In the first month of his presidency, George W. Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 1, setting out how the country's national security machinery would operate under his leadership. Notably, the document signaled that the new administration would eschew the use of special diplomatic envoys. It abolished half of the existing emissary positions, including those covering peace in the Middle East and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the four years since, the Bush administration has mostly stuck to its bureaucratic guns. Aside from a few high-profile missions--such as the appointment of former Treasury Secretary James Baker to deal with Iraq's war debt and former Senator (and later UN ambassador) John Danforth to help make peace in Sudan--the White House has generally steered clear of diplomatic troubleshooters and special representatives.

This approach was consistent with both the means and the ends of Bush's early foreign policy. His team viewed the deployment of outsiders as an inappropriate method of implementing foreign policy; it was no way for grownups to govern. Bush, the CEO president, preferred clear reporting lines and administrative tidiness. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was a presidential emissary to Haiti in 1994, complained in his confirmation hearings before the Senate about the "very large number of envoys running around" and vowed to "empower the existing bureaus to do their jobs."

If the proliferation of special envoys under President Bill Clinton struck the incoming administration as evidence of organizational ad hockery, it also spoke to them of weakness and an overreliance on diplomacy. For most of his first term, Bush showed little sustained interest in deep diplomatic engagement with the world. The hard-line wing of the Republican Party was dominant, and it neglected the tradition of working with other nations to project U.S. influence abroad and share the burden of policing the world. The administration withdrew from multilateral agreements that the United States had helped advance and undermined institutions that the United States had helped build. It retired from the post of Middle East peace broker. It marketed Libya's renunciation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as the fruit of the neoconservative vine, rather than as the result of dogged diplomacy. Its temper was unilateralist; it barely questioned the utility of force.

The Bush strategy was tested in the Iraq war, of course, and found to be wanting. In retrospect, it seems that Washington badly underestimated the value of international support for its undertakings. But although diplomacy's stocks have risen in the past year, some in the administration remain unconvinced by Winston Churchill's dictum that it is better "to jaw-jaw than to war-war."

So far, then, the administration has been down on diplomacy and, in particular, on special envoys. It has ignored a powerful diplomatic instrument that has served the United States well in times of crisis. With the State Department under new management and the benefit of four years of experience, it is time for Washington to reconsider its use of special emissaries.


From the first years of the republic, most presidents have been partial to the use of special representatives--individuals assigned to execute diplomatic missions outside of conventional channels. In 1790, George Washington sent the politician Gouverneur Morris to gauge British intentions toward the United States; in 1803, Thomas Jefferson dispatched James Monroe to Paris to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. The use of such agents accelerated in the twentieth century, in tandem with developments in communications and transport technology and the United States' emergence as a world power. Woodrow Wilson made the Texan politico Colonel Edward House his representative-at-large; Harry Truman sent General George Marshall to China to help resolve its civil war; John Kennedy used his brother Robert to flash the family smile around the world and communicate privately with Moscow; and both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon called on personal representatives to help manage the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. In 1983, Ronald Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld on a trip to the Middle East that culminated in his infamous handshake with Saddam Hussein. George H.W. Bush tapped Richard Armitage to renegotiate a military-bases agreement with the Philippines and used Robert Gates, his deputy national security adviser, to ease tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Of all U.S. presidents, however, the most enthusiastic practitioner of envoy diplomacy was Franklin Roosevelt, whose stable of emissaries included friends, allies, political cronies, and, occasionally, opponents. Roosevelt was so taken with the approach that he tried to extend it from the diplomatic to the divine, appointing a personal envoy to the Vatican and pushing for the accreditation of U.S. representatives to the Orthodox Church and to Islam. Many factors predisposed Roosevelt to using personal diplomatic emissaries, including his unruly governing style, an addiction to information, and the polio that had struck him in 1921, paralyzing him from the waist down and forcing him to rely, for the rest of his life, on representatives to take his message where his legs could not. His views on the State Department (views that would not seem foreign in the current White House) also fed his predilection: Roosevelt regarded many foreign service officers as "boys in striped pants" who were out of step with his policies. He is said to have joked, not long after Pearl Harbor was bombed, that the State Department was neutral in the war and that he hoped it would remain that way.

In the critical period leading up to that sneak attack, while much of the world was at war and the United States edged toward it, Roosevelt initiated a series of special diplomatic missions to Europe. He used these envoys to develop diplomatic relationships, extend his personal influence, gather intelligence, and strengthen public support for his policies. When, in 1940-41, he was considering (against the advice of defeatist U.S. ambassadors) extending substantial U.S. aid to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, Roosevelt received firsthand reports from two envoys, the combative Republican lawyer William Donovan and Harry Hopkins, a former social worker. Both provided eyewitness testimony corroborating his view that these nations were worth backing. Hopkins, whom Roosevelt called "the perfect ambassador for my purposes," may have been the most significant of all presidential representatives. "He doesn't even know the meaning of the word 'protocol,'" Roosevelt said of Hopkins. "When he sees a piece of red tape he just pulls out those old garden shears of his and snips it." As Roosevelt's closest confidant and a resident of the White House, Hopkins was in a unique position to channel the president's voice and act as his eyes and ears. Through his many wartime missions to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, Hopkins helped set the template for Anglo-American collaboration and establish the triangular relationship between the Big Three.

Personal representatives can offer certain advantages over resident diplomats when it comes to communicating and negotiating with foreign parties and assessing local conditions and personalities. Personal envoys may be able to speak more candidly than career diplomats and negotiate with full presidential authority. Information may also be more forthcoming to them. By relying on such agents, a president can overcome bureaucratic constraints, avoid entrenched beliefs and standard operating procedures, and generally strengthen his control over policy.

Some assignments, such as the mediation of regional conflicts, can be too sensitive politically to be delegated to regular diplomats but too complex and taxing to be conducted by the president or the secretary of state in person. In this regard, Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell were two of Clinton's most effective surrogates. To their work on Bosnia and Northern Ireland, respectively, they brought a direct presidential mandate and particular expertise that might not otherwise have been at Washington's disposal. Holbrooke's flair and pushiness equipped him well for the Balkans, and Mitchell was an ideal chairman for the peace talks at Stormont Castle, thanks to the political skills and the prestige he had acquired as Senate majority leader. To be sure, neither man's efforts were completely successful. But few emissaries could have muscled up so effectively to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic or persuaded the stubborn parties of Northern Ireland to sign the Good Friday Agreement.

Special envoys also have strengths in the area of public diplomacy. In most cases, an envoy's status as the personal representative of the president lends him or her special gravitas and visibility. A remarkable example of such symbolic diplomacy occurred a few months after the 1940 presidential election, when Roosevelt asked his recent opponent, the Republican Wendell Willkie, to deliver to Winston Churchill a personal message intended to boost British morale. The letter quoted Longfellow's bracing verse: "Sail on, O Ship of State! / Sail on, O Union, strong and great! / Humanity with all its fears, / With all the hopes of future years, / Is hanging breathless on thy fate." Churchill cited the letter in several subsequent speeches, but it also caused ripples in the United States. By dramatizing a distant war to the American people, Roosevelt's diplomatic flourish encouraged bipartisan support for helping Hitler's enemies.

Conversely, when the U.S. government wants to negotiate without sending any public message, it can deploy special envoys in secret. The Senate's advice and consent is not required for the appointment of most personal envoys; their meetings can be less structured than ordinary diplomatic discussions and therefore more frank and useful. A special mission can be publicized, played down, or denied, depending on the administration's objectives.


Resort to personal envoys tends to trespass, however, on the sacred turf of the State Department. Experts and career diplomats are often critical of the practice, arguing that international relations is a complex business that should not be left to amateurs. This disapproval stems partly from a professional prejudice against outsiders. The British writer Harold Nicolson thought the amateur diplomat unreliable because "he is inclined to be far too zealous and to have bright ideas; he has not acquired the humane and tolerant disbelief which is the product of a long diplomatic career and is often assailed by convictions, sympathies, even impulses."

Opposition to special representatives is not entirely the product of diplomatic freemasonry, though. The institution has the faults of its qualities. Missions are often rushed; envoys can lack specialist knowledge and important contacts; the publicity attending their visits can arouse excessive or premature expectations; personalizing a particular policy sometimes robs it of wide bureaucratic support; and operating through personal agents can demoralize regulars in the diplomatic service. The confidence and effectiveness of departmental bureaus may be corroded, and ambassadors may lose their stature in the eyes of the officials to whom they are accredited. Roosevelt's reliance on Democratic businessman Averell Harriman as his wartime Lend-Lease expediter in London, for example, diminished the role of Ambassador John Winant. And George Kennan once complained that U.S. diplomatic missions were "packed with outsiders ... to a point where members of the Foreign Service find themselves, like once the unhappy wife and son of Homer's Ulysses, barely tolerated guests in their own home." Certainly, personal envoys sprouted like mushrooms in the Clinton administration, making it hard for the plants in the Foggy Bottom garden to catch the light of day.


Although special envoys are no substitute for a professional diplomatic corps, they can be a useful complement, particularly in times of crisis. The trick is to minimize the disadvantage of using them without blunting their edge. Were Bush to revive the sleeping envoy, he should keep four guidelines in mind.

First, special representatives should be used sparingly. A surplus of diplomatic rock stars touring the world embarrasses the secretary of state and makes it look as if the administration does not know what it is doing. Second, envoys should be sent only on substantive missions. Appointing personal emissaries to appease sectional constituencies cheapens the currency. Third, only people with appropriate experience and qualifications--in diplomacy, politics, or a related field--should receive assignments. Critically, there must be a neat fit between the envoy and the mission. Hopkins was an ideal person to send to London and Moscow: his intimacy with Roosevelt appealed to Churchill's romanticism, and his directness suited Stalin's brutal realism. Sending Richard Perle to Brussels would be less advisable. Finally, the aims of the mission should be well defined, the envoy's powers clearly established, and, to the extent possible, the rest of the foreign policy establishment kept in the loop. This requirement ought not to be beyond the wit of those concerned. For a start, they could emulate the roving presidential envoy Vernon Walters, who, throughout his long career, sought to make early calls on the U.S. ambassadors in the countries he visited.

The foreign policy adventurism of the past four years has eroded some of the international goodwill accumulated by the United States over the twentieth century. An optimist would argue that Washington has learned from its Iraq experience that military power has its limits and that diplomacy has its uses. One hopes that if diplomacy does indeed make a comeback this term, it will include the judicious use of that old-fashioned American institution: the special envoy.

Two possibilities immediately recommend themselves. Although U.S. peacemaking in the Middle East has been out of vogue recently, the death of Yasir Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas may create an opening for renewed U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Despite the time and resources such an effort would require, the United States has an important part to play in helping resolve the hard issues that divide the parties. If Washington chooses to participate, it should appoint a new special coordinator to take up where Dennis Ross left off. Ross' labors, on behalf of two administrations over a period of 12 years, ultimately went unrewarded. One lesson to be drawn from them, however, is the value of consolidating the U.S. effort in the hands of a single person who can not only negotiate with the parties but also coordinate the actions of embassies and U.S. agencies, communicate with Congress, and speak to the media. A second measure would be to resurrect Roosevelt's idea for a special envoy to the Muslim world: a dedicated and credible interlocutor for organizations, individuals, and governments, who would articulate U.S. policies and refute anti-American falsehoods. Properly staffed, the office would be an important instrument of public diplomacy and an additional resource in the struggle against extremism.

As it happens, there already has been an example of a special mission since Bush's re-election: the president's deft drafting of his brother Jeb to visit the Asian countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Governor Bush came equipped with substantial experience in organizing disaster-relief efforts in his home state of Florida, but his primary qualification was his surname. Through this appointment, the president was able to deflect criticism of the U.S. response to the emergency and telegraph his personal commitment to aiding recovery in the region.

Having taken this first step, Bush should now continue on the path of administrative innovation. At the end of his mission to an embattled United Kingdom in 1940, William Donovan told a friend that Anglo-American relations would benefit from a "sensible Colonel House" who could explain the positions of each side to the other. As the United States now moves to re-engage with the world, it should call upon a squad of sensible Colonel Houses.

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  • Michael Fullilove is Program Director for Global Issues at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. A former adviser to the Australian prime minister, he is writing a book on Franklin Roosevelt's envoy diplomacy.
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