Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Tools of Statecraft: Diplomacy and War

Tools of Statecraft: Diplomacy and War

By their very nature, diplomacy and military force are means to the ends of statecraft as well as channels by which governments press their agendas onto others. Neither is inherently more or less useful than the other. Diplomacy verbally communicates realities that may move nations (it is not to be confused with any particular message diplomats may carry or with its effects), while military action (not to be confused with war) physically communicates a government’s wishes by trying to sweep away resistance to them. Whereas diplomacy represents realities, military operations create them. Statecraft—with which neither diplomacy nor military action should be confused—is about managing reality, coupling ends and means in ways that advance a country’s interests. Far from being antithetical to one another, diplomacy and military force are complementary insofar as they serve the same political ends.

Diplomacy is often popularly thought of as the peaceful alternative to violence, but in fact, diplomacy serves to prepare as often as to avoid war. It is an important part of waging war, often makes the difference in who wins, and nearly always codifies wars’ results. Again, diplomacy is the verbal representation of compelling international realities, and military force is one of those realities.

Conventionally, major military action is called war. The connection between means and ends determines the character of actions. War is military operations tailored to achieve one’s preferred peace. Only insofar as a military operation is so crafted as to bring about the desired peace does it qualify as an act of war as opposed to senseless violence.

The study of history helps us to see through the fog of contemporary loose talk. Persons who know the meaning of words could only cringe at the Bush administration’s evasion of the central question about the outcome of the 2006 Lebanon war when it said “diplomacy won,” and at the Democrats’ equally meaningless claim that it would have placed greater emphasis on “diplomacy.” Studying history helps us to understand the arts of diplomacy and of war for themselves and as tools of statecraft.


Imagine two persons at odds over any given matter. A friend might suggest: “Why don’t you resolve your differences through diplomacy? I’ll set up the meetings.” But, what could each say at those meetings that would make the differences less important than they were before? If the differences remained important, why should either side accommodate the other’s wishes? Perhaps the differences were not real—mere misunderstandings. Perhaps, though real, they were small in comparison with other interests that either or both are willing to take as currency in exchange for giving up their claims in the matter at hand. Perhaps new events have reduced the controversy’s importance for either or both. Or, one side may present to the other realities of which it was ignorant that lead it to change its position. If so, the meeting may produce agreement. But if neither side presents to the other anything it did not know before, both sides will be lucky if the meeting just leaves the controversy where it was and does not worsen it.

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

The history of U.S. diplomacy since World War II is in too-large measure that of what happens when this judgment is made badly. Whether with regard to the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Soviet Union, or the Middle East and North Korea in our time, the default U.S. modus operandi has been to consider diplomacy as an independent factor, for diplomats to treat all interlocutors as “partners,” and to treat negotiations as mutual good-faith searches for agreements. Of course this has permitted, even encouraged and rewarded, America’s adversaries to treat negotiations as instruments of conflict. Just as important, by validating the other side’s bona fides, American diplomats have placed themselves in the awkward position of taking blame for the failure of negotiations to achieve the ends that they themselves proclaimed were at hand. The embarrassment of revoking certifications of bona fides granted gratuitously has pressed American diplomats preemptively to dismiss the option of “walking away” and to worry lest the other side take it up. Hence also, American diplomats are wary of exerting pressure through “side effects” lest they “sour” the negotiations. Thus they end up valuing less the substance of any agreement than the appearance thereof. The result has been not just the practice but also the advocacy of international agreements that are no such thing.

Most often, today’s high-profile agreements are written purposely so that both sides may interpret them precisely as they wish—that is, precisely as if no negotiation had taken place. Whom does this benefit or disadvantage? Clearly, governments who depend on public opinion and who publicly subscribe to the fiction that an agreement has been reached must realize that if and when they subsequently take action in response to the other side’s undiminished pursuit of its goals, they will impeach thereby their own judgment and performance. Moreover, make-believe successes are guaranteed to turn into real defeats that cannot be spun away. That is why—the case of U.S. negotiations with North Korea illustrates the point well —diplomats have caveated their claims of agreement by adding the word “framework.” But what is a “framework agreement” other than the codification of an agenda and a pledge to agree later, maybe? Agreements to agree really advertise that no agreement exists.

Even more transparently unnatural are so-called agreements on “Processes”—e.g. “disarmament processes” and “peace processes.” You wanted disarmament and peace; you have armament and war. But you’ve succeeded in engaging the several parties in procedures that will overcome substantive intentions—tomorrow. Casting thin veils over unpleasant realities is not, however, diplomacy. The ultimate in such see-through diplomatic garments is surely the 2005 agreement on the Bush administration’s “roadmap” to Arab-Israeli peace. Here policymakers and diplomats cannot manage to pretend that there is any agreement even on a diplomatic agenda, much less on the fundamental issues. But they tout agreement on ambiguously phrased interim goals as tracing the road to talks leading to a process.

Why then do policymakers and diplomats, followed by the media and academe, so abuse the fundamentals of their craft? Because doing the craft badly is easier than doing it well. Competent diplomacy requires deciding on one’s own course of action before making diplomatic contact rather than during negotiations. In book 8 of his history, Livy tells us of a meeting of the Latin cities to instruct their joint delegation for a meeting with the Romans. After much wrangling, one Lucius Annius said: “How we act will affect the main issue more than what we say. Once we have set our plans in order, it will be easy to find words to fit our deeds.” Jobs in policymaking have always been attractive, but making hard choices is naturally unattractive.

Second, figuring out what “the available terms” may be and securing them requires some creativity. Consider Thucydides’ account of the Spartan general Brasidas’ conquest of Thrace, accomplished very largely through diplomacy. Brasidas made offers the other side could not refuse and asked for little. He passed through neutral territory with a small force after professing friendship at the border and getting those who had stopped him to go home for consultation. On his way to Amphipolis, home of the Athenian garrison in Thrace, he secured the nominal alliance of cities (he needed and asked for no more than that) by offering friendship and trade while holding hostage the cities’ ripe crops. After seizing Amphipolis’ landward approaches and farmlands, and knowing that Athenian reinforcements were on the way, he offered everyone in the city, Athenians included, safety, political rights, and respect of property in return for letting him free the city from the Athenian empire, immediately. He figured correctly that few would be willing to risk their lives and surely lose property by fighting a superior Spartan force for the sake of the Athenian empire. Brasidas’ diplomacy fit ends, means, and circumstances just right. Diplomacy’s need for solvency is not just an old story. It is also the leitmotif of the twentieth century’s leading American diplomatic historian, Norman Graebner.

Third, in the balance of incentives, an edge in the capacity to instill fear usually outweighs positive factors. Again, consider Thucydides. As the Athenians were trying to round up Sicilian allies against Syracuse, the local great power they were besieging, they told the people of neighboring Camarina that siding with Athens would free them from their ancient hegemon and that Athens could not oppress them because it would be too far away. By contrast, Syracuse’s Hermocrates offered no positive incentives. Small cities like Camarina, he said, cannot escape being under the big ones’ thumbs. Camarina must keep in mind that, whatever might happen, Syracuse would surely remain nearby, and that if Camarina sided with Athens, sooner or later it would not escape “the lasting hatred we should feel for you.” Thucydides tells us that the Camarinans’ fears drove them to spurn uncertain hopes to side with their ancient oppressors. The reality that Syracuse was going to be there for the long run, along with its venom, made up for the besieged tyrants’ lack of present incentives.

Fourth, diplomacy is not about tricks, lies, bluffs or misrepresentations. It is about representing reality in precise words on which all may rely, and of course on the compelling qualities of the things the words represent. Reputations for reliability are hard won and easily lost—by countries as well as by individuals. Hence it is incumbent on a diplomat to brandish only consequences that follow naturally from events, and the fulfillment of which is in his country’s interest as well as capacity, which it intends and may not even be able to avoid—in short, to warn but not to threaten.


“What are we after? What are they after?” These questions are as central to warfare as to diplomacy. Regarding them through the optic of Clausewitz’ observation that war is politics by violent means, Western students of war have tended to understand the objectives of war as Clausewitz did, in terms of contemporary Western politics. But though Clausewitz, writing after the Napoleonic wars, meant his treatise to describe the essence of what he called “total war,” reality is much broader and war can be much more total than the European nineteenth-century variety.

Readers of On War are hard put to fit, say, the Old Testament description of Joshua’s and the Judges’ campaigns into Clausewitzian categories. Like the Saxon tribes’ invasion of England or for that matter of the nineteenth-century Wahhabi invasions of the Shia shrine cities of today’s Iraq, these campaigns aimed simply at annihilation. Calling it “politics” takes some stretching. And while in retrospect we can see that Europe’s sixteenth-century wars of religion were really about politics, that was by no means clear to the participants. During those years also, bands of heretics fought major battles with various feudal levies. Were these wars or insurrections? It does not matter. The point is that the notion that war must be about politics leads logically to incapacity to grasp that the tribal conflicts and religiously justified violence all around us are as much war as anything mankind ever experienced.

Answering the questions “what are we after, and what are they after?” is war’s primordial prerequisite. At the outset of the Peloponnesian war, Archidamus asked his Spartans “what is to be our war?—meaning, how are we going to beat Athens? The history of that war shows that neither Archidamus nor anyone (Donald Kagan infers that Pericles asked it) asked the truly primary question: “What is to be our peace?” What is the state of rest at which we are aiming, with which we can be satisfied? Because the war is going to end some day, we also need to know what might satisfy the other side under what circumstances. Only then can we figure out which defeats we can inflict on them to get what we’re after. It turned out that, neither side having a vision of peace, the war turned into an end in itself that ruined both. Similarly, Napoleon was a master at setting up battles and winning them but, as de Gaulle writes, “striking continually with France’s sword, he broke it.”

Only from the perspective of the peace you desire is it possible to identify what stands in the way, the people, the institutions, the things the removal of which will give you the peace you want. Only once you have figured that out does it make sense to think of whom to kill and what to destroy, and then, sequentially, to ask “what will it take?” and hence to design military operations.

This is the point, however, at which the arts of war and diplomacy diverge. Diplomats have the option of walking away from their engagements. But once war’s killing starts, the options narrow to two: victory or defeat. That is why it is so important, before entering into a war, to calculate “what it will take” to pay the price for victory and whether you are ready, willing, and able to pay it. If you are not, Machiavelli tells us in his Discourses, you should avoid fights, even by negotiating preemptive surrenders. Keeping your forces out of situations they can’t or won’t handle, avoiding routs, maintaining some control over the situation, is worth the price. Once the fighting starts, the passions and hatreds that it excites eliminate that option. Pericles made that clear to the Athenians after misfortunes had made them regret having gone to war. “To recede is no longer possible… For what you hold is to speak somewhat plainly a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong but to let it go is unsafe.”

In the course of war, any limits you may set on your pursuit of victory are actually limits on your commitment to your peace. If you are not willing to contemplate wholesale slaughter, or want a negotiated solution, remember: once it becomes clear that you will do what is needed to win, those negotiations become about the price you must pay for defeat. Note however that the price of defeat is even less calculable than the price of victory. In November 1918 Germany did not imagine the political and economic price that Versailles would impose on it. But, having given up its defenses as the price of armistice, it was at the winners’ mercy. This can happen informally as well, because retreats tend to turn into routs, embolden winners and whet their appetites. Moreover, assorted jackals feast on losers as freely as lions. As in the case of Germany, the price of surrender is not merely giving up one’s own peace, but above all giving the winner the unrestricted power to change the terms of surrender ex post facto.

So, what will it take to remove the enemy’s obstruction to our peace? How much killing any side has to do to end the war depends first of all on what the enemy’s after, on his character, and on one’s own objectives. Few peoples have ever fought “to the last man.” Even the Japanese on Okinawa surrendered after the futility of resistance had become obvious, they sickened of suicide, and noticed that the Americans were sparing captives. Japan’s emperor and his people eventually accepted the shattering of their sacred myths. But Germany’s Nazis chose Gotterdamerung for themselves and their people.

At best we can control what we are after. A county bent on exterminating peoples from which enmity arises must expect all its victims to die fighting. One that is bent on desecrating another’s way of life must expect having to kill more than one that aims to undo an enemy regime—simply because fewer people have a life or death investment in regimes than in sacred ways. And of course since regimes’ roots run unequally deep, eradicating them will be more or less bloody business. Usually, putting an end to interference in one’s own affairs takes less blood and treasure than interfering in others’. When, however, one’s reputation inflames enemies’ passions, only much blood can quench them.

Bad performance by diplomats or generals may foul up a good plan. But no amount of brilliance at the conference table or on the battlefield can rescue a bad plan or make up for neglect of the principles underlying each craft.