Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Since 1914 the structure of the world has changed. Compared to the present struggle between West and East, the rivalries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sink into insignificance. Today we are faced, not with a clash of interests, but with a fight between ideologies, between the desire on the one hand to defend individual liberties and the resolve on the other hand to impose a mass religion. In the process the old standards, conventions and methods of international negotiation have been discredited. Had it not been for the invention of the atomic bomb, we should already have been subjected to a third world war.
Members of the Communist bloc today are convinced that sooner or later they will acquire world dominion and will succeed in imposing their faith and their authority over the whole earth. They strain towards this objective with religious intensity and are prepared to devote to its achievement their lives, their comfort and their prospects of happiness. Anything that furthers their purpose is "right"; anything that obstructs it is "wrong"; conventional morality, even the creation of confidence, has no part in this scheme of things. Truth itself has lost its significance. Compared to the shining truth of their gospel, all minor forms of veracity are merely bourgeois inhibitions. The old diplomacy was based upon the creation of confidence, the acquisition of credit. The modern diplomatist must realize that he can no longer rely on the old system of trust; he must accept the fact that his antagonists will not hesitate to falsify facts and that they feel no shame if their duplicity be exposed. The old currency has been withdrawn from circulation; we are dealing in a new coinage.
This transformation of values has been aided by a new or "democratic" conception of international relations. In the old days the conduct of foreign affairs was entrusted to a small international elite who shared the same sort of background and who desired to preserve the same sort of world. Today the masses are expected to take an interest in foreign affairs, to know the details of current controversies, to come to their own conclusions, and to render these conclusions effective through press and parliament. At the same time, however, current issues have been rendered complex and inter-connected; it is not possible to state issues, such as the Common Market, in short and simple terms. Thus, whereas the man in the street is expected to have an opinion on international problems, the very complexity of these problems has rendered it difficult to provide him with the information on which to base his judgment.
A further difficulty arises over the contrast between "secret" and "open" diplomacy. This stems from the misuse of the word "diplomacy" to signify both foreign policy and negotiation. Foreign policy should never be secret, in the sense that the citizen should on no account be committed by his government to treaties or engagements of which he has not been given full previous knowledge. But negotiation must always be confidential. Very often, these days, negotiations are hampered or even frustrated by leakages to the press. Breaches of confidence are always news.
A further democratic myth is that of egalitarianism. Every country, however small its power, however restricted its resources, is regarded as the "equal" of every other country. Important decisions are taken, not owing to the strength of those who support those decisions, but according to the voices of the weak.
The Soviet Union, moreover, while itself destroying the freedom of several formerly independent countries, has managed to create the myth that it is the champion of the oppressed in their struggle against "colonialism." Preferring as it does ideal to actual truth, it manages to persuade the once subject races of the world that Communism is bound to become the universal religion of the future and that under Communism they will be able to divest themselves of their former inferior status and become the rulers of their section of the world. Thus, for the present at least, Communism is identified with nationalism, and nationalism with ambition. The wind of change howls like a hurricane across Asia and Africa. Everything associated with the past is represented as iniquitous, everything that looks to the future is colored with glamor and glory. The West is associated with the past; the East with the future. It might be said, therefore, and has often been said, that the West is fighting a losing battle. This is a fallacious proposition. If we can avoid committing arrant mistakes-such as the mistake of Suez and the mistake of Cuba-we can maintain a defensive position for the next 50 years. Meanwhile the massive front of the Communist world may have started to disintegrate. The Marxist view of society and of the inevitability of history assumes that the masses can be conditioned to believe eternally in the same creed. That is a misconception of human nature; always there will be heretics and the more they are repressed the more ardent and convinced they become. The West in the end will be rescued by the heretics of the East.
I was reading recently an interesting book called "The Ugly American" in which the failure of the West to stem Communist infiltration into Southeast Asia is ascribed to the old-fashioned conception of diplomacy which prevails in Washington. Whereas the Soviet authorities concentrate on winning the support of the masses, the Americans are said to be concerned mainly with winning the support of the governing classes. A symptom of this difference of approach is that, whereas American diplomatists seldom can speak any language other than their own, Soviet diplomatists are chosen because of their familiarity with the language and dialects of the countries to which they are sent.
This is a specious contention. Governments, even in new or backward countries, are composed of the more educated people who, in Southeast Asia, are usually able to speak English or French. Such people take pride in their linguistic attainments and would be hurt if addressed in their native language by foreign diplomatists. Even as in the old days M. Isvolsky, the Tsarist Foreign Minister, would have been outraged if addressed in Russian by a foreign ambassador, so also in Saigon today would the foreign minister expect to be addressed in French. In theory, of course, it appears illogical that the American ambassador at Oslo should be unable to speak or even read Norwegian. Yet in practice those with whom he negotiates can all speak English and he has on his staff translators who provide him daily with an accurate summary of the Norwegian newspapers.
A diplomatist, moreover, should not concentrate solely on conditions in the country to which he is accredited. He must at the same time be aware of conditions and opinions in his own country. Really to know the language, traditions, prejudices and inhibitions of a country such as Laos, for example, entails years of study and long residence. A man by such methods may learn a great deal about Laotian opinion but in the process he gets out of touch with opinion in his own home country. He is apt to "go native" and his judgment may be warped by purely local sentiments. It may be that the Russians, with their uniform policy of destroying the influence of capitalism everywhere and by any means, can afford to send agents into every Laotian village to persuade the headmen of the philanthropy of the Soviet creed. It may be that by the "cell" method they are able to create disturbances, organize riots and demonstrations, and even overturn governments. Yet in the end their methods may land them in an illogical situation. They may find that in preaching self-government they lose control of the governments they have themselves created. An ambitious politician may be glad to have been brought to power by a students' demonstration; but he will see to it that no students' demonstrations recur.
Although policy should be directed and controlled by the ambassador himself, and although it does not matter much if the ambassador cannot himself speak a difficult local language, it is essential that he be aided and advised by a staff of permanent officials who have lived for long in the country, have studied the local traditions and character, and are acquainted with the background and temperament of those having local influence. Such a staff of experts exists in all well-founded embassies. In the British Foreign Service there existed in the old days the Levant Consular Service and the Chinese Consular Service, which provided the embassies with a pool of experts from which they could draw their advisers. These men were honest patriots; there is no need to suppose, as the authors of "The Ugly American" imply, that they had all gone so native as to become spies. On the other hand, to know everything about a foreign country requires at the very least a lifetime of experience. And if a man spends his whole life in any given community he is bound to develop affections and prejudices which distort his evidence. It is difficult to conceive of a person so circumstanced who would be so objective as to be immune to all subjective impulses. My own experience of such local experts is that they become either so gullible as to believe whatever they are told, or so suspicious as to doubt the veracity of even the most honest. If ambassadors were required to become experts, then surely great confusion would arise.
So strongly is this danger anticipated by the British Foreign Office that it is their habit, when a man has been too long in the Far East, to appoint him somewhere in Latin America. Such mutations are often resented by the official himself and cause surprise to the public. "How odd," people exclaim, "to send to Montevideo a man who has lived for years in Indonesia! How like the Foreign Office!" It is not so odd or irrational as all that. The business of a diplomatist is to represent his own government in a foreign country; if he lives too long in a foreign country, he may lose touch with his own home opinion and his representative value will be diminished. Expert knowledge is essential to judgment; but such knowledge can be obtained from experts whose business it is to advise and inform, not to judge or decide.
A second aspect of American diplomacy as criticized, and indeed ridiculed, in "The Ugly American" is the social aspect. The authors of this engaging book imply that American officials abroad are not democratic enough.
I admit that all Foreign Services possess their cocktail side. In the days of the old diplomacy, when foreign affairs were a class specialty, the social element was assuredly important. In Tsarist Russia, for instance, or in Vienna, where the top ranks of society did in fact exercise a great influence over ministers and cabinets, it was highly important for an ambassador and his staff to be socially acceptable. The French Embassy, for instance, some of whose members were deficient in social polish, found itself at a disadvantage in snobbish posts such as St. Petersburg or Vienna when in contact with the local society. The leaders of these societies regarded themselves as the cream of European aristocracy and did not enjoy mingling with people whom they regarded as bourgeois in their origins and manners. Stupid though they may have been, they yet were people of influence in governmental circles and thus it was essential that they should be entertained and consoled. Now that these aristocracies have either been eliminated or have lost all political influence, this necessity no longer exists. Why, if this be not so, should ambassadors be provided with large houses and an entertainment account? Yet whom are they supposed to entertain?
These questions are more pertinent than they seem. In totalitarian countries the names of those who visit foreign embassies are reported to the police. Those whose ambitions or livelihood are dependent on the favor of their superiors do not wish to fall into disfavor by frequenting foreign embassies. Therefore the operative people hesitate to attend embassy parties, or if they do so, arrive in a gang, so that they can all watch each other. Conversely, the ambassador, being anxious to cultivate the good will of those in power, is afraid of seeing too much of the Opposition. In Tsarist Russia, for instance, an ambassador could not ask the liberal leaders to dinner without risking the displeasure of the Court. In free countries this danger does not occur and the members of the government neither know nor care who dines or lunches at the French, Russian or German Embassies. It may arise, however, especially in totalitarian countries, that only unimportant people go to the embassy parties and that these parties tend to degenerate into stagnant pools in which the same old carp circle round and round gazing at each other with lacklustre eyes. Yet the theory persists that a great country should possess a great embassy; that the greatness of that embassy can be assessed by the size of its entertainment; and thus the dreary old round continues to persist, whether those who are entertained are influential or not. Diplomatic parties are invariably dull parties, since they lack spontaneity. Ambassadors, I suggest, would be well advised to invite important people to small parties of five or six, and to satisfy the multitude by large occasional receptions to which numbers of people can boast of having been asked.
Should the junior members of the staff confine themselves to the accepted circle of embassy guests or should they go out into the wilds? It may require deep devotion to his profession, or a passionate interest in the works of Ibsen, to persuade a young man at an embassy in Oslo to mix with Norwegian society. My own advice to the junior diplomatist is not to confine himself lazily to the easy circle of his own embassy but to cultivate the society of journalists both foreign and native. It is from them that he will derive useful advice and commentary. When I look back on the years before Hitler that I spent in the British Embassy at Berlin, I am grateful for the hours I devoted to talking to journalists in the Adlon Bar. I learned more from them than I did from any other form of social relations. Had I spent an equal amount of time discussing the future with trade-union leaders or factory workers, I should have derived false impressions. Nobody could then have foreseen that the trade-union movement with its elaborate organization could have been swept aside by Hitler's rhetoric in the course of a few days. It was the journalists of the Adlon Bar who first warned me of the coming of the Nazi movement. Diplomatic field work often misleads.
While I contend, therefore, that an ambassador and his senior officials need not, and indeed ought not, to be too closely identified with the country to which they are accredited, and while I agree that the social or representative aspect of diplomacy needs to be reëxamined and possibly revalued, I assert that the old principle that the art of negotiation depends on reliability and confidence is an eternal principle, however much one's antagonists may profit by temporary tricks. I have frequently written that good diplomacy is akin to sound banking and depends on credit. Even if your opponent scores a trick or two by sharp practice, you should yourself abide by the rules of the game. I remember once, when appointed to the Middle East, asking my father, who had had great experience of the problem, by what means one could ascertain what went on at the back of the oriental mind. "Never worry about that," he answered. "There may be nothing at the back of his mind. Concentrate on making quite sure that he is left in no doubt as to what is at the back of your mind." That was good advice. The twists and turning of an oriental mentality constitute a labyrinth which it is useless to penetrate or explore; let the straight and simple lines remain on your side of the argument; however much you may try, you will never be able to weave a pattern as intricate as theirs. There will always be an area of deception into which the Westerner will hesitate to enter; it would be like playing poker with a man a hundred times richer than oneself; it is advisable therefore for the Westerner to stick always to truth, in the expenditure of which he possesses ample reserves. His actions will in any case be misrepresented; if they be based on demonstrable truth, then the misrepresentation will be apparent even to the least educated.
It is often said, again, that with the development of communications the role and function of an ambassador have been much diminished and that the diplomatist today has been reduced to the status of a clerk at the end of the telephone line. In the first place, the telephone is a dangerous little instrument through which to convey information or to transmit instructions. One of the most important assets of sound diplomacy is precision; the telephone (as was demonstrated by the U-2 incident) is an imprecise instrument, and liable to create misunderstanding.
Moreover, a moment's reflection should convince people that the gibe about "a clerk at the end of the telephone" is an empty gibe. It may be true that it is no longer possible for an ambassador at some distant post to create situations that may lead either to his repudiation or recall, or else to war. That is a great gain. It may be true that the independence of his action may be curtailed, and rightly curtailed, by the fact that his own chief in London or Washington can reach him on the telephone or, if the worst comes to the worst, can descend upon him in an airplane. But the fact remains, and will always remain, that the man on the spot is in a key position and that no action should be taken at headquarters without his advice being sought. No large business undertaking, no newspaper, would be represented in a foreign capital by a man whose stature was no higher than that of a clerk at the end of a telephone. It is the business of a representative abroad to study local conditions; to assess the areas of local susceptibility; to cultivate the acquaintance of local politicians, and thus to be in a position to advise his own minister how far he can go and how far he can trust those with whom he is negotiating. In offering such advice he will rely on the information furnished him by his own experts, upon his personal contacts with local politicians, upon a careful study of the local press, and upon exchanges of views and information with his diplomatic colleagues and resident press correspondents. Again and again have I heard the slogan that ambassadors today have ceased to count. I do not hear a similar statement applied to the local representatives of large firms or newspapers. Yet the position is identical. You do not send abroad a clerk to represent you; you send a man in whose intelligence, initiative and integrity you place full confidence. The only difference today is that things move with great celerity. There is less time for reflection.
Another element of change is the use made today in international negotiation of the weapon of propaganda. In the old days when foreign affairs were recognized to be a specialized study and when their conduct was left to the experts, the element of propaganda scarcely entered into consideration. Today it is sometimes preponderant. It is a dangerous weapon, being all too apt to backfire or recoil. It is one which our antagonists, by concentrating on the shadows of the past and by indicating the sunshine of a Communist future, can employ with great effect. There is, moreover, always an element in propaganda which is exaggerated and untrue; the West finds such assaults more difficult than does the East. Yet here again truth will prevail in the end. Our attitude toward propaganda must always remain a defensive attitude; we must content ourselves with being scrupulously careful not to present our antagonists with propaganda weapons against us. It is admittedly unfortunate that in the propaganda war the East appears to win all the battles all the time. Owing to a series of small successes, of accidental triumphs, they build up an aggregate impression of invincibility and inevitability. This is the impression which they desire to convey and we desire to avoid. It is a difficult task but not one that can be accomplished by telling untruths. The Communists are convinced that there is a "glorious lie," or a "mass untruth," which "becomes true" since it serves the cause of Communism. Yet the saying of Abraham Lincoln remains true: you can't fool all the people all of the time. The misfortune is that one can fool a large number of people for sufficient time for great damage to be done. I admit that the introduction of the propaganda element has greatly complicated the task of Western diplomacy. It is easy enough to convince uneducated people that they are being exploited or suffering humiliations and oppression. It is more difficult to preach to them the rewards of freedom. People who have been convinced that their rights have been disregarded will be glad to throw stones at windows or to overturn motorcars; the doctrine of individual liberty inspires no such acts of passion. We are at a disadvantage when it comes to applying propaganda to the have-nots. Dollars are not always enough; and the fact that our doctrine appeals more to the privileged classes is a fact which cannot be exploited or even avowed.
The principle of egalitarianism has altered the balance of diplomatic power. Even within my own lifetime the affairs of the world were dominated by the eight great powers, whose strength, when it came to a conflict, was overwhelming. The British Government, for instance, could change the whole balance of the Eastern Question by dispatching three frigates to Besika Bay. Today action on the part of the great powers could, even if they were united, be blocked by the votes of the small powers. The Security Council of the United Nations was intended to be a sort of cabinet of action. Its decisions are negatived, however, by the veto of the Soviet Union, a veto which to date has been exercised 95 times. Thus the power of decision has been to all intents and purposes transferred to the Assembly, in which a majority of the 99 nations represented can block all action. This majority, while not invariably adhering to the Russian line, is at least united in hostility to anything that savors of the old colonialism. Thus power has been transferred into the hands of those who lack strength, and a situation has been created which is dominated by uncertainty. Uncertainty and the unpredictable are dangerous elements in any international situation. It is impossible to conduct sound banking when there exists no stability of exchange.
The former theory of the balance of power, the device of the Concert of Europe, has, since the First World War, been replaced by international tribunals, such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. It was not foreseen by those who drafted the Charter at San Francisco 15 years ago that the principle of one-state-one-vote might in the end prove irrational. Today the votes of the 99 sovereign states in the Assembly bear no relation to the amount of power they can exercise or the degree of responsibility they can assume. The strength of the United Nations is subject to so many variables that the exercise of its authority is unpredictable. Valuable as the tribunal ought to be in arranging for the pacific settlement of disputes, the incidence of its authority is too uncertain to give its decisions the inevitability of public law. The veto has paralyzed the Executive and the voting system may paralyze the Assembly. The major decisions in this world are taken by those who possess power and are prepared to exercise it. The substitution of consent, or votes, for force has given the United Nations a certain unreality which hampers its authority.
The principle of one-man-one-vote is conditional on the existence of the rule of law. But there is no international rule of law, only a few accepted conventions; thus it is fallacious to suppose that peace can be preserved by votes. The fact that the world is obliged to rely for peace on an organization that so obviously lacks realism, if not reality, is a major misfortune. I do not blame those who 15 years ago drafted the Charter. In many ways it is an honest and competent document. Yet the gap which has been created between reality and unreality constitutes a serious menace. Would it be better to admit that the future of the world depends upon the force that can be brought to bear by the U.S.S.R. and the United States? I fear that I am unable to recommend anything other than this stark reality.
The pessimism implicit in such a conclusion does not mean that I believe international diplomacy has no part to play or that the nations of the world are entirely dependent upon what may be willed or decided in Moscow or in Washington. It means that the nations of the world, and especially of the Western world, should avoid separating practice from principle, as was done at the time of Suez and Cuba, and should avoid placing themselves in the wrong. There does exist such a thing as international morality. Its boundaries are not visibly defined nor its frontiers demarcated; yet we all know where it is. If other countries transgress these frontiers, we at least should respect them. Aliis licet: tibi non licet. That is to say, what is right for others is not right for us. That should be our motto; by that we shall in the end prevail.