Why Don't We Talk Anymore?

A disgruntled U.S. diplomat on how to restore our standing in the world

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EDITOR'S NOTE: In February 2003, a month after the war in Iraq began, John Brady Kiesling, then a 46-year-old career diplomat, left his post as political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Greece. In his resignation letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, he explained that 'until this administration it had been possible to believe that by upholding the policies of my president I was also upholding the interests of the American people and the world. I believe it no longer. The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests.' The United States, he concluded, had 'begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.' As the Nation reported in its December 25, 2006, issue, Kiesling's letter turned him into an antiwar celebrity and earned him a note of praise from Bill Clinton. In 2006 the former Foreign Service officer published Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower (Potomac Books). He penned the following story for Utne Reader in January.

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The U.S. State Department rewards Foreign Service officers and their spouses with the parting gift of a retirement seminar. I was in no position to accept such a gift when I resigned in 2003, but colleagues tell me the class is excellent. After a career spent overseas, it seems, a few weeks of gentle reprogramming can make for a better fit back home.

These should be great days for U.S. diplomacy. President Bush's friend and confidante Condoleezza Rice is, as secretary of state, the nation's diplomat in chief. The Pentagon, the State Department's bloated archrival, is mired up to the eyebrows in Iraq. Opinion pollsters confirm that the American people approve of the idea of talking to foreigners. And lately the president has taken to repeating the word diplomacy up to 11 times in a press conference. Yet the 2006 Foreign Service retirement seminar was the largest in history.

Some 6,000 U.S. Foreign Service officers (FSOs) serve overseas. They work alongside an equally large army of international development specialists from the United States Agency for International Development, military attach?s from the uniformed services, trade promotion experts from the Department of Commerce, and intelligence officers and law enforcement agents from agencies such as the CIA and the FBI, as well as thousands of administrative and technical specialists. Within the blast-proof walls of U.S. embassies and consulates, most of these civil servants push paper and attend meetings, just like their colleagues back in Washington. Massive local administrative structures insulate them from relations with their host countries. They speak the local language with their maids, but they shop at American commissaries, worship at American churches, educate their children at American schools, and socialize with one another. In other words, they carry black diplomatic passports -- but that does not make them diplomats.

Diplomacy is not a matter of job title. Perhaps a thousand people, many but not all of them State Department employees, are the real U.S. diplomats, the men and women whose vocation it is to listen intently to strangers so their fellow citizens will never have to.

Over thousands of years, diplomats, by effectively navigating cultural, linguistic, and ethnic barriers, have brokered hostage exchanges, cease-fires, and peace agreements. They are a rare breed with a rarefied, often misunderstood set of skills -- and we need them now, perhaps more than ever.

My introduction to the Foreign Service was typically atypical. In 1980 I was a 22-year-old student at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens who had never met a diplomat or exhibited the slightest curiosity about what such a person might do. Then a college friend from Swarthmore came to visit. I showed her the Aegean island of Delos (and wooed her unsuccessfully). She let me follow her to Bucharest, where her father, Clint, was the economic counselor of the U.S. Embassy.

While Bucharest under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was a Balkan nightmare, I was delighted to discover that gentle, thoughtful Americans like Clint were quietly steering U.S. national interests through the deadly shoals of the region's Cold War power politics. Protecting U.S. interests meant building a network of personal relationships with the people who mattered. Clint spoke to Romanians in their own language, and they told him what he needed to know.

I had always envied people who could talk easily to strangers. I grew up in Silicon Valley surrounded by other shy people. Archaeology coaxed me from the library. Digging in Spain and Greece, I discovered a delightful phenomenon: Foreign visitors are lovingly shielded from the bruising social competition around them. Uttering a reasonable number of polite phrases in the local language, the traveler will be rewarded with extravagant approval. Kudos is an addictive drug, and after meeting Clint I learned that diplomats are all but guaranteed a regular supply. And unlike archaeologists, they get paid a living wage for the pleasure.

When I returned to the United States in 1980 to study ancient history at Berkeley, I signed up for the Foreign Service exam. I passed the written portion easily, the oral test on the second attempt. In April of 1983, security and medical clearances at last in hand, my new spouse and I drove her aging Beetle to Arlington, Virginia, home of the Foreign Service Institute. Three months later I was sitting behind the passport/notarial counter of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, learning to talk to strangers.

Silicon Valley rationalism fortified by ancient Greek is an admirable education for a philosopher-king. It did not, however, help a green vice consul recognize that a tourist visa applicant actually aspired to a minimarket in Brooklyn. Logical exposition failed to convince a depressed tourist from New Jersey not to venture a second suicide attempt. Humanitarianism wilted at the clammy handshake of a convicted rapist. (I brought him back issues of the New Yorker, but I did not pursue his release from Israeli prison.) I consoled myself that these inadequate people skills of mine would not be a problem once I moved out of the consular section to my real job as a political officer.

After two years in Israel I moved on to Casablanca. My Moroccan interlocutors were hesitant to confide the details of their jobs and lives to a stranger with a heavy accent. My first six months at the consulate general were predictably wretched. I learned nothing of any consequence. Wretchedness is a good teacher, though, and gradually something happened. When Ahmed, the impoverished student cramming under my streetlight, confided colorful details about Islamist movements at his university, when Mohammed the biologist discoursed on overexploitation of fish stocks, and when a royal third cousin gossiped about companies controlled by His Sherifian Majesty, it was not because my French accent had improved (though it had), but because I was no longer a stranger.

Diplomats must persuade non-English-speaking politicians to take the risk of telling us what we need to know rather than what we want to hear. The difficulty is greater when one is representing a superpower at least half those politicians' voters firmly detest. Alcohol-lubricated chitchat at receptions is useful in this regard; sweetening relationships with lunches, expedited visas, and semisecret gossip is par for the course. Our perceived character and the prestige of our country, though, are our most important assets.

I had emerged from my one international relations course at Swarthmore with a B-minus and a hazy idea of 'rational actors' selfishly pursuing specific 'national interests.' George W. Bush must have taken a similar class at Yale. On that basis, encouraged by dire and incorrect secret intelligence, he concluded that Saddam Hussein had to be overthrown by military might and that Kim Jong Il and a growing list of other foreign leaders are madmen who cannot be contained by diplomacy.

It's true that the behavior of foreigners, even when it is described accurately, seldom coincides with Washington's notion of rational self-interest. Still, no madmen resided in the government offices I haunted. The bureaucrats and politicians were at least as rational as I was. The logic they employed was grimy, but it made perfect sense once you looked at the problems that they needed to solve.

When Greece and Turkey, two parliamentary democracies and NATO allies, almost went to war in 1996 over the Aegean rocks of Imia/Kardak, for instance, it was not for 'rational' reasons -- to gain seasonal grazing rights for a dozen goats or to extend their overfished territorial waters by a few square kilometers. Similarly, when various U.S. presidents have implied that they would defend Taiwan even at the cost of an exchange of nuclear missiles with China, it was not because they made a rational calculation that Taiwanese democracy was worth 50 million American deaths. In each case the rational calculation was on matters much closer to home.

'States' and 'nations' are useful concepts as conversational shorthand, but they don't think or act or have interests. They don't make decisions or carry them out. Only human beings do. And real people in real life are completely engrossed in a million-year-old competition for food, for mates, and, most compellingly, for their standing in the social hierarchy surrounding them.

The preoccupation of leaders everywhere, whether they are elected Jeffersonian democrats or blood-drenched military despots, is to appear legitimate to their followers. Ideally, good governance would be enough. In practice, however, American politicians shrink from hard but necessary challenges like reforming health care and reducing greenhouse gases because any decision would destroy their standing with some key constituency. Many foreign leaders are even less brave, because a loss of legitimacy could be fatal. The gridlock Americans detest in their own Congress is a fact of life in every political system on the planet.

To break this gridlock, politicians shamelessly exploit every source of legitimacy we social primates have evolved: heredity, territoriality, religion, and the instinct to rally around leaders who prove their will to resist predators. Human moral instincts are strong and unforgiving, so politicians edit the world to exploit them. They recast the struggle for ownership of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a holy war between good and evil. An ominous phrase -- 'international communism,' 'weapons of mass destruction,' 'Islamo-fascism' -- becomes an implacable foe. By branding a tribal thug named Saddam Hussein as Adolf Hitler and then toppling him, President Bush basked in the heartfelt applause of millions of Americans and earned himself a second term in office.

It's completely natural for the leader of a superpower to indulge the temptation to re-arrange the world as a dramatic backdrop for domestic politics. Every successful politician in the world does the same. Only a superpower, however, has the military and diplomatic muscle to make the real world resemble its illusions -- at least for a few weeks. As President Bush posed for the television cameras under the 'Mission Accomplished' banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln six weeks after Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, Iraq was already going up in flames again. The limits of U.S. power were about to become brutally clear.

From 1988 to 1992, I was in Athens as one of five officers in the political section. I was responsible for the embassy's relationships with opposition political parties, human rights, and Greece's relations with its Balkan neighbors. My classical education gave me decent Greek, I was insatiably curious about the country, and I appreciated George H.W. Bush's upper-class reluctance to squander the capital he and his diplomats had accumulated.

Desert Storm in 1991 was a diplomatic triumph. By wrapping the U.S. military in international law and the United Nations, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker persuaded America's friends to pick up most of the cost of the war. As they leveraged America's relationships, I exulted in my tiny role convincing skeptical Greek opposition journalists and politicians of the legitimacy of our intervention. By freeing Kuwait but stopping short of Baghdad, we guaranteed there would be no Muslim (or Greek) backlash to this terrifying demonstration of military might.

I did not enjoy returning to the State Department as Romania desk officer in 1992. Bill Clinton's diplomatic instincts were sound, and he had charisma Bush the elder lacked, but convincing Congress and bureaucratic rivals of the wisdom of State Department policy regarding Romania required a discipline and ruthlessness I did not possess. My posting to Yerevan in 1997 as political and economic counselor via a year of Armenian language training came as a welcome relief.

I returned to Athens in 2000 as a political counselor. George W. Bush took office in 2001 without his father's noblesse oblige and with a strong desire to repudiate the work of the Clinton administration. Bush the younger used America's wealth and power to flatter the narcissism and paranoia of his backers. One of his first official acts was to denounce the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases. Allegedly it would hurt the U.S. economy. He could not kill the new Rome Statute, which established a permanent international court to punish war crimes, but he ordered the State Department to extort bilateral agreements that would exempt future American war criminals from its jurisdiction. He canceled negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear programs and refused to take over Clinton's active role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I dutifully took out my well-stocked Rolodex of Greek officials, journalists, politicians, and academics and gave them the bad news as gently and persuasively as I could. The Greeks who heard me out on the International Criminal Court were bitter and contemptuous. Privately, so was I. The president was pouring America's hard-earned reputation down the toilet by announcing to the world that America was now the enemy rather than the defender of international law.

America's determination to invade Iraq hit the Greek headlines in September 2002. My duty over the next six months would be to convince the Greeks that their moral and practical instincts were irrelevant. I was armed with the 'Axis of Evil,' a fatuous slogan conveying racist ignorance of the Middle East, but not with evidence of Iraqi threats that would pass muster with Greek experts.

Even if our weasel words about Saddam and his arsenal stood up for a few months, U.S. diplomats would no longer be able to use their superior knowledge of the world as an argument for others to follow America's lead. Meanwhile, Greeks had become angry enough to lose their customary politeness to foreigners.

Professional self-esteem and personal comfort are a trivial sacrifice on the altar of freedom. I knew from my experiences in Armenia, however, that the government I represented had no secret formula for remaking even the friendliest of tribal kleptocracies in its own image. Twenty years of talking to foreigners made me certain that Iraq would be a disaster for U.S. national interests. Such knowledge creates an ugly moral dilemma.

Diplomacy, I concluded, had ceased to be an honorable or even a useful profession. Washington was not prepared to hear the sober warnings it is a diplomat's duty to send home. Anger roused me from months of depression. Disappointed idealism made me resolute. On February 25, 2003, I sent in my letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Effective diplomacy is based on the grim, humble understanding of the role Americans play in foreigners' internal political competition. Anyone can make an appointment with an official in the Armenian Foreign Ministry and read with appropriate solemnity a set of talking points drafted by a political appointee in Washington. A reasonable number of FSOs can set aside their nationalist blinders to predict how such points might resonate within Armenian local politics. Only the rare diplomats, however, know how to persuade the right Armenian to tell us honestly how much our policy will cost if we insist on it. (No foreign diplomat dared tell President Bush the true costs and benefits to the United States from invading Iraq, after all.)

The bloody horrors of World War II produced a generation of tough-minded realists. They recognized that hundreds of morbid nationalisms like Iraq's could be kept in check only through expanding the reach of international law and enforcing it with the power of the United States and its allies under the U.N. flag. As a global economic power, the United States stood to be the chief beneficiary of such a system. But only by binding itself to international law would it earn the right to demand that others do so as well.

Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet empire and failed. Suddenly free as a result, Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians were desperate for security and prosperity. Membership in NATO and the European Union would give them both. The United States was supportive but insisted that these countries adopt genuinely democratic rules of political and economic competition. Even leaders with no democratic history, like Romania's ex-communist Ion Iliescu, put the interests of their people first. (On the darker side, Secretary Rice's refusal to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution helped lock Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert into his doomed 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the consequent rise of Hezbollah. Refusal to anger domestic supporters of Israel was in practice an ugly betrayal of an important friendship.)

The United States has enormous potential power for good in the world, such as the power to promote human rights; even its junior diplomats are occasionally allowed to exert this power. The fact that this sort of influence can be wielded most effectively within the constraints of international law offers diplomats a substantial advantage over their rivals in the Pentagon and the CIA. So why are so many diplomats leaving the profession prematurely?

As their counterparts struggled in Vietnam a generation ago, hundreds of young FSOs are struggling now against implacable human nature to rebuild failed states in Iraq and Afghanistan. They face physical danger and the hardship of separation from spouses and children. They can easily make personal sacrifices for 12 months, the standard time in these 'ultra hardship' assignments. What is harder to bear is the knowledge that their sacrifice will not save the Iraqi people. America's Iraq gamble was doomed before the State Department ever reached the Green Zone.

Still, as they struggle to learn diplomacy in an environment that makes personal relationships with Iraqis impossibly dangerous, FSOs are acquiring the diplomatic skepticism and humility that will protect American interests over the next 30 years -- assuming, of course, that the State Department is able to hold on to them.

More than its predecessors, this administration makes appointments on the basis of loyalty to the president. Loyalty is judged by willingness to describe the world in the same terms the administration uses. Terms like 'War on Terror' and 'Axis of Evil' were invented for domestic political purposes. Parroting them to incredulous foreigners runs counter to U.S. national interests. By making political oversight of overseas diplomats less immediate and draconian, by tolerating a more humane, accurate vocabulary in the real world, we could eliminate the need for FSOs to choose between devotion to country and devotion to career.

Secretary Rice volunteered the State Department as the president's instrument of 'transformational diplomacy.' This is a majestic challenge. Rice failed, however, to fight for the necessary tools: restored commitment to the rule of law; acceptance of democratic outcomes we dislike, such as the electoral victory of the Hamas party in Palestine; and nonpoliticized use of foreign assistance. Rice has not convinced the White House that effective U.S. diplomacy, whether it involves AIDS prevention, environmental protection, or counterterrorism, is worth the cost of irritating domestic constituencies. Her diplomacy needs to begin at home.

The past six years have been a setback for the State Department, but an educational one. The Bush administration paid a political cost in November for Americans' unhappiness with their poor international image. I suspect that the next president and secretary of state will recognize the need to persuade more U.S. diplomats to postpone their retirement seminar. Among the tasks facing them is to teach a new generation of shy students to represent their country effectively to the billions of politely inscrutable strangers around us.