On Diplomatic Performance

by Ken Weisbrode

The other day Foreign Affairs featured an essay about post-conflict preparation for Ukraine. Its author is a retired American diplomat, Thomas Pickering. He is a former ambassador to Russia and to several other countries, as well as an Under Secretary of State; but he is perhaps best known for having been the American permanent representative to the United Nations during the 1990–91 Gulf War.

It was in that position that Pickering was said to have so “over-performed” in building an international coalition for the effort to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait that Pickering’s bosses – namely Secretary of State James Baker – were (ironically) displeased by his performance.

The foregoing is all hearsay, of course, but it needn’t be true to make a relevant point: The first principle for diplomats is to serve their superiors, and the public, by not drawing too much attention, or credit, to themselves. It is a sin for any diplomat to upstage the boss, no matter how successful the diplomacy may be.

There are sound reasons for that maxim. The first is the old one about ego: If you want to get anything difficult done, make sure someone else gets the credit. Preferably if that someone else is someone who (or whose constituents) might be inclined to oppose the policy.

Next is the principle that diplomats require freedom of maneuver. Being identified too closely with the successful implementation of a policy can easily blur into being identified with the policy itself, and therefore frustrating efforts to change that policy, if necessary.

Finally is the need for any bureaucracy to function well collectively. Over-performing diplomats inspire respect, but also envy and resentment.

Still, in spite of the risks, isn’t it better for diplomats to over-perform than under-perform? Perhaps. This is why Pickering’s Foreign Affairs essay is telling and even a bit poignant. It’s a primer that one might see in the first semester of a course in diplomatic negotiation. That the retired ambassador (and the editors of Foreign Affairs) evidently felt it necessary to offer it in public to their readers, including members of the US government, implies that some rudimentary knowledge and education are missing where they are needed.

It is noted that several senior members of the Biden administration, including the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, have previous experience as speechwriters, spokespeople, or journalists. It was once the case, at least in the US government (and perhaps in others), that these were auxiliary jobs that were rarely good for promotion to the highest office. Maybe the current US administration offers an exception for a president who has a long record of closely following the public mood; or maybe not, as the trend of public relations-as-policy predates Biden’s administration and will probably continue after it.

Yellow journalism has been around for a long time; so have politicians believing their own speeches. But there is also something different about today’s diplomats, as Pickering suggests in the case of his own country and, again, perhaps elsewhere. Performativity has taken the place of performance in the exercise of diplomacy; or at least the two have become synonymous to a greater extent than at any point in recent memory.

There is more to the observation than today’s diplomats looking and sounding more superficial than their predecessors. Or that their public zeal conveys a hypocritical lack of imagination. It is not fair to suggest, as these perceptions do, that today’s diplomats are either stupid or wicked. There must be some other reason or impetus behind the passion for repeating the same tired talking points in place of serious policies. But what could it be?

One reason may be that the conflation of public diplomacy with diplomacy itself runs more deeply than is generally acknowledged. That is certainly the case as seen from this tiny outpost of diplomatic studies: the most visible, most prolific, and perhaps the most original work on diplomacy being promoted now has almost all to do with public diplomacy and the tools used to disseminate and refine it.[1]

Another, deeper reason may be that many institutions, and public culture itself, have conflated the means and ends of public policy to such a McLuhanesque degree that the two have also become indistinguishable. To demonstrate public passion for a cause is its own end. To judge the success or failure of that end requires little more than a gauge of the volume and frequency of rhetoric as measured in “hits” and “likes”.

These two points may themselves sound superficial and that is intentional. The private nature of diplomacy, along with its residual benefits measured in interpersonal trust, confidence, and relationships, has been lost somewhere on the ineluctable way to the metaverse. Maybe it’s as simple as knowing that any meeting, phone call, or email can be made public at any moment. Or maybe it predates the advent of digital media inasmuch as an earlier generation of diplomats, as the charge against Pickering suggests, succumbed to the temptation of “over-performance” and thus cleared the path for today’s degeneration.

The American diplomat who most easily comes to mind in that regard is probably Henry Kissinger and who, at age 99, still finds time to make the occasional headline. The Washington Post columnist and former editor of Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria, invoked Kissinger also the other day in making a similar complaint about the inadequacy of American foreign policy under Biden. Zakaria noted that whereas Kissinger (following his role model, Otto von Bismarck) once succeeded in building diplomatic relationships for the United States (e.g., with China and the USSR, and with Egypt and Israel) that were better and closer than the nations had with each other, today (as between China and Russia, and between Iran and Saudi Arabia) something like the opposite is taking place. International diplomacy is leaving the United States behind, Zakaria claims, as American officials repeat their stale, inflexible nostrums.

Zakaria has a point, but it relates more to the style than to the substance of diplomacy. Bismarck’s diplomacy succeeded as well as it did because he made a firm distinction between means and ends, the latter being German unification and then German centrality in European politics. Kissinger’s rhetoric was less disciplined in observing that distinction. Driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union seemed, at least according to the more persuasive critics of détente, to be an end in itself because it coincided with an effort to stabilize and perhaps even to prolong the Cold War. Driving a wedge between the USSR and Egypt (et al.) also had the same character: if it was the means to an end, the end was to enhance diplomatic leverage with the USSR for an extension of the status quo. Whatever the strategic consequences may have been for China et al., the ends for the United States did not really rise above the tactical or operational levels of statecraft. If there was a strategic end to Kissinger’s web of “linkage” it was a very conservative end similar to what Zakaria has described as today’s late imperial gesture, and not one that can be termed transformational in any meaningful sense of the term.

That is not to say the diplomacy of the 1970s was not transformational. It was, in fact, in the heart of Europe, where a different approach to détente – called Ostpolitik and antithetical to Kissinger’s approach – took root. It culminated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and then again in Berlin in 1989. Needless to say, Kissinger initially was a fierce critic of both Ostpolitik and the CSCE but, to his credit, he did not stop them from happening, mainly because he was so busy linking policies elsewhere. If the diplomats who made them happen objected to Kissinger later taking any credit, their objections have been muted.

This diversion to the 1870s and 1970s thanks to Fareed Zakaria reminds us of another maxim of diplomacy: If you’re not at the negotiating table, you’re probably on it. That is certainly how it appears today for the United States and its performative diplomats in some parts of the world, starting with the Middle East. No doubt defenders of the Biden administration will continue to counter that charge by arguing (without apparent irony) that all is not as it seems on the surface; and maybe even that a version of the first above-mentioned maxim – that the best way to get what you want is to make others think it is their idea – is really what is at play.

The latter, more charitable, supposition recalls one final maxim, attributed to A. E. Housman: “In every American there is an air of incorrigible innocence, which seems to conceal a diabolical cunning.” Were that the case, then we might say that the exhibitionistic incompetence of American diplomacy actually is a subtle means to a valuable end and one that is not too difficult to infer. James Baker identified it more than 30 years ago: how to execute a safe and orderly retreat from global dominance without the world blowing up in America’s face.[2] His recipe for constructive disengagement from an imperial order was never precisely defined but I suspect it was not too different from what it is now taking place by default, not only in the Middle East but also in East Asia, and even in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. “Middle powers” in these regions are getting used to the idea of coming together in defense of their own mutual interests without the need for an external “balancing agent” or “hegemon”. They are, in other words, becoming the proper guardians of their own geopolitical virtue, much as Bismarck was.

I still believe standing by for all this to happen somehow on its own in the absence of viable transnational institutions to be a very risky, “too-clever-by-half” strategy for the United States, if it does rise to the level of a strategy. But whether it does or does not, let’s hope Bismarck was right about God having a special affection for the United States of America because diplomatic under-performance, otherwise known as ineptitude, rarely ends well for the performer.

[1] For a rare critique, see Paul Webster Hare, “Corroding Consensus‑building: How Self‑centered Public Diplomacy Is Damaging Diplomacy and What Can Be Done about It,” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (June 2020).

[2] I also discussed it earlier in “America’s Strategic Surrender,” Internationale Politik (Summer 2006).