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A Professional Diplomat, not ours

Perhaps the U.S. preference for military action and threats has to do with the poor quality of our diplomatic corps, including recent Secretary of States. A NYTimes story this morning profiling Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister highlights some of the qualities a good and successful diplomat should possess and deploy. These may not always make him/her an agreeable human being, but Lavrov seems to get the job done--in this case putting off U.S. military action.

"Mr. Lavrov has sought to force the United States into a conversation that the Kremlin hopes will set a precedent, establishing Russia’s role in world affairs based not on the dated cold war paradigm but rather on its own outlook, which favors state sovereignty and status quo stability over the spread of Western-style democracy."

Rather than the thrust and parry one should expect in diplomatic engagments, Lavrov seems to have annoyed his U.S. counterparts: "In many ways, Mr. Lavrov’s work over the next six days [leading to the framework agreement] represented the apex of a career largely spent trying to body-block what the Kremlin has long viewed as dangerous American unilateralism. It is a job he has done so effectively that it has earned him the nickname “Minister Nyet,” and senior American officials, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, have said they often found it infuriating to deal with him."

Somehow "infurating" doesn't seem like the right response.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Perhaps it was the lack of a compelling crisis as much as anything else, but in retrospect, one of the good things about Hillary Clinton's tenure was that she rarely seemed to be in the spotlight.  Apparently she was setting frequent-flyer-mile records, but managed to do it without speaking overmuch into the microphones or facing the cameras.  I really wish Secretary Kerry would follow her lead in that respect.  I am sure the State Department employs spokespersons who can feed tidbits to the media.  When it comes to difficult and delicate negotiations between powerful parties, I am of the school that believes there is an inverse relationship between public posturing and effectiveness.

I'm not sure why we would look to Russian foreign policy as a model. Putin has a dreadful record on human rights and supported Assad and his chemical weapons arsenal, which were used against all those innocent people. American diplomacy is leading, hopefully, to peacefully disarming that arsenal. Which is the better choice?

MOS:  With all due respect, your blog post borders on adolescent whinning.  What do you want?  What outcome will ever satiate you sensibilities?  I thought the road to Damascus always entailed some groping around in the darkness before sight is restored. 

Obviously, President Obama has been applying quiet, secret diplomacy to addressing the Syrian situation for well over a year.  It appears that all those trips that Hillary Clinton made to Moscow during her time at State have finally come to fruition.  John Kerry did not make a slip of the tongue when he suggested publicly that what was required to forestall an American attack is for Syria to surrender control over their chemical weapons.  That is the way international politics is played.   

As is apparent to anyone who is paying attention, President Obama has been saying for a long time that the only solution possible in Syria is concerted diplomacy coupled with the credible threat of force.  No matter how you may want to spin it, it was not until Obama put the military solution in gear that the Russians and Assad got religion and finally understood what was going to happen to Assad personally, and to Russian interests in Syria when Obama unleased the US military.

I will be one of the first to cheer when war and military force are no longer acceptable options, or even threats, for our international politics and national security interests.  Regrettably, the world collectively has yet to achieve that maturity.

How "infuriating" do you think it was for Israeli parents to have to make sure that their children packed their gas masks when they went off to school the last several weeks?  How "infuriating" do you think it was when Syrian parents came to claim the bodies of their children after they had been gased?  

Do you really think that being "infuriated" with Assad would have been sufficient deterrent for him to gasing more of his own people?  I don't think so.  The only thing a murderous thug like Assad understands is when drone missile has locked on to his house, filled with his family.  Sad, tragic, but  true.  Lavrov becoming infuriated is a small price to pay for peaceful solutions.

BTW:  Papa Francesco's response to call for public prayer vigils for peace, IMO, is really the best thing that the church could have done.  I believe, Francesco raised the peace consciousness of the entire world because nothing happens until it first crosses our minds.  As Pete Townsend once sang: 

But when you look back you must realize
That nothing in your life's divine
Everything that's ever befallen you
Happened simply 'cause it crossed your mind
You're crashing by design

Nothing can pass this line
Unless it is well defined
You just have to be resigned
You're crashing by design

We are getting what we vote for. The last three presidents -- count 'em in reverse order: Obama, W. Bush and Clinton -- had no, zero, nada foreign policy experience. They came from states -- Illinois, Texas and Arkansas -- that were safely far from the ocean breezes that make New Yorkers and Californians (ugh!) cosmopolitan. They were exactly as innocent as we like our presidents. Yee haw. (The Gulf of Mexico does, unfortunately, abut Texas, but Texas is so big that, Houston aside, it can ignore the Gulf).

The last two secretaries of state got their jobs through politics. The ones in the previous administration actually knew something about foreign affairs, but W. Bush wisely took his policy advice elsewhere, from a guy from Illinois and another guy who said he was from Wyoming but was really from Texas, as his daughter just found out. Midlands anyway.

Tom Blackburn: Diplomats are a kind of politician. Don't you think? But they are diplomats primarily. Our current and last Secretary of State are primarily politicians. They may have some diplomatic skills, but not enough to make really good diplomats. The burden of the Times article was that FM Lavrov of Russia has those skills and that he is a good, even excellent, diplomat, whatever anyone makes of the policies he's promoting. 

Tom Blackburn, I think you'd have a hard time finding many if any presidents with foreign policy experience, and I surely don't see any correlation between a president's experience before their election and their success in foreign policy as president.

Who was a good foreign policy president, e.g.?


But maybe it's the Secretaries of State that are the backbone of solid foreign policy making. And we've had some good ones. Here's the list since WWII. Who do you think qualifies as good? anyone great?

  1. Edward Reilly Stettinius (1944-1945)
  2. James Francis Byrnes (1945-1947)
  3. George Catlett Marshall (1947-1949)
  4. Dean Gooderham Acheson (1949-1953)
  5. John Foster Dulles (1953-1959)
  6. Christian Archibald Herter (1959-1961)
  7. David Dean Rusk (1961-1969)
  8. William Pierce Rogers (1969-1973)
  9. Henry A. (Heinz Alfred) Kissinger (1973-1977)
  10. Cyrus Roberts Vance (1977-1980)
  11. Edmund Sixtus Muskie (1980-1981)
  12. Alexander Meigs Haig (1981-1982)
  13. George Pratt Shultz (1982-1989)
  14. James Addison Baker (1989-1992)
  15. Lawrence Sidney Eagleburger (1992-1993)
  16. Warren Minor Christopher (1993-1997)
  17. Madeleine Korbel Albright (1997-2001)
  18. Colin Luther Powell (2001-2005)
  19. Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009)
  20. Hillary Rodham Clinton (2009-2013)


David, before Reagan, most presidents had been abroad and had passports if they lived in the passport era. Since Reagan, only Poppy Bush could find the departure lounge at an international airport. One can also learn a lot by being on the right committees in Congress, but one has to do it for more than three years -- or two in the case of the tea party's front runner of the moment.

You don't always get them like Theodore Roosevelt, who could translate from Italian and speak German, of course (so could Garfield, by the way, with the German). Or like Quincy Adams. But until 1980 it was a minority view in this country that ignorance of foreign lands and foreign people was bliss. Now it is an article of faith.

There is, I believe, an aspect to the reality of the events the author of this post and the NY Times article have chosen to ignore.  We now have in the White House a group of folks less prone to accept as either real or useful the utterly destructive fear-mongering nonsense so many of its previous inhabitants so often presented to the public as near gospel. 

As for the criteria useful if not essential in identifying a constructive diplomat, I believe it was Ben Franklin who started the journey praising the importance of common sense, hard work, learning and such.  However, once he made it near the top he found less time for those challenges and more for the charm of it all.  Seems our diplomats are mere mortals after all.

I believe Lyndon Johnson would have show little hestitation (in private) admitting he struggled with his native tongue but the man could get things done.  Good things.

ALL: I am struck by the defensive notes in these comments (as well as the offensive one from Jim Jenkins). Why? The Times profile was a straightforward assessment of a diplomat who, at least for the moment, has struck a deal that is good for his own country, good for the U.S., and we can all hope good for the Syrian people and their neighbors. Our diplomats (and the NYTimes) seem to be grateful that he took up the casual comment made by John Kerry.

I am grateful too (wo, let me assure you approving of Russia's human rights record, level of alcoholism, behavior of its gizzilionaires, etc.). I think our diplomatic corps is suffering from lack of resources (money), smart thinking at the top, and a certain unseemly level of egoism in our recent Secy. of States. Course correction needed, imho.

And to answer my own questions: I don't think there have been many great secretary of states, perhaps the last was George Marshall; Henry Kissinger must fit in somewhere; but good: James Baker and Madeleine Albright.



MOS:  Your list, and the lists of others, do not include perhaps the greatest Secretary of State ever:  Thomas Jefferson.  Not only was Jefferson a skilled diplomat in France during the Revolutionary War, the first Secretary of State in the Washington administration, but apparently had enough political acumen that he went on to be elected president in arguably the nastiest and closest election ever.  

And, let's not forget that Jefferson had the vision and forethought to conceive of a continental United States.  It was during Jefferson's administration that the Louisiana Purchase was negotiated.  Jefferson is the one who sent Lewis and Clark on the Corp of Discovery expedition.  In this single deft move, not only was Jefferson able to exclude and preclude any enduring European political influence in North America, but the US economy and population was able to expand and grow in probably the most richly endowed geography and landscape in the world.

Of course it always needs to be said, Jefferson missed the boat on the human rights of African Americans.

BTW:  I agree that Lavrov was instrumental, perhaps essential, in achieving whatever diplomatic solutions are possible for Syria.  However IMHO, Kerry did not make a "casual comment."  Kerry learned the art of diplomacy at his father's diplomatic knee as a child in Europe.  Kerry didn't survive war in the jungle, confront a hypocritical Congress as a young veteran, rise to the US Senate and Secretary of State without knowing how to execute a faint or gambit in political poker.  Both these diplomats should be credited for their skilled achievement.

Jim Pauwels posted this analysis below on "Real Winners." It's an interesting and helpful not about winners and losers, but mostly about the conundrum Obama finds himself in, and how diplomacy, Russia and U.S. resolved it--at least for the month.

Worth reading:

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