September 10, 2017
The current North Korean threat highlights one of the most troubling shortcomings facing today’s Western governments : the almost total inability of diplomacy to help solve such crises.
For thousands of years, various states in different periods of history have nurtured the development of a special class of bureaucrats, employed exclusively in the diplomatic service. In time, these people acquired the know-how necessary to deal with countries’ foreign friends and foes alike. Diplomats were always at hand when war was declared, peace terms negotiated or when tensions between states needed mediation.
Closer to the modern era, career diplomats became leading members of government. Their advice was highly respected and their status was second in importance only to the prime minister of the day.
Alas, after thirty years of neoliberal budget cuts and political leaders’ insistence on small government, the diplomatic services of Western countries have been severely degraded and the number of competent career diplomats has been drastically diminished. The global international relations system, as a result, is experiencing the effects of a dangerous loss of shock absorbers.
Everywhere in the world, Russia and China excepted, diplomats are being marginalised and face near extinction as a professional foreign affairs elite. This unheard-of development in history is due to the fact that Western leaders these days prefer to deal directly with one another, “to get things done”, even though they don’t possess the specialised knowledge and skills to do so.
To put it more bluntly, we can compare the performance of a political leader in the field of international relations to that of a quack next to a doctor. By relying on executive briefs instead of drawing on a solid knowledge of history, culture and international events, career politicians usually delude themselves as to their abilities in the field of foreign relations.
Unfortunately, we are talking here about political leaders who have, in the words of Henry Kissinger, oversized egos and think they could match the skills of career diplomats when negotiating treaties, appeasing important allies or dealing with enemies. Elected Western leaders, however, owe their jobs to their ability to convince their constituencies to vote for them on domestic issues, and not to their skills in dealing with other heads of state.
The above can easily be illustrated with the classic example of the negotiations between Presidents George H. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, which took place prior to the reunification of Germany in 1991. On that occasion, Gorbachev agreed to peacefully remove the Red Army units from East Germany in exchange of a verbal promise from his American counterpart that NATO would not expand to the east. The deal was concluded among the two presidents directly, without the involvement of their top diplomats or the signing of a formal treaty to that effect. Needless to mention, the handshake deal between the two leaders did not stop NATO from expanding eastwards a decade later and generating the military tensions witnessed today at Russia’s western borders.
There is no doubt that – as the leader of the Western world – the United States is chiefly responsible for these negative developments. The US has never consistently nurtured the development of a professional diplomatic corps and, bare a few exceptions, American foreign ministers have never carried significant weight within the US government. The performance of Henry Kissinger as State Secretary remains exceptional simply because it confirms the rule.
The US State Department has consistently been denied adequate funding, especially over the last thirty years, with the bulk of the budget allocations going into the Pentagon’s coffers. In the first decade of the 21st century, George W Bush even named a general as Secretary of State (Colin Powell) and the invasion of Iraq soon followed, despite stark warnings and protests on the part of career diplomats and UN officials. Moreover, as events in Ukraine have recently shown, US ambassadors are repeatedly being used, in a subordinate capacity, to assist the CIA in organising coups d’etat or to influence election results in a variety of countries around the globe. More often than not, American diplomats are continuously undermined in the performance of their duty by the CIA or other representatives of the military-industrial complex.
The Obama Administration has tried and partially succeeded in diminishing the influence of the military-industrial complex in the framing of US foreign policy. It provided more adequate funding for the US State Department by constantly insisting that the use of military force should only occur as a last resort and that diplomacy and negotiation should be given priority. This has resulted in one of the few successes of the Obama administration: the Iran deal. Barack Obama’s error, however, was that of naming Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. She lacked the intellectual standing necessary in the field of international relations and, like her husband, was mired in controversy.
The influence and respectability of diplomats is even more problematic within the European Union, where various heads of the EAS (European Action Service), from Catherine Ashton to Federica Mogherini, have failed in getting the respect and trust of the EU’s external partners. As a result, the EAS is perceived as an annex to the American State Department and as a nuisance by the foreign policy establishments of EU member states. At the national level as well, very few EU states have succeeded in preserving diplomats’ former status and in protecting their departments from budget cuts.
In countries like Romania, for instance, we are also witnessing an exceedingly worrisome development, namely the replacement of career diplomats with former industrial engineers without language skills and/or with covert operatives of the country’s spy agencies. This bizarre development has been made possible by the fact that over the past ten years Romania’s foreign affairs ministers have been – either prior to or after their mandates – directors of the state’s spy services (SIE). Moreover, ex- foreign intelligence directors like Catalin Harnagea or those of the country’s internal secret service SRI, have been awarded ambassadorial positions despite the lack of prior experience or solid training in international relations.
Taking the above developments into account, it comes as no surprise that there is no negotiated settlement possible between the West and the North Korean regime.
Even at the height of the Cold War -as Britain’s late Sir Michael Alexander duly noted in one of his books – career diplomats from both sides of the fence were able to keep communication channels open and thus avoid major nuclear catastrophes in the process. De-nuclearisation treaties were negotiated and signed and the fall of communism, as a result, happened in a peaceful manner.
Today, when the military call the shots in the White House and there are no more top American or European career diplomats to speak of, the world edges closer to nuclear holocaust than ever before. We should also be frank in admitting that President Trump’s “Twitter diplomacy” is a poor substitute to the real thing. His tête-à-tête meetings with Vladimir Putin, for example, have not succeeded in improving the US’s relationship with Russia, on the contrary.
Let us all hope that it is not too late to reverse this dangerous trend. Diplomats need to be put back in charge of framing foreign policy and in conducting difficult negotiations, without the overriding interference of their political leaders, intelligence or military establishments.Florian Pantazi