In This Review

The Ambassadors: Thinking About Diplomacy From Machiavelli to Modern Times
The Ambassadors: Thinking About Diplomacy From Machiavelli to Modern Times
By Robert Cooper
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021, 563 pp

For many years, Cooper, a British diplomat, was the European Union’s unofficial foreign policy guru, and from 2002 to 2010, he served as the union’s director general for external and politico-military affairs. EU insiders see him as a tough and thoughtful analyst. This sweeping reflection on 500 years of transatlantic statecraft focuses on a small number of individuals who, in his view, combined sophisticated thinking with effective diplomatic action: Machiavelli, Talleyrand, Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger. Cooper draws three main conclusions. The first is that diplomatic success requires extreme inconsistency and immorality. To get important things done, diplomats must often mislead or mistreat the public and, often, their political masters; many will surely find it troubling that he hails Talleyrand and Kissinger as models. At the same time, Cooper portrays most foreign-policy making as little more than a desperate, often futile effort to navigate in the face of deep uncertainty, “black swan” events, and unintended consequences. And he traces a centuries-long spread of liberal values, democratic institutions, multilateral cooperation, and the use of diplomacy instead of military force—preconditions for the peaceful and prosperous world one finds within the EU. These three conclusions remain in considerable, and perhaps irreconcilable, tension with one another.