Remember Statecraft?

What diplomacy can do and why we need it more than ever

General Assembly, United Nations Headquarters (Photo by Luke Redmond)
General Assembly, United Nations Headquarters (Photo by Luke Redmond)


With strategic setbacks dwarfing successes and America’s standing in the world diminished, it is no surprise that the Bush foreign policy receives withering criticism. But too often the critiques are as simple-minded and misplaced as the policy itself. We face problems not because the Bush administration is too unilateral, for example. The Bush approach has been more multilateral than most critics admit. Nor do our problems stem excessively from the president’s penchant to think big or to have bold ideas. Nothing is wrong with being ambitious in foreign policy. Every American president since the end of World War II has defined our international purposes in grandiose terms. (Certainly the Marshall Plan was an ambitious effort to rebuild Europe and save democracy there.) Such grand purposes fit our self-image and the belief that we are, in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the “indispensable nation.”

But there is something profoundly wrong when our objectives (for instance, promoting democracy through regime change) are disconnected from the means we possess or can mobilize; when our understanding of the world is askew (as in Iraq) because our assessments are driven by ideology and not by reality; when our purposes are questioned because too often we are seen by others, including allies, as creating more insecurity than security (an example is the Middle East); when we are missing in action in cases where sustained U.S. mediation might ameliorate regional conflicts (Israeli-Palestinian) and improve the perception of America’s intentions in the process; or when our word or our threats count for little with friends and adversaries alike. It is in these areas that the Bush administration so often fails. Statecraft depends on seeing the world as it is, not as one wishes it might be. Good statecraft takes an unacceptable reality and transforms it; identifies the things that are important and frames objectives and purposes in a way that others can accept; employs extensive communication channels to build understanding and to reduce the possibility for misperceptions; and uses all available assets to promote national interests and to counter real and potential threats. Tangible or intangible, our own assets flow from the nation’s economic vitality and wealth, military power, diplomatic wherewithal, advanced technology, informational advantages, organizational talents, the appeal of our culture, and our potential for leverage.

Timing is to statecraft as location is to real estate. Because openings never last long on the international horizon, they must be recognized and seized before they are lost. Unfortunately, the Bush administration always seems to be a day late and a dollar short. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. When Yasser Arafat died and Abu Mazen won election as his successor on a platform of nonviolence—unprecedented for a Palestinian leader—we needed to act with urgency to demonstrate that Abu Mazen’s way worked. Similarly, when Ariel Sharon made the courageous decision to withdraw completely from Gaza, we needed to make sure that life got better in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. In other words, the Israeli departure should not have been the equivalent of throwing the keys over the fence and hoping for the best. Or when Saudi Arabia acted completely out of character and criticized Hezbollah last summer at the outset of the war with Israel, we should have seen the opening and immediately acted to mediate among the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Lebanese government to produce an Arab plan for ending Hezbollah’s status as a state within a state. We had a few days during the first week of the conflict to produce such an outcome while Hezbollah was on the defensive for provoking the war and before the Israeli bombing turned from being a lever into a liability.

In each case, the Bush administration missed the boat; its involvement was limited and hesitant, its actions more rhetorical than practical and never intensive. It treated these developments as if they were merely interesting, not historic. The impulse to get by on the cheap—whether militarily, economically, or diplomatically—has also bedeviled the administration’s most profound successes: removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Why the big ideas and the hesitant or limited means employed? Why the inability to intervene at strategic moments or to follow through?

In effective statecraft, objectives and means and effort (and the understanding of how to use leverage and persuade others) are all in sync. Past administrations, including Republican ones, have established ambitious objectives and achieved them. The George H. W. Bush administration did precisely that on German unification and the Persian Gulf War. Indeed, in both cases, skeptics thought the United States was overreaching. The administration’s leaders, however, proved that, with the skillful application of statecraft, ambitious objectives could be married to means and fulfilled.

Few in the State Department or the pundit class in Washington thought that a unified Germany could remain a member of NATO. It was too hard for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to swallow and too unsettling for our allies like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President François Mitterrand of France. And yet it happened, driven by the political leadership of the administration, not by the career specialists in the national security bureaucracy. Unlike the senior Foreign Service officers in the State Department and senior intelligence officials in the cia, President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and their trusted advisers, including Robert Zoellick and Robert Blackwell, saw a historic moment.

They anticipated serious changes, were determined to be on the right side when the changes happened, and moved to frame how the world should respond. The two Germanys would unify, they believed, and both should be treated alike and become embedded in Western institutions. From the outset Bush and those immediately around him were convinced that a unified Germany must be fully integrated into NATO instead of being an object of competition between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Put in a position of being tied to neither, it might seek security with an independent nuclear capability.

But the obstacles to achieving German unification in NATO were formidable. For Gorbachev and the Soviets, a unified Germany conjured up images of Soviet suffering at the hands of the Germans in World War II, a period that remained a central part of the Soviet narrative. Worse, achieving unification in NATO could only be seen as a colossal loss for Gorbachev. There had been two Germanys and two alliances, now there would be one, and NATO, still arrayed against the Soviet Union, would be the obvious winner. For the British and the French, old memories might have receded but had not disappeared. A unified Germany dominating Europe remained a real concern. Thatcher told Bush she worried that “the Germans will get in peace what Hitler couldn’t get in war.”

The administration was aware of the obstacles but also understood how to conduct statecraft effectively, and it acted before others. It moved, after the Berlin Wall came down, to frame the objective by having Secretary Baker publicly outline several guiding principles:

• Unification must be achieved peacefully.
• It should emerge in a context of an increasingly integrated Europe.
• Germany should preserve its commitment to NATO
• The process leading to unification should take into account the legal role and responsibilities of the four powers (United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union).

The principles were announced on the eve of the first Bush-Gorbachev summit at a time when Gorbachev’s stake in a successful meeting was high and his interest in critiquing the American approach was low. Bush turned Baker’s four principles into a mantra, and Baker gave a speech in Europe that offered a new political and security architecture for Europe in a new era.

In other words, a very active public diplomacy designed to reach out to the people in European countries shaped how the world should see the issue. But there was also an extraordinary level of private diplomacy. Bush was constantly on the phone with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Thatcher, and Mitterrand, and at critical moments with Gorbachev as well. Baker met with Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Shevardnadze every other week to deal with the entire range of bilateral issues. The meetings served to place German unification in a context, and when the two met in Moscow, Baker also had discussions with Gorbachev.


The discussions with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were serious exchanges that permitted the Soviet leaders to explain their fears, objectively and subjectively, about German unification in NATO as well as the practical and political problems unification would pose for the Soviet Union. The Bush administration made it possible to come up with the means for addressing Gorbachev’s political need to show that the outcome was not being imposed on the Soviet Union. That is why the 2+4 process (the two Germanys plus the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France) was devised for managing the approach to unification: it permitted Gorbachev to demonstrate that Moscow was shaping how unification would be implemented.

The discussions also helped Bush and Baker orchestrate a draft for a new NATO doctrine that was timed to coincide with the Soviet Party Congress, a pivotal political moment for Gorbachev. The NATO summit declaration overhauled military doctrine and structures in order to demonstrate that NATO no longer defined the ussr as an enemy. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had conveyed that this was necessary.

Finally, the discussions made it possible to mobilize financial assistance, especially from the Germans, which Gorbachev desperately needed to effect perestroika, or restructuring. Baker’s meetings with Shevardnadze, Gorbachev, or both were always preceded or followed by bilateral coordinating meetings with his British, French, and German counterparts. Making sure we were on the same page as the Germans was a constant preoccupation, but it paid dividends in the eventual under??standing that was worked out with the Soviets. Apart from managing the timing and scope of the Federal Republic’s financial assistance to the Soviets, Kohl also agreed as part of our common approach to Gorbachev to accept ceilings for German conventional forces, well before the conventional arms reductions talks in Europe were finalized.

The point is that little was left to chance. As the occasion required, the secretary of state was constantly traveling, meeting, coordinating, assuring, clarifying, and pressuring. The president reinforced the secretary’s moves, and at important moments—with Kohl and Gorbachev, in particular —Bush’s personal touch was essential. In the end, a goal many thought impossible was achieved, and in a way that signaled a new era.

The first Bush administration responded in much the same way to Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Once again, the administration quickly framed the issue. It moved to adopt a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iraq on the day of the invasion. The next day, Baker traveled to Moscow to issue a joint statement with Shevardnadze calling for Iraq to withdraw and laying out what was required in a new era. Since the Soviet Union was Iraq’s main patron, arms supplier, and longtime ally, this was no small step. It put the Iraqis on notice that they would not be protected by the Soviets and ensured that Arab countries and the nonaligned, who might have chosen to stay on the fence if there were superpower division, had nowhere to hide. It also ensured that France—with its large commercial investments in Iraq as well as its arms trade with Iraq—would also have to stake out a tough response to the invasion. After all, France could not be softer than the Soviets.

The joint statement was not a given. Shevardnadze explained why it was difficult for the Soviets to adopt the statement but also why they felt it necessary: “Let me tell you that it was a rather difficult decision for us . . . because of the long-standing relations that we have with Iraq. But despite all this . . . we are forced to take these steps . . . because . . . this aggression is inconsistent with the principles of new thinking and, in fact, with civilized relations between nations.”

When Bush declared four days after the invasion that Iraq’s absorption of Kuwait would not stand, the objective was very clear. We would force Iraq out of Kuwait and not just contain it. This meant from early on that even though the administration would go through a sequence of steps—political condemnation, impo?sition of sanctions, and then coercion—the use of force would probably prove necessary.

Putting together the coalition was one thing. Sustaining it was another. Action at the United Nations was designed to ratchet up the pressure, and each phase required a major effort. Once again the president was fully engaged, meeting with and talking to other leaders. The White House staff referred to Bush as “the mad dialer.” He made close to 60 phone calls just to Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal in the months after the invasion. Baker traveled continually, from August after the invasion to January on the very eve of the war, and each trip typically involved going to the Middle East to see the Saudis, Egyptians, and Syrians, to Moscow to see the Soviet leaders, and then to Europe. After the first meeting in Moscow on the day after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Baker returned to Washington to see the president and then flew to Turkey to make sure the Turks would cut the Iraqi oil pipeline and provide us with a place to base forces if we needed it.

Baker’s efforts were similar to those he had made on German unification, but now they were on a much wider scale. His trips were intended to persuade the countries in the coalition that the effort was necessary; to facilitate their ability to impose sanctions by engaging in a “tin-cup” exercise to finance the sacrifices that countries like Turkey and Egypt had to make, given their economic ties to Iraq; and, when sanctions failed to change Iraqi behavior, to produce support for an “all necessary means” resolution at the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force.

Baker’s last trip to line up the votes for the resolution took him to three continents and 12 countries in 18 days. All this public travel demonstrated that we cared about the views of others; more important, it gave the leaders of the countries that he was visiting a public platform to explain in their terms what they were doing so that it wouldn’t appear as if they were being pressured to act against their interests. Indeed, while Baker pressured and cajoled in private, in public he would state only that he was visiting to consult on how best to proceed. Bush’s mad dialing tended to cement personal relations in a way that also demonstrated our concern for the needs of others. When Özal spoke about his friend George Bush, the friendship was believed; he could overcome political hesitancy in his country. In contrast, the Turkish parliament’s vote on a measure to back the current administration’s request for military support in 2003 lost by three votes out of more than 500 cast. What might the result have been had there been anything like the effort the U.S. made in 1991 with Turkey—three secretary of state visits and those presidential phone calls?

Statecraft is not simply making phone calls or visits. Each contact has to have a clear objective—for instance, to move the base line forward or to undo or anticipate a problem that otherwise might become insurmountable. Each contact must reflect an understanding of how to shape objectives and public perceptions of them and must serve a strategy timed to fit either needs or opportunities. Diplomats then must act on the understandings that emerge. Failing to follow through not only means missed opportunities, it almost certainly creates setbacks.

Unfortunately, in Iraq today we see a textbook case of how not to do statecraft. Ambitious objectives were divorced from reality and from the means we were prepared to employ to pursue them. There was little readiness to solicit the views of others or to adjust our behavior to gain their support. We failed to frame objectives consistently—was Iraq about weapons of mass destruction or regime change? Finally, because the administration had no idea what it was getting into, we failed to plan seriously for the aftermath.

The current Bush administration has been consistently weak in executing policy even beyond Iraq. Every administration develops its own routines for making decisions and then acting and its own way of doing business with others. This administration has not dealt with friends or adversaries through negotiation. Instead, because it has been certain that it knows what is right, it has defined its role as educating others or telling them what is necessary. As a former negotiator, I am very familiar with educating others about how to adjust to reality. That is one of a negotiator’s or mediator’s main tasks. But how you go about it has a lot to do with your success. The more you can show an appreciation of why someone else believes what they do, the better chance you have to be persuasive. Of course, it helps to have leverage and to know how to use it.

Are there signs that the Bush administration is now beginning to conduct statecraft more effectively? The North Korean deal, depending on whether it actually gets implemented, would be one sign. Although the same deal was probably achievable four years ago—before North Korea reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods, developed enough fissile material to go from having the capacity for one or two weapons to as many 10, and conducted a nuclear test—it is better to act now than not at all. And the use of financial pressures on the Kim Jong Il regime, the readiness to use inducements, including being prepared to put on the table a peace treaty for the Korean peninsula, and the collaboration with China are all signs of statecraft done better. It helps to have an adversary like Kim Jong Il who clearly miscalculated the effect on China of carrying out a nuclear test. But good statecraft exploits openings when they exist.

Is statecraft being better employed with regard to Iran? Here I am less confident. On the one hand, the effort to isolate the country diplomatically and put pressures on it through the UN Security Council has been proceeding at a very deliberate pace. Statecraft done well requires patience but also an understanding of when urgency is needed. At this point, the Iran case needs greater urgency. We face two current realities. First, there are signs of increasing dissonance in the Iranian elite as a result of the very limited sanctions imposed by the Security Council on the Iranian nuclear and missile programs. While everyone in the elite favors having nuclear weapons, not all believe they should be pursued at any price. The mullahs and the liberals in the elite are most acutely aware of how economic isolation will affect domestic social tranquility. They know that Iran’s high unemployment, high inflation, plummeting stock market, declining oil production, and increasingly less affordable subsidies constitute a combustible mixture. So they have become more openly critical of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his confrontational policies on the nuclear issue that have produced the limited sanctions. Even the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, seems to be showing signs of dissatisfaction—at least as measured by commentaries in newspapers and the media about Ahmadinejad’s decision simply to release the British sailors seized by the Revolutionary Guard and not seek to get anything for doing so.

That is the good news. But the second reality is of an unabated Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in May that Iran has more than 1,300 centrifuges and may have 3,000 operating in June. With 3,000, the Iranians could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in nine months.

In other words, while the dissonance in the elite shows the potential for changing Iranian behavior, it has yet to produce it. We must find a way of acting on Iranian economic vulnerabilities more decisively and quickly. If our objectives are that Iran not become a nuclear-weapons state and that we (or the Israelis) not employ force as the means of preventing it, we don’t have the luxury of working at an incremental pace. Since the Israelis are unlikely to believe that they can live with a nuclear Iran—in no small part because of Iran’s denial of their legitimacy and call for their elimination—we need to use our leverage on friend and foe alike.


By this I mean the Europeans and the Saudis, among others, who see the dangers of Iran going nuclear but fear the use of force against Iran more than they fear its going nuclear. Both have the means to exert far greater economic pressure on the Iranians.

Now is the time to get the Europeans and others to agree on how they will increase pressures that the Iranians will feel, particularly by denying access to international banks and credit guarantees. One way to do this is to tell Europeans, who believe that the United States must engage the Iranians directly at some point, that we will do so, provided they tighten the economic screws now. The tradeoff is increased pressure to concentrate the minds of those in the Iranian elite who are sensitive to the costs of isolation; in return, the Europeans get the promise of direct U.S. engagement with the Iranians. With that possibility as leverage, the Iranians are then offered not just a lifting of the sanctions and economic pressures but also inducements on civil nuclear power, technology transfer, improved relations, and security assurances. The administration’s willingness, though belated, to take part in a regional conference on Iraq creates the umbrella for American engagement. Let’s hope we use it not just to talk to Iran but also to get the Europeans, Japanese, and Saudis to take the steps now that could make such an engagement effective.

Because statecraft starts with understanding reality and shaping objectives that fit it, I doubt the effectiveness of the administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believes now is the time to go for an understanding on the principles of a permanent status agreement—or, in her terms, a political horizon for how the conflict ends. At a time when the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are politically weak or divided, there is a problem with such an objective. Weak leaders cannot embrace existential compromises—the kind that go to the heart of self-definition and identity. And that is precisely what an agreement on a political horizon would require.

Can Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen accept that there will be no right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel? Can Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert concede on Jerusalem and accept that the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state? The former will lead to charges that Abu Mazen is a betrayer, and not only from Hamas. The latter will probably bring down Olmert’s (or a successor’s) government.

That said, pursuing what Rice wants could still be possible. But only if the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, and other Arab leaders are prepared to create both a political cover for Abu Mazen and a political argument for Olmert or his successor. It is easy to say, but not so easy to produce. Even if Arab leaders are convinced that the threat from Iran is so great that they must remove the Palestinian grievance and no longer allow Iran to exploit it, there is little or no indication at this point that they are ready to get out in front of the Palestinians and Israelis.

Rice should test this, and she should shuttle in the area. She should explore hypothetical possibilities and see whether she can get each side to put something in her pocket based on what others might do. But if it turns out that a political horizon is not possible now, she should redefine her objective and gear it toward producing a negotiated cease-fire that is comprehensive. Palestinians would cease all attacks against Israelis and all smuggling of weapons, and they would dismantle bomb-making labs; Israelis would stop incursions, targeted killings, and making arrests.

Whether pursuing the more ambitious objective of a political horizon or the more practical one of a comprehensive cease-fire, Rice will need to practice real statecraft. Being clear on the objective, recognizing who can play a role, and working intensely and personally on the problem will be necessary. High-profile trips—even those that take place once a month—mean little if they are not tied to specific benchmarks or outcomes. Not only must there be preparation for the trips, there must be constant work in the interim and afterward.

The world won’t stand still until 2009 and the end of the Bush era, so the administration should be encouraged to build on its increasing instinct toward statecraft. Too often it has lectured others, not tried to persuade them. Too often it has thought the essence of diplomacy is simply to give a speech and expect others to respond. Now it needs to focus on upgrading its tools—diplomacy, economic leverage, intelligence, information, and military strength—and using them more imaginatively and far more intensively.

As for the next administration, those who hope to serve in it ought to be thinking about basic questions for our foreign policy. They might ask the following: What should our international role be? How will we define our purposes after the Bush administration ends, and where will they be similar and where will they differ? How can we become more identified with what are seen as broad internationally accepted goals (mediating and defusing conflicts, producing a credible response to global warming, investing more in tackling global poverty and health crises) as a way of transforming America’s image abroad and restoring our standing? How can a new administration be organized to take better advantage of all our means (public and private) to deal with issues like poverty and pandemics? And, is it time to develop new international and multilateral mechanisms for responding to the challenge of failed or failing states?

I raise these questions not to avoid the more specific challenges of Iraq or the burgeoning power of China on the world stage. I raise them because they go to the heart of what we will need to consider as we try to improve statecraft in the next administration. Statecraft tells us what our foreign policy should be as well as how, and by what means, we should conduct it.

We don’t need to forsake our international ambitions. But as we have learned from the last several years, our ambitions must be informed by reality. They must be tempered by our means. They must be harnessed to a strategy. And they must be implemented by integrating all the resources we either possess or can elicit.

We can redeem our foreign policy and our place in the world. But if we are to do so, statecraft must no longer be a lost art. It is time to rediscover it.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Dennis Ross served as President Clinton's chief negotiator to the Arabs and Israelis from 1993 to 2000. He was head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during the George H. W. Bush administration and served on the National Security Council staff and in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration. This essay is adapted from his new book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up