Is the art of diplomacy modest or macho?

It was reassuring to hear Gen. Alexander Haig say he hoped to be a Secretary of State after the model of Gen. George Marshall, a soldier who thoroughly turned himself into a diplomat.

Diplomats in recent times have been all too ready to move in the opposite direction, making a posture of belligerence the norm, as if (in the words of Prince Metternich) diplomacy were only "war by other means."

"Brinksmanship" -- the art of teetering on the edge of World War III -- has been regarded approvingly as the vocation of the diplomat. On the occasion of the Cuban missile crisis Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously remarked that the United States and the Soviet Union had been "eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other guy just blinked."

Making the other guy blink has become the popular conception of what diplomacy is all about.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has named as his heroes Napoleon, Alexander, and Hannibal. Henry Kissinger once compared himself to the American western hero, six guns presumably in place.

Here, to say the least, is the sound of only one dove's wing flapping.

The diplomat was not always so macho. Back before eyeball-to-eyeball brinksmanship the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson defined diplomacy as "the art of negotiating agreements." The purpose of diplomacy, he stressed, "is to create international confidence, not to sow international distrust." A proper diplomat, he argued, is "not concerned with dialectics, propaganda, or invective."

Cynics might describe the diplomat as a man sent abroad to lie for his country. Sir Harold would have none of that. The first attribute of the ideal diplomat, he maintained, was his truthfulness.

Before we knowing moderns dismiss Sir Harold as one of those quaint chaps who persist in treating the world as a club full of other English gentlemen, we should pay attention to corroborating testimony. A very hard-headed Frenchman named de Callieres also thought that honesty is the best foreign policy. He said it all in 1716: "Even the most dazzling diplomatic triumphs which have been gained by deception are based upon insecure foundations. They leave the defeated party with a sense of indignation, a desire to be revenged, and a resentment which will always be a danger."

Sixteenth-century historians went so far as to claim that the first diplomats were the angels -- an exalted guild indeed.

At the least we ought to be able to think of the diplomat as a peacemaker. Why do we insist on seeing him as a Machiavellian power broker, pursuing just short of bloodshed all the aggrandizing purposes of war? Power. How the word obsesses us!

Nicolson thought a diplomat ought to be "modest." The word falls strangely on the 1981 air. Yet was he wrong? Peace -- the reconciliation of two or more contending wills -- depends upon a certain modesty if we take modesty to be the quality that keeps human ambitions human.

General Marshall was a notably modest man in this sense.

It can be argued -- it can always be argued -- that our times are too urgent to tolerate an ideal diplomat, placidly making his rounds, being truthful and modest. But may we be allowed to hope that General Haig will have somebody else in mind beside Napoleon, Alexander, Hannibal, and Wyatt Earp?

The diplomat is always walking on eggshells, and sometimes on people. It is asking too much to request a little sobriety? Surely we are entitled to say, as the very realistic Talleyrand said in summing up his advice to other diplomats: "Above all, don't allo w yourself to become excited about your work."

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