Diplomacy, Wired

Friday, January 30, 1998
George Shultz

What Remains the Same

George Shultz

Diplomacy is the method--some might say the art--by which relations between nations are managed. It is the manner, as distinct from the content, of foreign policy. How should we conduct diplomacy in the increasingly pervasive and globalized information age? In my view, lots has changed, lots remains the same, and lots of dividends will come from thinking about the new sources of information as they affect diplomatic objectives.

Diplomacy is a fundamental human activity, conducted between people as well as among nations. There are many kinds of diplomats. As the Renaissance reached England, Sir Francis Bacon expressed his views on the effective diplomat in his essay "Of Negotiating": "Put little or nothing in writing, deal face to face where a man's eye upon the countenance of him with whom he speaketh may give him a direction how far to go." And Bacon would pick different personalities for different diplomatic jobs: "bold men for expostulation, fair-spoken men for persuasion, crafty men for inquiry and observation, forward and absurd [that is, unyielding] men for business that doth not well bear out itself." So the proper diplomat must be suited to the mission.

Moreover, the diplomat must truly represent us. To make this point, when swearing in new ambassadors, I used to take them over to the big globe in the secretary of state's office and ask them to point out their country. Almost invariably they would rotate the globe and point to their post, wherever in the world. I would then tell them that when I made this request of Senator Mike Mansfield, then American ambassador to Japan, he spun the globe, put his finger on the United States, and said, "This is my country!"

Diplomats must speak with authority for the nation; otherwise no one will deal with them seriously. They might be toyed with, perhaps; used as a conduit for exaggerations; or ignored. True diplomats build and nurture their bases of authority, recognizing that a great bulk of the work related to diplomacy takes place within, as distinct from between, the constituencies involved.

The good diplomat wants to know that the other party speaks with authority, so that a true agreement can be reached. When this is not so, or when games are played about the structure of authority, or when authority is inherently diffused, the task of the diplomat is much more difficult.

The relationships involved in diplomatic exchanges--for example, alliances--must offer the possibility of benefit to all the parties concerned. So the stakes must be worth the effort.

Most negotiations are not onetime events but part of a process with ups and downs, which must be understood. As such, relationships should be constructed with long-term considerations in mind. I do not mean making the relationship itself the center of concern and attention; that only turns it into a bargaining chip. The quality of a relationship should reflect the parties' ability to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities. Nevertheless, the reality is that major powers will interact over time, so short-term tensions need careful--and sometimes confrontational--treatment.

I know something about negotiation. I started out in the field of labor-management negotiations back in the days when that was the big league as far as negotiation goes. Now there is a time to negotiate and a time to refrain from negotiating. There are principles that give your negotiation backbone. Negotiation has to be about something that matters. And it has to be for something that counts. But in recent years we have seen the emergence of the idea that anything and everything can be negotiated.

We have seen it asserted that everyone has legitimate needs and concerns and that if those needs are only understood and addressed, then a successful outcome can be negotiated. In the context of this framework, we have seen principles negotiated away. We have seen violence rewarded with a seat at the negotiating table. We have seen dictators legitimized as negotiating partners, rogue states given international recognition, and amnesty granted to wrongdoers. We have seen hard-won international standards set aside--all for the sake of getting a negotiated agreement. We have seen negotiators make deals they know won't be honored--thus poisoning the well for future negotiations. These are not true negotiations but cheap, quick fixes that push the problems down the road, where eventually somebody else will have to try to solve them with diplomatic tools that have been corrupted by recent misuses and abuses.

Good diplomacy relies on accurate, relevant information. Sifting out that information is crucial, as is the process of analyzing what the information means. There is no substitute for "touch and feel" in these processes. The diplomat on the spot--respected, well connected, and linguistically comfortable--makes essential contributions.

Skillfully writing careful dispatches back home has always been a key diplomatic art. It sounds easy, but it isn't. Reporting has to be solid and well considered. It has to emerge from deep experience and a good understanding of the society reported on. Above all, it has to be completely accurate--no colors, no emotions, no advocacy. Fact and commentary must be ruthlessly segregated.

We are told that embassy reporting is no longer needed today, that CNN does it faster and better. CNN is journalism--and that's great; I'm all for it. It's fast breaking, faster than any embassy can match, but it's not diplomatic reporting. As Admiral Jon Howe used to say, "The first intelligence reports are almost always wrong." And television journalism is not universal. It focuses on places and topics that the editors think the viewers are interested in, which is not at all the same list of things that may affect our national interest. And it depends on the availability of videotape and film footage. Look at the difference in coverage between Bob Dole's falling off a speaker's platform in broad daylight in front of the cameras and Bill Clinton's falling down the stairs in the dead of night.

It is also important to distinguish between excellent means of communication and excellent communication. Information technology cannot replace solid diplomatic reporting. Computers offer the means, and educated men offer the communication. Until solid and thoughtful reporting--diplomatic reporting--comes in, we need to hold our fire. And we need to urge American administrations to stop depriving diplomatic reporting of its most valuable advantage--universality of coverage. When the media are closing foreign bureaus is exactly the wrong time for the U.S. government to be closing and consolidating embassies and consulates abroad.

The information age brings us an overwhelming flood of material, which is wonderful. But the job of sorting it out and making sense of it is becoming more difficult. We have, and need to maintain, a competition among analysts--at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The private sector and individuals, however, now have access to information that was once available only to a few government agencies. The New York Times recently ran a story about "Johnson's Russia List," an Internet service that posts all sorts of documents from Russia, as well as opinions and commentary from Western and Russian observers. So now everybody can get into the analysis act. That's good, but does it replace the insightful analysis of the diplomat on the spot--the foreign service officer assigned to Moscow? No, not in my experience. Only our people who are right there, walking around in Moscow, can provide insight into what this flood of material means. You just can't get the total feel for it by looking at a computer screen half a world away.

Skillful diplomacy requires attention even when there are no acute problems or burning opportunities. I call this gardening, getting the weeds out when they are small. In such a way, you also build confidence and understanding. Then, when a crisis arises, you have a clear and solid base from which to work.

A set of strategic ideas is essential. Without it, you don't know where you are going. With it, you have the foundation for the kind of cumulative knowledge needed to cope with the almost constant minicrises. Also, when you must act quickly and decisively, you have a guidepost on which to rely.

The interplay between strength and diplomacy is essential. Diplomacy without strength--military and economic--is fruitless; but strength without diplomacy is unsustainable, particularly in the modern era, when citizens want their leaders to demonstrate that they are searching for solutions. It is significant that permanent embassies arose at the same time as permanent armies. One could be regarded as the antidote to the other. Strength and diplomacy have always gone together and still do.

Someone must produce good judgment. Someone must have some steel in the backbone when the going gets rough and exercise common sense at those times when most others, even the vaunted media folks, are losing their sense of direction, if not their heads.

What's New and Different

Here again, a special word about information technology. Information moves around at terrific speed. That point is dramatic when applied to financial markets, which react almost instantaneously to important breaking news. As Walter Wriston long ago put it, "World markets now operate on an information standard." But information is the raw material of diplomacy as well: getting information, assessing it, putting it into the system for the benefit or puzzlement of others.

Borders mean less because information and ideas flow across them, whether the government likes it or not. Sovereignty is still a clear and powerful concept, but its meaning has been altered. Regions and nationalities transcend borders, as do religious and ethnic ties. And the media, particularly television, play a larger role than ever. After all, because they are in the information business, they have developed the skills of quickly gathering information and sorting out what is newsworthy.

TV journalism focuses on topics the editors think will interest their viewers. That's not at all the same list of things that may affect our national interest.

Sometimes the pictures are dramatic and as real as life itself. I remember the extreme difficulty of handling the terrorists who took over TWA Flight 847 in 1985 because the American media and their cameras were not only covering the crisis but giving the terrorists every opportunity to air their propaganda. But I also remember how dramatic the scenes of mass protest in the Philippines on CNN were in 1986 and how beneficial they were in encouraging President Marcos to leave office.

My views on the media's role in foreign affairs are heavily influenced by the notion of "quantum diplomacy," for which I must credit a physicist friend at Stanford, Sid Drell. An axiom of quantum theory is that when you observe and measure some piece of a system, you inevitably disturb the whole system. So the process of observation itself is a cause of change. That is all too often the case when a TV camera is right in the middle of some chaotic event, trying to capture its essence objectively. Quantum diplomacy holds that true reality is hard to record. So the possibilities of distortions, let alone selectivity, mean that an independent base of information for our diplomats is essential.

The Future of Diplomacy in the Information Age

We need to think in fresh terms about the collection and analysis of the information needed to inform and carry out our diplomatic objectives. The photographic and electronic intelligence we have relied on for so long should continue. We should also be prepared to exploit what we can glean from the Internet.

But I see no reason to continue with the notion that every embassy should have an intelligence station, with all the extra expense and exposure that brings. Clandestine human intelligence collection is still needed in some countries and in a few critical areas, such as those exposed to terrorism. Such collection efforts should be specifically tasked and, therefore, managed carefully yet aggressively to yield the best results.

In place of a large number of full stations, I favor more small consulates operated on an open basis. A few trained people on the ground can help in the analytic, as well as collection, functions. A small, open consulate can also be operated relatively inexpensively. The expense comes with the full station and all the accompanying security and secrecy apparatus.

Independent bases of information remain of vital importance. As I said, our diplomats need the information that is supplied to them by trained, diplomatic professionals, not just the stream of undifferentiated and often sensationalized information that the media provide.

The information age has of course ushered in a great many changes in the world of diplomacy. But it is nevertheless also true that a great deal about human relations and, hence, about diplomacy itself remains unchanged. As Meg Greenfield put it: "Decked out in our ever newer skills and abilities and seemingly magical potential, facing the glowing screens of our new life, soaring above the earth, bouncing back from a long dreaded and once mortal disease, guess what? It's the same old us."