Diplomacy is Capability

Diplomacy is often referred to as “soft power”. That framing is more a measure of diplomatic prowess than a result of the simple fact of having diplomats. Bad diplomacy may, in fact, reduce the amount of overall influence a nation has. Soft power is not a given; it is a complex, high-stakes endeavor, and necessary for wielding influence that leads to constructive collaboration and sustained security.

It is thought by some that “hard power” matters more. Such thinking envisions brute military force as a guaranteed means of influence over adversaries. Since wars usually don’t follow predictable plans, and involve a fight to the death, it is dangerous—and disrespectful to those who must do the fighting—to treat the deployment of “hard power” as an easy win. Hard power, if there is such a thing, also depends on having prowess, skill, knowledge, and unseen advantages across the landscape of hostile exchange.

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general and military strategist, in his timeless treatise The Art of War, said the highest priority for anyone planning a successful military campaign is to know the terrain. “Knowing the terrain” means something more than having maps (or satellite photos). By Sun Tzu’s reckoning, it also meant knowing the terrain of tactics and strategy, and that meant knowing the mind and culture of the adversary, and also how one’s own mind and culture might affect the outcome of a confrontation.

Without intelligence, there is no battle plan. Without soft power, hard power cannot exist.

Diplomacy is the art of knowing and engaging with the world, to advocate for and to secure one’s interests, all while sustaining the rule of law. Diplomacy done right builds security—by building deep, strong collaborative alliances among partners who genuinely see it as antithetical to their interests to violate agreements or work outside of the law.

Diplomacy is capability.

There is a reason local newspapers in rural Oklahoma don’t source news about local politics in Kiev internally. As good as the paper may be, they don’t have people in Ukraine doing the work. They don’t know the terrain well enough to do first-hand reporting. They are less capable in this particular way, and so if they need reliable reporting about politics in Ukraine, they go to a wire service that has people on the ground and distributes the reporting globally.

Historically, nations reduce their diplomatic corps when they are committed to a declining role as leaders and partners, or when they are overtaken by forces hostile to the rule of law and to rules-based collaboration among nations. Pulling back a nation’s global community of emissaries is a surrender of power to bad actors and foreign interests and a clear signal that leaders do not intend to represent the interests of their own people in the shaping of the world they are part of.

Authoritarian leaders that do not intend to cede power may deplete their diplomatic corps, because they see it as destabilizing to their own personal interests to have too many people empowered with knowledge and capability. Rules-based collaboration is threatening to them, because they intend to act in ways that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Their own interest supersedes the interest of the nation, or of the values the nation’s people expect their government to promote in the wider world.

Democracy invites and motivates detailed, fact-based diplomacy, and honorable diplomacy is a protector of democracy.

Security cannot exist without diplomacy.

Nonlinear complexities constantly shape and re-shape what is possible in trade, investment, resource acquisition, and global security. Given the influence the United States wields around the world, de-funding diplomacy risks sowing chaos and exacerbating conditions for armed conflict. No individual political official can simply will such negative impacts to be irrelevant to the national interest.

A diminished foreign service corps loses credibility and has a much harder time achieving resonant success in negotiations among nations. For a chief executive looking to make good deals, a robust, professional, everywhere active, diplomatic corps is a necessary precondition for success.

To be a great, respected, sustainable, and secure democratic republic worthy of the name, we need to commit to having the most robust, well-resourced, knowledgeable and far-reaching diplomatic corps possible. In the age of global connectivity, knowing the terrain is more important than ever.

[ The Note for March 2017 ]


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