considered by some the most brilliant diplomatic mind in Europe. In the end, however, what exactly did Panin accomplish for Catherine's empire running against the rapid changes of the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and French Revolution?

After Panin forged the
Northern Accord designed to create a Russia-Prussia, Poland, Sweden and British alliance against the Bourbon-Habsburg League, it was evident that it was not in the interests of Great Britain to go along with Panin's grand diplomatic scheme. Britain was a commercial empire industrializing and needing markets, while Russia was a stagnant agrarian society relying of serf labor. The objective conditions of Russian and British society entailed that diplomacy had obvious limitations. Another 'great' diplomat was Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich, (Kissinger's hero) responsible for putting together the Congress of Vienna. Metternich's ultimate goal was to preserve the status quo in Europe, not to have the map redrawn, not to have any more revolutions; in short, to force time to stand still  because Austria feared the minorities from having an uprising and breaking up the empire. 
Metternich's system collapsed as soon as the Greek War of Independence erupted and Russia, France and especially Great Britain intervened to assist the rebels against the Ottoman Empire because it would give them a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. Like Panin, Metternich was fighting against objective societal conditions profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and the rapidly changing economic conditions. In both Panin's and Metternich's cases skill would have been to go with the trends instead of opposing them and ultimately succumbing to them.

Woodrow Wilson was also a master at foreign affairs, but in the end many historians regard his skillful negotiations in Paris as one of the long-term causes of WWII. While historians credit him with the League of Nations that Albert Einstein supported, in the end Wilson is remembered for all that went wrong in foreign affairs at home (isolationism) and abroad, and that includes the very weak League that future administrations did not support and that left France virtually isolated. By contrast to 'great' names in foreign affairs, people working behind the scenes managed to leave a much richer legacy than those history has in the forefront.

Harry Dexter White, assistant treasury secretary (eventually blacklisted and force to leave the US) and special assistant to the secretary of state Leo Pasvolsky (both working in the early 1940s) left a far reaching influence in how the US would become the hegemonic power in the postwar era. Credit of course goes to Secretary of State Cordell Hull who hired Pasvolsky and to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau for hiring White, all responsible for putting together the Bretton Woods system designed to manage the postwar global economy under the aegis of the US that emerged as the single power to guarantee financial and political stability.

Today we have independent consultants, think tanks, university research groups, lobbies of all sorts, NGOs, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, etc., all of them trying to have a voice in foreign policy, government has options of where and how to obtain advice. The question is what constitutes a 'great' diplomat in our time, given that there are so many well educated and well-informed people.

Without a set of criteria to determine what makes a 'good' or 'great' Secretary of State or National Security Adviser, people will simply conclude that whoever enjoyed the most publicity, or enjoyed the closest relationship with the White House, or projected an image of power was 'great'. Criteria: a) Vision toward a goal (established by the entire cabinet not just the head of foreign policy); b) plan and strategy (set by the head of the office of foreign affairs, but relies on the bureaucracy); c) execution of policy and tactics also rests largely on the bureaucracy and input by the disparate elements in government that have overlapping responsibilities.

2. There are many highly educated and experienced  people working in the domain of foreign affairs and intelligence services, regardless of whether they have the depth and breadth of experience and credentials that Kissinger and Brzezinski had. The idea of comparing these two foreign policy makers to Thomas Jefferson or Cordell Hull is to test the moral compass and national interest criteria based on tangible lasting results that benefit the entire society.

3. Foreign policy perimeters are set by the President and his cabinet, which is influenced by a wide range of interests from business to military interests. Often it is the case that commercial policy may conflict with defense policy, and ultimately the president decides if it is in the national interest to place commercial interests above security considerations. How that policy is executed of course depends on the head of foreign affairs operations.

4. Foreign policy reflects in large measure the general course of a government's ideological orientation, domestic policies, and the country's history of foreign affairs. However, this is not always as clear cut as it appears because there are contradictory interests within the same society that deem a particular foreign policy may harm their interests and advance those of a rival group (s).

5. While it is always great to have a very intelligent individual (s) at the top of foreign policy position (s) because it helps with vision, strategy, and tactics, the vast bureaucracy behind the foreign policy apparatus is such that the intelligence or gravitas level does not make much difference, especially for major powers like the US. Russia, China and the rest of the world would follow the exact same policy toward the US whether the latter had Kissinger or a banana-eating monkey running the State Department.
In his recent visit to the US, Chinese President Hu Jintao could care less who ran the State Department, for what matters to him is policy not personalities. If the policy is unfavorable to China but the secretary of state an experienced diplomatic genius, how does that serve Chinese interests? Believe me, a monkey pursuing favorable policies toward China is preferable to Kissinger trying to deceive and double-deal after he just concluded a treaty with Beijing.

6. History shows that some very intelligent individuals with the responsibility of shaping foreign policy, including Kissinger, were detrimental to the national interest both in the short term in in the longer run, not as they and the administration defined it at the time, but in broader terms as many now see it in hindsight. How smart was it of Kissinger to constantly misrepresent facts to North Vietnam during negotiations when it was obvious the war was lost; how smart was it to be deceitful about Laos, or to play one side against the other in the Arab world so that Israel benefit in the short term but suffer perpetual war; how smart was it to have a hand in assassinating Salvador Allende and to support the Pinochet dictatorship, and similar regimes around the world, including the Greek Junta (1967-1974), as well as tyrannical regimes from Africa to Latin America; how smart was it to spend hours with journalists trying to mold public opinion, when in the end the facts came out that he was a master of deception? 
Looking back at Kissinger's career, did this man that the Obama administration invites to all sorts of functions do anything to the benefit of the US national interest, or did he only advance a handful of narrow interests, including his own, given that he became a registered foreign agent for China through his consulting firm? Many throughout the world consider Kissinger a war criminal responsible for the kind of secret and double-dealing diplomacy that Wilson condemned almost 100 years ago. I have no doubt that to some people a war criminal may be a 'great' diplomat, but that only reflects on the individual's moral standards and on the fact that such people place power above human lives.

As far as Brzezinski is concerned, was it in America's best interest that he sidelined Cy Vance who was an honorable man and highly respected within the State Department as such? Vance was much closer to Jimmy Carter's political spirit in trying to pursue human rights and balance a traditional Democratic foreign policy with immense business and right-wing ideological pressures that Brzezinski opportunistically served. When I was conducting research at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta during the 1990s, the staff had nothing but resentment toward Brzezinski not only as a diplomat but as an individual. I was not surprised when Brzezinski opportunistically became a vehement critic of the Bush administration, all of a sudden rediscovering the Carter-Vance progressive foreign policy spirit and opposed to the raw militarism of the reckless Bush administration.

In the end, we judge diplomats the way we judge politicians, namely, the power the project to society, instead of the constructive results they deliver to society, let alone any moral dimension they may carry as part of their policies. People worship power to the point of blindness and I fear they will do so until the end of time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Like Thomas Wolsey under King Henry VIII, some diplomats have thrived on power given to them. As a result, honorable men unlike Wolsey have paid the ultimate price for the direction of their "moral compass."

History clearly shows, that men like Thomas Wolsey with expertise in legalese and courtly language, often wear sheep's cloaks to slip their personal agenda through sideways-- motivated by insatiable greed and pride. Today, that one claims no country. He claims allegiance 'other.'

But in the end, they fall whilst their head rolls, and their mortal soul languishes in Hades. They call out to the beggar across River Styx who dwells in Paradise: "just one drink! . . .

[and]Tell my brother! . . ."
The answer to this is: No Henry.