War and Diplomacy in an Age of Extremes


Jeremi Suri
University of Texas at Austin

Contemporary foreign policy is faster and more destructive than ever before.

It is dominated by high technology weapons, non-traditional soldiers, vast movements of money, and targeted transmissions of images and ideas. For more than a decade, experts have debated the relative influence of “hard” and “soft” power, but in reality the actions of the most powerful international actors have become more forceful than ever before since the Second World War. With the United States fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Russians invading Crimea, China building islands in international waters, and the Islamic State terrorizing occupied territories, it is hard to deny that muscle-flexing is the main medium of political communication in the world today.

Unlike in the Cold War, when the bipolar relations between the United States and the Soviet Union enforced self-limiting rules for international conduct, today the law of the jungle is the guiding principle of globalization. The strong feel free to take what they can. They fear that if they do not act forcefully, someone else will seize what is most valuable in a hyper-competitive international system. Our world has fewer big wars, but we are still always at war.

We live in a war culture within the United States – just listen to our political debates and the fetishistic statements about toughness, destruction, and total victory with unconditional surrender. Just look at our prison and gun policies, as well as our gargantuan spending on the military, intelligence, and law enforcement. The security agencies get much more public support than our schools, our health facilities, and our infrastructure. Our hyper-partisan debates reinforce our inclination to define politics as combat and demand our way “or else.”

Diplomacy is a lost art in the contemporary world. It is so generally neglected that we do not have a common definition for the concept, although it pre-dates “democracy” and “capitalism.” Too often in public debates we treat diplomacy as “weakness,” “appeasement,” or “neglect” – an unwillingness to use force and pressure, an abandonment of toughness and a selling-out of our values. Too often in education and other endeavors we completely neglect the study of diplomacy, emphasizing the pursuit of moral perfection or self-interest instead. Even the fields of diplomatic history and international relations give little attention to diplomacy, focusing on political ideas, personalities, cultures, economics, and military affairs much more than the compromises negotiated between leaders of different kinds. In other words, we study wars, victors, and victims rather than the vital figures and practices in-between.

That is the best definition of diplomacy – the practices of dialogue, reconciliation, compromise, trust-building, and persuasion – between diverse and often antagonistic groups. Diplomacy is neither an abandonment of force, nor an acceptance of surrender. Instead, it is the complex and ever-changing effort to bring allies and adversaries together for common cause, despite their differences. It is the creative search for escape from the stale alternatives of fight or flight, war or acquiescence. Diplomacy re-shapes the rules and the landscape of battle, rather than simply pushing the scrum in one direction or another.

Historical study of diplomacy – as practiced by national leaders, social activists, businesspeople, religious figures, and others – reveals that it involves qualities of imagination far beyond our traditional image of mediation between warring groups. The most effective diplomats form relationships with their counterparts and they engage in mutual efforts to imagine alternatives scenarios beyond the standard lines of conflict. They re-shape existing debates and they create new conversations, openings, and settlements. The work in-between adversarial positions moves the antagonists outside their initial polarities to accept connections not seen before.

This definition indicates that diplomacy is more art than science, more impressionistic and interpretive than technical. It requires patience, perseverance, and passion. It builds on past mistakes to try new things, to take new risks for combined goals. The great diplomats of modern history – Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck, Wallenberg, Harriman, Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Sadat, Baker, and many others – they all slogged through thousands of meetings with their counterparts at home and abroad to design a new consensus among former warring parties. They did not defeat or succumb to their enemies – they changed them.

Diplomacy is fundamentally about story-telling. Diplomats convince those around them to buy into a new narrative for remembering past injustices, understanding current circumstances, and imagining the future. Instead of continual warfare, diplomats encourage expectations of peace and cooperation. Instead of estrangement and hostility, they find reasons for engagement and respect. Diplomacy is the process of replacing old stories of conflict with new stories of cooperation. The material changes that accompany the stories follow the narrative negotiated in words and personal relationships.

foreign policy breakthroughsThe new book that I have co-edited with my colleague, Ambassador Robert Hutchings, explores this understanding of diplomacy across nine twentieth century cases, with diverse diplomatic actors – elite and non-elite – from five continents. We focus on “successful diplomacy,” which we describe as the moments when a group of individuals from different societies are able to imagine a new narrative for their relations. At the Bandung Conference in 1955, this diplomacy helped to create the non-aligned movement from scattered post-colonial countries. At Camp David in 1978, diplomacy turned a history of recurring Israeli-Egyptian wars into an inspiration for the most enduring Middle East peace accord of the era. Perhaps the most inspiring case, in Eastern Europe in 1989 diplomacy among former communist and non-communist adversaries turned a half-century of Cold War into a foundation for a new Europe, whole and free, as never before.

Our book investigates these cases and others in depth because they defy our stereotypes of forceful warriors and steadfast ideologues. Those figures existed, but they did not drive change. Behaviors and beliefs shifted because of connections, dialogues, and considered risks pursued by individuals who developed mutual interests and understandings. The small and often private relationships of the diplomats inspired the societies around them, creating new images of enemies as friends, or at least partners. The “spirit” of Bandung, Camp David, Berlin, and other transformative moments was based on creative diplomacy, not the military and economic “realities” that had frozen conflict for so long.

The point of all this is not to deny the importance of military capabilities, economic leverage, or cultural influence. These traditional forms of power continue to matter enormously, and it is always better to be stronger, wealthier, and more attractive to others. Effectiveness in international affairs, however, requires something more. Power intimidates and antagonizes when it is not diplomatic. Power is most useful when it is married to diplomatic overtures designed to build better working relations, even with hated adversaries.

In an ever-rougher and more dangerous world, diplomats become increasingly necessary to keep the system running. Our diplomats need more support, better training, and, most of all, an educated public that appreciates their work. We must begin by telling their stories more fully, and that is what my co-authors and I have started to do.

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and a Professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author and editor of six books, most recently (with Robert Hutchings): Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy (Oxford University Press).

2 thoughts on “War and Diplomacy in an Age of Extremes

  1. An excellent overview of the changes in diplomacy and international relation since the end of the cold war. One influence missing here is the massive movement of peoples across borders and the increased sense of destabilization that this creates within many nations. While these are generally non-military invasions, they do reflect the disintegration of many national polities (including civil wars), and major socio-economic dislocations. The power structures within the recipient nations have used these movements to forward their own power agendas – but also, as a whole, don’t really know how to deal with these major influxes and respond with a variety of strategies – xenophobia, nativism, internal regime strengthening, anger, pretending these are not occurring, efforts to construct stronger and more restrictive borders, and occasionally seeing these movements as opportunities.

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