- Historic Sites
“Explaining What You Are After Is The Secret Of Diplomacy”
This century’s most powerful Secretary of State talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the Foreign Service, the role of the CIA, the rights of journalists, the contrast between meddlers and statesmen—and about the continuing struggle for a coherent foreign policy
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
More or less. You know, when the CIA tells you that the consequence of a Communist government in Chile will be to upset the political equilibrium in neighboring countries, this is an implicit policy recommendation. That cannot be helped. But as a general proposition, I think separation of policy making and Intelligence is the tack that I took. If I did take another one from time to time, it was wrong.
Let me go back a little bit in time on a different aspect of policy. Woodrow Wilson made it fashionable for a while to talk about “open covenants, openly arrived at,” but others have taken the view of Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State. He said it was his duty to “inaugurate new policies and bring them to maturity free from public scrutiny and pressure.” Is open diplomacy possible, and if not, how far can secrecy be carried in a democratic state?
Any amateur can make a proposal that is highly desirable from his own country’s point of view and has no features in it interesting to the other side.
I don’t believe the question permits a clear-cut answer. In a democracy the results of negotiations obviously have to be made available to the public. Except in the rarest of cases, secret agreements will not stand the test of crisis if the public has not been informed about them. So, clearly, the results of negotiations should be public. The process by which these results are achieved generally should have a private phase and then it may have a public phase. I believe that it is terribly important in a negotiation for one’s interlocutor to understand one’s real purpose. In fact, that is infinitely more important than the negotiating position, because the negotiating position you can simply telegraph to him, but explaining what you are after is the secret of diplomacy.
Could you give an example of “negotiating position” and “real purpose”?
Every negotiation begins with some formal proposal by one side, occasionally by both of them. But that position is frequently very formal. It may reflect a desire to feel out the interlocutor or a bureaucratic compromise. But finally diplomacy must seek a common position that can stand the test of time. This means that both sides must consider it in their interest. The amateur believes that a clever diplomat tells everybody a different story. But in diplomacy you meet the same person over and over again, and in the long term his confidence in you is more important than any minor advantage you can achieve by trickery. A diplomat must never forget that he can get away with duplicity only once. Secondly, the other side obviously will analyze any proposal put before it. And it will perhaps give you more credit than you deserve because it will try to find a rational, profound explanation. It is therefore essential to explain to the other side what it is you’re trying to achieve and why it is in the mutual interest. You have to do it in terms of mutual interest, because nobody will sign an agreement that is exclusively in the other party’s interest. Any amateur can make a proposal that is highly desirable from his own country’s point of view and has no features in it that are interesting to the other side.
In any public debate about negotiations, the critic can always score brilliantly against his country’s negotiator simply because any agreement must have elements benefiting the other side. Otherwise the other side wouldn’t have signed it. The issue is whether it also benefited our side. One’s opposite number may have the same sort of problems. I always spend my first few sessions in a negotiation explaining what I am trying to achieve. I believe that for this purpose secret negotiations are very important.
What can you say about the openness of diplomacy in the United Nations? Is that of any value?
In the United Nations you don’t have open diplomacy, you have open rhetoric. That isn’t diplomacy, it’s everybody stating his maximum position and playing to his own gallery. Most of those speeches are made for domestic consumption back home.
Is it useful at all to us?
The United Nations has some useful functions in the technical field. It’s also a convenient meeting place. I don’t think that it is of major utility for settling great power disputes.
You have been criticized in the past for going to great lengths to control “leaks.” Now if there is not in your view an excess of secrecy, why should there have to be leaks at all?
That depends on what you mean by an excess of secrecy. The period when I was most intensely concerned with controlling leaks was when we were trying to end the Vietnam War by secret negotiation; when we were making a new opening to China; and when we were beginning to feel our way toward some compromises with the Soviet Union. In each of those cases a premature disclosure would have made it impossible to proceed.
Aren’t the advantages of secrecy offset by a loss of credibility when the media do what they’re supposed to, which is to uncover the secrets?