More than 40 years ago, Gordon Craig and Felix Gilbert edited a volume called The Diplomats: 1919-1939. In that still-valuable work, a group of historians and political scientists assessed the role diplomacy had played in the years between the two world wars. Those were years of gross diplomatic failure, years in which the great powers, having destroyed one international system in the First World War, failed to create a new one in time to avert the Second World War.

In this sequel, appropriately dedicated to the memory of Felix Gilbert, Craig and Francis Loewenheim assemble a (mostly) new team to assess the role of diplomacy in the 40 years after 1939. Diplomats II opens with a rapid glance at wartime diplomacy, less than one-twentieth of the book, and then devotes nearly 700 pages to the first 25 years of the Cold War. The latter were years of relative diplomatic success, years in which the great powers, despite bitter ideological differences, avoided a third world war and in which the democratic nations laid the foundation for their eventual victory.

The two volumes differ somewhat in coverage and approach. Diplomats I concentrated on Europe and the United States. Japan received only 1 of 21 chapters; China, India, the Middle East, Latin America, Canada, Australia and Africa, none at all. Diplomats II gives 6 of 23 chapters to Asia and the Middle East, though Latin America, Africa, Canada and Australia are still ignored.

Diplomats I was less interested in the political leaders who made foreign policy than in the diplomats who executed it, envoys in the field and officials in the chancelleries. The book contained chapters on Schulenberg and Dirksen rather than Hitler; on Rumbold, Henderson and Perth rather than Baldwin and Chamberlain; on Chicherin and Litvinov rather than Stalin; on Dodd, Bullitt and Kennedy rather than Roosevelt, not that these diplomats, especially the Americans and the Russians, were professionals in the traditional sense.

Diplomats II pays somewhat more attention to political leaders and less to the professionals who served them. This shift registers the decline of diplomacy as an autonomous profession. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the management of international relations was largely confided to ambassadors operating according to raisons d’état and skilled in manipulating balances of power. Diplomacy was self-contained. Public opinion was irrelevant: theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die. The diplomatic history of those years, as historian George Malcolm Young has said, was "little more than the record of what one clerk said to another clerk." The Congress of Vienna, so much admired by Henry Kissinger in his absorbing new book, Diplomacy, was the last hurrah of classical diplomacy.


The rise of democracy in the nineteenth century altered public attitudes toward foreign policy. Ordinary people now felt entitled to a larger share in decisions that might send them out to die. British statesmen like Canning and Palmerston sought to arouse public opinion in support of foreign adventures. The word "jingoism," dating from the late 1870s, expressed the invasion of international relations by the people. The Boer War and Spanish-American War in the 1890s saw unprecedented popular interest in what had so long been the secluded and protected domain of professional diplomats. "Diplomatic issues," as Stanley Hoffmann has said, "moved from the calculations of the few to the passions of the many."

Public opinion tended to moralize and emotionalize foreign policy, seeing foreign affairs in terms, not of raisons d’état, but of right and wrong. The climax of this democratization of foreign policy came with the First World War, the Wilsonian revulsion against secret covenants secretly arrived at and the rise of what was known for a season as the new diplomacy.

The movement toward democratic control of foreign policy greatly diminished the autonomy of the professional diplomat and the power of the diplomatic establishment. So too did changes in the technologies of communication. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ambassadors were pretty much on their own. In the nineteenth century the steam-ship, telegraph and telephone began to put diplomats on a leash. In the present day the jet aircraft, television and computer have made communication almost instantaneous. Cordell Hull had never traveled on an airplane until he went to Moscow in 1943. In recent times American secretaries of state are rarely to be found on the ground. Itinerant foreign ministers tend to turn ambassadors into supernumeraries.

The professional tradition itself fell under a cloud. That tradition was one of negotiation, of the reconciliation of divergent interests within a community of shared values. The rise of messianic totalitarian states in the 1920s and 1930s meant a clash between fundamentally different values and put negotiation, and negotiators, into disrepute. In Diplomats II, Stanley Hoffmann observes of former French President Charles de Gaulle that diplomacy was not his preferred mode of action. "One doesn’t negotiate in order to come to a conclusion," De Gaulle said, "but in order to win." As Abba Eban, former Israeli foreign minister and one of the last masterful practitioners of the old diplomacy, reflected, "It would be internationally harmful if professional diplomats were to lose their sense of vocation through being constantly outflanked by their political masters." Eban’s own fate exemplified the marginalization of the professional.

By the 1940s and ever since, the political masters have inevitably been in the saddle. The absence of shared respect for the rules of the game reduced the scope of technical diplomacy and gave new scope to political leadership, both creative and destructive. This development is only intermittently recognized in Diplomats II, which contains chapters on Molotov rather than Stalin, Bevin rather than Attlee, Acheson rather than Truman, Dulles rather than Eisenhower, Gromyko rather than Khrushchev, Rusk rather than Kennedy and Johnson, Kissinger rather than Nixon. Yet in most of these cases the political principal and not the diplomatic agent made the key decisions.


Like all collections of papers by various hands, this is an uneven book. There are some splendid set pieces, Hoffmann on de Gaulle, Craig on Adenauer, Walt W. Rostow on Jean Monnet, Geoffrey Warner on Bevin, John Lewis Gaddis on Kissinger, Akira Iriye on Yoshida, Steven M. Miner, benefiting from nuggets in Soviet archives, on Molotov, Maiskii and Dobrynin.

But the book lacks a coherent analytical framework. One wishes for more systematic answers to two questions: What are the criteria for successful diplomacy, and what were the occasions in the years 1939-79 when successful diplomacy could have made a difference?

Gaddis, in one of the book’s surprisingly few ruminations on the subject, remarks that no consensus has developed "on what constitutes ‘success’ in statecraft in the first place. Do we mean by it attaining one’s stated objectives, or resisting those of others? How much time is to be allowed to reach these goals? What balance should one expect between the guidance that principle provides and the expediency that effective action usually demands?"

Perhaps success and failure must be defined against opportunities to change the direction of events. The years covered in Diplomats II were filled with choices that have generated argument ever since. Could diplomacy, for example, have cut short the Second World War? The affirmative view was advocated at the time by R. A. Butler of the British Foreign Office and perhaps by Lord Halifax, explored by Franklin Roosevelt in the Sumner Welles mission of 1940, and has recently been resurrected by a new generation of British historians who, like Alan Clark and John Charmley, argue that Britain should have made a negotiated peace in 1940 or 1941. It is an interesting problem in diplomacy, but it is not a question addressed in Diplomats II.

Could diplomacy have averted Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe by insisting on Soviet concessions and territorial agreements as the price of Western assistance? Both Sumner Welles and William C. Bullitt, otherwise mortal enemies, took this position at the time. So have subsequent historians like Adam Ulam and Daniel Yergin. But the pros and cons of this diplomatic conundrum do not receive considered discussion in this new work.

And what about Yalta, a familiar test case for diplomacy? The pre-Yalta exchange of letters between those two brilliant professionals, George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen, sets forth in trenchant terms the choices Roosevelt and Churchill faced in dealing with Stalin. Did the conference itself, as the French and the Poles claim, produce an indefensible partition of Europe, or did the position of the Red Army at the end of the war produce that partition? Did the Yalta agreements, as Averell Harriman believed and Molotov feared, set up standards that Stalin had to violate in order to achieve his purposes in Eastern Europe? But in Diplomats II the Kennan-Bohlen argument is overlooked, and the Yalta conference is scanted.

In the essay on wartime diplomacy Craig takes the old line that Franklin Roosevelt had a "general aversion to planning ahead," believed that "political decisions should wait upon military victory," and systematically subordinated political to military objectives. It is true that F.D.R., fearing the resurgence of isolationism and remembering the trouble Wilson got into a quarter-century before over Allied secret treaties, wanted to stay out of European boundary disputes. But he had remarkably comprehensive plans to assure American involvement and predominance in the postwar world.

By the end of 1944 a series of international conferences, held mostly at American initiative and dominated by American agendas, had laid down postwar blueprints for international organization (Dumbarton Oaks), world finance, trade and development (Bretton Woods), food and agriculture (Hot Springs), relief and rehabilitation (Washington), and civil aviation (Chicago). This framework for the postwar world was hardly the work of a president averse to long-term planning. And as Warren F. Kimball has effectively shown, Roosevelt’s occasional interventions in military decisions were almost invariably for international political rather than military reasons.1

Kennan and Bohlen, as rara avis professional diplomats who retained a certain influence in the age of the decline of diplomacy, deserve more adequate treatment. They lost their battle to make containment a political rather than a military policy, but the battle is worth recording, and their opposition to that overwrought and disastrously influential document, nsc-68, sprang from a desire to leave room for diplomatic maneuver. But readers find nothing here about their rearguard stand for diplomacy.

Was there an opening for diplomacy when communists took over China? Acheson may have thought so, and it is a question that deserves more attention than it receives. Was Churchill right in arguing for new diplomatic efforts in response to the Soviet peace note on Germany of March 1952 and again after Stalin’s death the next year, or were Acheson and Dulles right in rebuffing both Churchill and the Soviet proposals? Not much enlightenment here.

The Cuban missile crisis, the moment of supreme danger in the Cold War, gets only a couple of pages without any account of the resort by John and Robert Kennedy to secret diplomacy in order to resolve the crisis. The test-ban treaty of 1963, one of the first breaks in the Cold War, rates a single paragraph without mention of the vital roles of Harold Macmillan, John Kennedy and Averell Harriman in bringing it about against the opposition of their own military establishments.

Nor is there much account of the diplomacy, or lack of it, in the Vietnam War, nor of the way that Dulles’ purge of the old China hands in the State Department deprived Kennedy and Johnson of the expert diplomatic counsel that old Russia hands like Bohlen, Kennan and Llewellyn Thompson provided in the case of the Soviet Union. If men like John Paton Davies, Jr., and John Carter Vincent had been on tap in the 1960s they would have informed their political masters of the ancient enmity between China and Vietnam, and the U.S. government would not have succumbed to the illusion that North Vietnam was the spearhead of a concerted Chinese plan to take over Southeast Asia.

Too much of Diplomats II is potted diplomatic history of a routine sort. Too little is an analysis of what diplomacy achieved, what opportunities it missed and what difference it might have made. In this respect, it compares unfavorably both to Diplomats I and Kissinger’s survey of the same years in Diplomacy.


In an afterward, the editors give Western leaders deserved credit for the containment policy, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the European Community. That the superpowers did not go to war, they add, "is surely a tribute to the expedients of diplomacy and to those who wielded them." One wonders whether it is not more of a tribute to the atomic bomb, which simultaneously emboldened the Western democracies to oppose the spread of Stalinism and demanded restraint in the mode of opposition. Few things are more chastening than doomsday briefings. Historians looking back may be struck most by the gap on both sides between the violence of their talk and the circumspection of their action. It is the atomic bomb, as political scientist Elspeth D. Rostow once remarked, that should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

What is the future of diplomacy? Diplomacy is effective when the rules of the game have general agreement. But the ideological wars of the twentieth century shattered the context of shared values. The disappearance of communism now creates new opportunities for diplomacy, at least until a possible revival of fascism, a doctrine so remote in popular memory that its evils are no longer vivid, renews ideological warfare.

In the meantime, the warfare of ideology has been replaced by warfare of ethnicity and religion, and these conflicts too move toward disagreement over basic values. Paul Gordon Lauren has an interesting chapter on the diplomacy of the United Nations, and Kissinger argues that the Wilsonian vision has triumphed, that "Wilson’s principles have remained the bedrock of American foreign policy thinking."

But the realization of a world of law based on collective prevention and punishment of aggression depends on enforcement, and enforcement at the end of the day means military action. The tragedy of Bosnia shows that, while people may be willing to kill and die when the life of their own nation is at stake, very few are willing to do so in the interests of an abstract peace system and a new world order. Try to explain to a housewife in Xenia, Ohio, or in York, England, or Lyons, France, or anywhere else, why her father, husband, brother or son should die in Bosnia. Nationalism remains the most potent political emotion in the contemporary world.

The United Nations in any case is overly bureaucratized and incapable of discharging the tasks that fatigued and preoccupied nations are presently dumping on it. Perhaps in the long run regional associations must assume at least the initial responsibility of keeping the peace in their own neighborhoods, but given their present state of feebleness, that is likely to be a very long run indeed.

A world of law will require a transformation of world opinion. That is a job for political and religious leaders, not professional diplomats. But politicians and diplomats can still collaborate fruitfully in the construction of a new international system.


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  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at The Graduate School and University Center, The City University of New York.
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