George W. Liebmann, The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and the Changing Face of US Diplomacy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 384 pp., $99.00.
Kori N. Schake, State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practices of the State Department (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2012), 194 pp., $19.95.
Of the many dichotomies in American public life, one of the most durable is the one between soldiers and diplomats. It fits nicely with others: hawks and doves; patriots and cosmopolites; nationalists and inter- or multinationalists. There are also related operational and behavioral dichotomies: strong versus weak; doing versus talking; solving versus managing problems. We cling, as President Obama infamously said, to our oppositional stereotypes. They are at once false and terribly real.
These stereotypes can be tempting to debunk. But we must do so with our eyes open. Some fifty years ago, the late historian Ernest May wrote what became a famous, but now largely forgotten, essay called “The Nature of Foreign Policy: The Calculated versus the Axiomatic.” It is about as clear a dissection of the dichotomous nature of American foreign-policy making as one could devise. In it he pointed to several instances where policy makers tried to limit, contain or otherwise control a foreign crisis or set of problems, only to find that the calculations failed and they were left nothing to fall back upon to guide subsequent decisions—except, that is, for the small set of axioms that are passed, and occasionally modified, from generation to generation.
Axioms tend to appear in the guise of slogans or doctrines. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Monroe Doctrine—which did not originate with that name—defined the American map of the Western Hemisphere. World War II and the Cold War expanded the doctrine, or variations of it, to the North Atlantic, the Persian Gulf and the North Pacific but stopped—by way of a terrible miscalculation—in Southeast Asia. Other important axioms include the “Open Door,” the “Good Neighbor,” and, more recently, the regional idea of “Whole and Free.” (Actually, this idea has roots in the Western Hemisphere going back to the early nineteenth century but now is applied mainly to post–Cold War Europe. Imagine an Asia whole and free!) Finally, there are the axioms that are attached to historical lessons or principles: the Munich principle of appeasement, which informed much of the thinking that went into nuclear deterrence; or the “lessons” of World War I and Vietnam, which still make policy makers think twice (or more than twice) about intervention and escalation for reasons of prestige or “credibility.”
This is all to say that the ways of thinking and acting in foreign affairs can be more consequential than the uniforms of the people doing them. At the same time, bureaucracies and bureaucratic culture matter, and not just on the margins. Ways of thinking do not evolve on their own; they are honed, rewarded, penalized and molded by official and unofficial environments and networks. The old model —where you sit is where you stand—contains a good deal of truth, but it is a necessary yet insufficient way to explain why the United States government does some things and should or should not do others. Thus, for all that the Defense and State Departments represent different cultures and policy capacities—not all directly connected to their vastly disparate budgets—we must remind ourselves that this particular binary opposition is easy to oversimplify or get wrong.