Foreign Policy Blogs

Diplomacy's Role in Reasserting American Leadership

Former US Ambassador Chas Freeman addressed a conference of the University of Continuing Education Association last week.

Before retiring from the Foreign Service Freeman served at posts in nearly every continent and became a specialist in China. Notably, Freeman was Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, from 1989-1992. In 1993,94, he served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense. He currently serves as Chairman of the Board of Projects International, Inc., a Washington-based business development firm, and as President of the Middle East Policy Council.

Needless to say, the depth of Ambassador Freeman's foreign policy experience makes him an excellent source for an analysis of the potential that diplomacy holds as a tool to leverage the critical threats the US faces today. As one would expect, his diplomatic experiences has also made him a natural advocate for employing diplomacy over military force in the international realm. His remarks (published on Middle East Online) on the potential of diplomacy to solve conflicts are powerful ones, and they are worth citing here.

Overall, Freeman wants to see a stronger, more cooperative United States. He believes the only path to achieving that goal is through the use of diplomacy.

Freeman begins by citing the massive expenditures the US spends on its military budget. He comments: “Somehow, however, despite all the money we’ve spent, the debt we’ve accumulated, and the sacrifices patriotic Americans have made in distant foreign lands, our leaders tell us that we have never been so threatened. Given all the enemies we have been making recently, they may be right Massive military spending has, in fact, become an indispensable part of our political-economy”

Freeman emphasized the importance of involving diplomats from the outset: “Most of our leaders, in both major political parties, now espouse a reversal of the longstanding American view that coercion, especially through military means, is a last resort to be brought into play only when diplomacy , in the form of persuasion, diplomatic bargaining, alliance-building, and other measures short of war , has failed. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the sequence approved on both sides of the aisle was to shoot first, then send in the diplomats to mop up. Since this hasn't worked out too well, there is now a lot of talk about how to recruit more diplomats and buy more mops. That's probably a good idea, but it might be more effective and cheaper to involve the diplomats at the outset and avoid creating such a mess in the first place.”

He continued: “Sadly, theories of coercion and plans to use military means to impose our will on other nations have for some time squeezed out serious consideration of diplomacy as an alternative to the use of force. Diplomacy is more than saying “nice doggie,” till you can find a rock. Weapons are tools to change men's minds but they are far from the only means of doing so The weapons of diplomats are words and their power is their persuasiveness. Talk is cheaper than firepower and does less collateral damage, so it makes sense to try it before blazing away at the adversary.”

On the supremely unequal funding of the country's military and diplomatic services, Freeman commented: “You get what you pay for. In this case, that's a superbly professional and supremely lethal military and an anemically staffed and undertrained diplomatic service led by inexperienced political appointees on sabbatical from high incomes It is a truism that skilled work requires skilled workmen. Americans are now without peer in the military arts. To prevail against our current enemies, we must attain equal excellence in diplomacy.”

He concludes by offering some sage advice to his audience, the next President and the American people: “We cannot hope to appeal to the conscience of humankind if we do not continue to embody its aspirations. If we do not restore our country's good name, others will not follow when we lead or share the burdens we take up. To regain the cooperation of allies and friends, we must rediscover how to listen, how to persuade, how to be a team player, and how to follow the rules we demand others follow A return to diplomacy, not threats and the use of force, is the surest path to the reassertion of American leadership. It is time to rediscover and explore that path.”

Sage advice indeed.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.