Center for Strategic Communication

[by Lynn C. Rees]
What Angelo Codevilla writes on what diplomacy is for has rarely been topped:

By their very nature, diplomacy and military force are means to the ends of statecraft as well as channels by which governments press their agendas onto others. Neither is inherently more or less useful than the other. Diplomacy verbally communicates realities that may move nations (it is not to be confused with any particular message diplomats may carry or with its effects), while military action (not to be confused with war) physically communicates a government’s wishes by trying to sweep away resistance to them. Whereas diplomacy represents realities, military operations create them. Statecraft—with which neither diplomacy nor military action should be confused—is about managing reality, coupling ends and means in ways that advance a country’s interests. Far from being antithetical to one another, diplomacy and military force are complementary insofar as they serve the same political ends.

Diplomacy is often popularly thought of as the peaceful alternative to violence, but in fact, diplomacy serves to prepare as often as to avoid war. It is an important part of waging war, often makes the difference in who wins, and nearly always codifies wars’ results. Again, diplomacy is the verbal representation of compelling international realities, and military force is one of those realities.

Conventionally, major military action is called war. The connection between means and ends determines the character of actions. War is military operations tailored to achieve one’s preferred peace. Only insofar as a military operation is so crafted as to bring about the desired peace does it qualify as an act of war as opposed to senseless violence.

The study of history helps us to see through the fog of contemporary loose talk…Studying history helps us to understand the arts of diplomacy and of war for themselves and as tools of statecraft.


Imagine two persons at odds over any given matter. A friend might suggest: “Why don’t you resolve your differences through diplomacy? I’ll set up the meetings.” But, what could each say at those meetings that would make the differences less important than they were before? If the differences remained important, why should either side accommodate the other’s wishes? Perhaps the differences were not real—mere misunderstandings. Perhaps, though real, they were small in comparison with other interests that either or both are willing to take as currency in exchange for giving up their claims in the matter at hand. Perhaps new events have reduced the controversy’s importance for either or both. Or, one side may present to the other realities of which it was ignorant that lead it to change its position. If so, the meeting may produce agreement. But if neither side presents to the other anything it did not know before, both sides will be lucky if the meeting just leaves the controversy where it was and does not worsen it.

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies…


From the Journal of John Quincy Adams:

Washington, November 7th. -Cabinet meeting at the President’s from half past one till four. Mr. Calhoun, Secretary of War, and Mr. Southard, Secretary of the Navy, present. The subject for consideration was, the confidential proposals of the British Secretary of State, George Canning, to R. Rush, and the correspondence between them relating to the projects of the Holy Alliance upon South America. There was much conversation, without coming to any definite point. The object of Canning appears to have been to obtain some public pledge from the Government of the United States, ostensibly against the forcible interference of the Holy Alliance between Spain and South America; but really or especially against the acquisition to the United States themselves of any part of the Spanish American possessions.

Mr. Calhoun inclined to giving a discretionary power to Mr. Rush to join in a declaration against the interference of the Holy Allies, if necessary, even if it should pledge us not to take Cuba or the province of Texas; because the power of Great Britain being greater than ours to seize upon them, we should get the advantage of obtaining from her the same declaration we should make ourselves.

I thought the cases not parallel. We have no intention of seizing either Texas or Cuba. But the inhabitants of either or both may exercise their primitive fights, and solicit a union with us. They will certainly do no such thing to Great Britain. By joining with her, therefore, in her proposed declaration, we give her a substantial and perhaps inconvenient pledge against ourselves, and really obtain nothing in return. Without entering now into the enquiry of the expediency of our annexing Texas or Cuba to our Union, we should at least keep ourselves free to act as emergencies may arise, and not tie ourselves down to any principle which might immediately afterwards be brought to bear against ourselves.

Mr. Southard inclined much to the same opinion.

The President was averse to any course which should have the appearance of taking a position subordinate to that of Great Britain. . . .

I remarked that the communications recently received from the Russian Minister, Baron Tuyl, afforded, as I thought, a very suitable and convenient opportunity for us to take our stand against the Holy Alliance, and at the same time to decline the overture of Great Britain. It would be more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.

This idea was acquiesced in on all sides, and my draft for an answer to Baron Tuyl’s note announcing the Emperor’s determination to refuse receiving any Minister from the South American Governments was read.


—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissension among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

The history of U.S. diplomacy since World War II is in too-large measure that of what happens when this judgment is made badly. Whether with regard to the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Soviet Union, or the Middle East and North Korea in our time, the default U.S. modus operandi has been to consider diplomacy as an independent factor, for diplomats to treat all interlocutors as “partners,” and to treat negotiations as mutual good-faith searches for agreements. Of course this has permitted, even encouraged and rewarded, America’s adversaries to treat negotiations as instruments of conflict. Just as important, by validating the other side’s bona fides, American diplomats have placed themselves in the awkward position of taking blame for the failure of negotiations to achieve the ends that they themselves proclaimed were at hand. The embarrassment of revoking certifications of bona fides granted gratuitously has pressed American diplomats preemptively to dismiss the option of “walking away” and to worry lest the other side take it up. Hence also, American diplomats are wary of exerting pressure through “side effects” lest they “sour” the negotiations. Thus they end up valuing less the substance of any agreement than the appearance thereof. The result has been not just the practice but also the advocacy of international agreements that are no such thing.

Most often, today’s high-profile agreements are written purposely so that both sides may interpret them precisely as they wish—that is, precisely as if no negotiation had taken place. Whom does this benefit or disadvantage? Clearly, governments who depend on public opinion and who publicly subscribe to the fiction that an agreement has been reached must realize that if and when they subsequently take action in response to the other side’s undiminished pursuit of its goals, they will impeach thereby their own judgment and performance. Moreover, make-believe successes are guaranteed to turn into real defeats that cannot be spun away. That is why—the case of U.S. negotiations with North Korea illustrates the point well —diplomats have caveated their claims of agreement by adding the word “framework.” But what is a “framework agreement” other than the codification of an agenda and a pledge to agree later, maybe? Agreements to agree really advertise that no agreement exists.

Even more transparently unnatural are so-called agreements on “Processes”—e.g. “disarmament processes” and “peace processes.” You wanted disarmament and peace; you have armament and war. But you’ve succeeded in engaging the several parties in procedures that will overcome substantive intentions—tomorrow. Casting thin veils over unpleasant realities is not, however, diplomacy. The ultimate in such see-through diplomatic garments is surely the 2005 agreement on the Bush administration’s “roadmap” to Arab-Israeli peace. Here policymakers and diplomats cannot manage to pretend that there is any agreement even on a diplomatic agenda, much less on the fundamental issues. But they tout agreement on ambiguously phrased interim goals as tracing the road to talks leading to a process.

Why then do policymakers and diplomats, followed by the media and academe, so abuse the fundamentals of their craft? Because doing the craft badly is easier than doing it well. Competent diplomacy requires deciding on one’s own course of action before making diplomatic contact rather than during negotiations. In book 8 of his history, Livy tells us of a meeting of the Latin cities to instruct their joint delegation for a meeting with the Romans. After much wrangling, one Lucius Annius said: “How we act will affect the main issue more than what we say. Once we have set our plans in order, it will be easy to find words to fit our deeds.”


[8] but the Romans, though quite certain that the allies and all the Latins were going to revolt, nevertheless, as if concerned not for themselves but for the Samnites, summoned to Rome the ten chief men of the Latins, that they might give them such commands as they might wish.

[9] Latium at that time had two praetors, Lucius Annius Setinus and Lucius Numisius Circeiensis, both from Roman colonies, through whose contrivance, besides Signia and Velitrae —likewise Roman colonies — even the Volsci had been induced to draw the sword.

[10] it was determined to summon these men by name. Nobody could be in doubt why they were sent for; accordingly, before setting out for Rome the praetors held a council, and explaining how they had been summoned by the Roman senate, asked instructions touching the answers they should give to the questions which they supposed would be put to them.


[1] while one was suggesting this thing and another that, Annius arose. “notwithstanding I have myself referred to you,” said he, “the question as to what our reply should be, nevertheless I consider that what we are to do is of more importance to the welfare of our nation than what we are to say.

[2] it will be easy, when we have straightened out our plans, to frame words suitable to our conduct. for if we are able even now to endure slavery under a shadowy pretense of equal treaty —rights, what is left for us but to give up the Sidicini, and obeying the behest not of the Romans only but also of the Samnites, make answer to the Romans that we are ready to lay down our arms at their beck and call?

[3] but if our hearts are pricked at last with a longing for liberty; if treaties, if alliances, mean equality of rights; if we may now glory in the kinship of the Romans, of which we were formerly ashamed; if they mean by “allied army” one which added to their own doubles its numbers, one which they would not wish to make its own war and peace, apart from them; —if

[4] these things are so, I say, why are not all things equalized?

[5] why is not one consul furnished by the Latins? where a portion of the strength is, there, too, should be a portion of the authority.

[6] for us, indeed, this is not in itself any too great an honor, since we suffer Rome to be the capital of Latium; but we have made it seem an honor by our prolonged submissiveness.

[7] and yet, if ever at any time you have desired to share in the government and to use your freedom, behold, now is your opportunity, bestowed on you by your valor and by Heaven’s favor!

[8] you have tried their patience by denying them troops; who can doubt that they were enraged when we broke the tradition of two hundred years? yet they swallowed their resentment. we waged war on our own account with the Paeligni; those who aforetime withheld from us even the right to defend our own borders by ourselves, never interposed.

[9] they have heard how we received the Sidicini into our protection, how the Campanians have left them and joined us, how we are raising armies against the Samnites, their confederates, —and have not stirred from the City.

[10] whence comes this great restraint on their part, if it come not from the consciousness of our strength —and their own? I have good authority for saying that when the Samnites were complaining of us, the Roman senate answered in such wise that it might readily appear that even the Romans themselves no longer demanded that Latium should be under their authority.

[11] do but take up in your demands what they tacitly concede to you. if there is any man whom fear prevents from saying this, lo, I declare that I myself will say it, in the hearing not of the Roman People only and their senate, but of Jupiter himself, who dwells in the Capitol; that if they wish us to observe the treaty of alliance, they must receive from us one consul and a moiety of the senate.”

[12] These bold encouragements, and even promises, were received with a general shout of approval, and Annius was empowered to act and speak as might seem conducive to the welfare of the Latin state and befitting his own honor.


Jobs in policymaking have always been attractive, but making hard choices is naturally unattractive.

Second, figuring out what “the available terms” may be and securing them requires some creativity. Consider Thucydides’ account of the Spartan general Brasidas’ conquest of Thrace, accomplished very largely through diplomacy. Brasidas made offers the other side could not refuse and asked for little. He passed through neutral territory with a small force after professing friendship at the border and getting those who had stopped him to go home for consultation. On his way to Amphipolis, home of the Athenian garrison in Thrace, he secured the nominal alliance of cities (he needed and asked for no more than that) by offering friendship and trade while holding hostage the cities’ ripe crops. After seizing Amphipolis’ landward approaches and farmlands, and knowing that Athenian reinforcements were on the way, he offered everyone in the city, Athenians included, safety, political rights, and respect of property in return for letting him free the city from the Athenian empire, immediately. He figured correctly that few would be willing to risk their lives and surely lose property by fighting a superior Spartan force for the sake of the Athenian empire. Brasidas’ diplomacy fit ends, means, and circumstances just right. Diplomacy’s need for solvency is not just an old story. It is also the leitmotif of the twentieth century’s leading American diplomatic historian, Norman Graebner.

Third, in the balance of incentives, an edge in the capacity to instill fear usually outweighs positive factors. Again, consider Thucydides. As the Athenians were trying to round up Sicilian allies against Syracuse, the local great power they were besieging, they told the people of neighboring Camarina that siding with Athens would free them from their ancient hegemon and that Athens could not oppress them because it would be too far away. By contrast, Syracuse’s Hermocrates offered no positive incentives. Small cities like Camarina, he said, cannot escape being under the big ones’ thumbs. Camarina must keep in mind that, whatever might happen, Syracuse would surely remain nearby, and that if Camarina sided with Athens, sooner or later it would not escape “the lasting hatred we should feel for you.” Thucydides tells us that the Camarinans’ fears drove them to spurn uncertain hopes to side with their ancient oppressors. The reality that Syracuse was going to be there for the long run, along with its venom, made up for the besieged tyrants’ lack of present incentives.

Fourth, diplomacy is not about tricks, lies, bluffs or misrepresentations. It is about representing reality in precise words on which all may rely, and of course on the compelling qualities of the things the words represent. Reputations for reliability are hard won and easily lost—by countries as well as by individuals. Hence it is incumbent on a diplomat to brandish only consequences that follow naturally from events, and the fulfillment of which is in his country’s interest as well as capacity, which it intends and may not even be able to avoid—in short, to warn but not to threaten.