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“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
I have become a great admirer of the Foreign Service. It is the ablest group of men and women with whom I have ever been associated. Despite their reputation for leaking and self-willedness, I found them to be extremely loyal and, with proper leadership, extremely disciplined. Nor do I think such terms as “cookie pushers” and “striped pants” at all appropriate. If you go through the top echelon of the Foreign Service today, you find men like Phil Habib, who is of Lebanese extraction, and Joe Sisco, my Undersecretary for Political Affairs, who is of Italian extraction. Both reached the highest Foreign Service rank, so I think the kind of snobbery implied by those terms is no longer the problem.
I think the major problem in the Foreign Service is that its traditions were formed in a period when the primary objectives of the United States were economic. Rarely having had to think about grand strategy, the Foreign Service, by nature, and the State Department, by organization, were traditionally more geared to tactical than to strategic issues, more to the middlerange and short-range than to the long-range. But that has nothing to do with the social background of the Foreign Service officer. It has to do with the kind of people, with the kind of organization, that has grown up over the years.
There was considerable evidence in World War II days that, whatever President Roosevelt said about bringing victims of Hitler out of Germany, many of our officials certainly did not do their best to bring them out. There’s a good deal of evidence piling up that they fought against such a rescue policy.
I have never studied that particular subject, therefore I cannot comment on whether the Foreign Service sabotaged some Roosevelt policies or has been used as the fall guy. It is certainly the case that Foreign Service officers, having spent their careers in foreign affairs, are occasionally very self-willed with respect to their expertise. They occasionally interpret orders in the way that is most compatible with their preconceptions, and they have been known to try going around their superiors. That is still true today to some extent; it depends on leadership. The Foreign Service is oriented to the Secretary of State more than to the President—he is their Chief of Staff. If the Secretary of State makes it clear and insists on a policy, he can get it, and I wonder whether in World War II it was clearly understood that Roosevelt, in fact, wanted to do more for Nazi victims. In my experience it may take some doing, but if you can convince Foreign Service officers that you mean business, they will take orders.
Given the speed of technology and the ease with which you can confer instantly with people anywhere in the world, are ambassadors and the whole panoply of diplomacy really becoming obsolete?
They play a different role now than they used to. In most parts of the world, it is possible technically to give instructions in such detail that, for day-to-day negotiations, ambassadors are less important. On the other hand, the political leaders’ understanding of each other is infinitely less today than it used to be when leadership groups were more homogeneous and foreign policy was confined to a smaller area. So the role of the ambassador in explaining the intangibles of his country to the country to which he is accredited and vice versa is more important than ever. The conceptual function of the ambassador is really quite fundamental.
The ambassador carries on where the. more or less understood details of day-to-day diplomacy leave off?
He ought to try to provide a broader understanding of what the telegraph is communicating in terms of specific proposals and specific ideas. The complexities of the culture and the politics of most countries will not be understood by the policy makers’ countries. They will not have a framework. In the nineteenth century foreign ministers understood the domestic structure of the countries they had to deal with because they came from the same social background as their counterparts. But the cultural gaps today are so great—and the people who come to high office have so focused on getting there rather than on the substance of what they will have to do in office—that they need a lot more assistance than before in understanding the problems.
Why, then, do the Department and the Service keep changing their representatives just when they have attained a good understanding of the country they’re accredited to?
It’s a great mistake. They shouldn’t. There are, of course, some career considerations. To move somebody every four or five years does not seem to me wrong. But to change people every twelve or eighteen months, which frequently happens, is crazy.
As a scholar in this field, as you were long before you took public office, whom do you consider the great Secretaries of State? Who would be—or were—your models?
Acheson was a great Secretary of State. It’s difficult to go back to the earliest periods because foreign policy problems were so different. Certainly Jefferson was a great man and almost certainly a great Secretary of State. More recently, I think Stimson was a considerable man.
Would you include General Marshall?
Marshall, yes. Acheson, Marshall, Stimson. Dulles was a strong Secretary of State but very single-minded and didn’t really use the institution very well. I guess those would be the leading Secretaries in this century.