By Other Means

Would Machiavelli Have Drawn a Red Line?

The case for subtle diplomacy.


In days of yore, diplomats were diplomatic. Or so, at least, I am led to believe by fiction and film: Fictional diplomats are erudite, conniving, and suave, treating allies and enemies alike with the same elegant courtesy, even while arranging the most sophisticated betrayals.

Consider the urbane Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a manipulative flatterer who "strove to read the very souls of those with whom he came in contact." Or take the character of Mr. Dryden in Lawrence of Arabia, who defends diplomatic duplicity by asserting, "A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he’s put it." Above all, consider that most infamous of real-life diplomats, Niccolò Machiavelli. Dishonest? Certainly. Amoral? Possibly. But rude and obnoxious? Never.

Somewhere along the line, this seems to have changed. Today, many of our senior-most diplomats (and I include the president in that general category) seem to substitute shrillness for suavity, hectoring intransigence for erudition, and prissy pomposity for persuasion.

The examples are too numerous to cite, but take that peculiarly popular word "unacceptable" (as in, "That is unacceptable to the United States"). The number of things the United States finds "unacceptable" is equaled only by the number of things it "will not tolerate." And that is to say nothing of the multitude of "red lines" and "lines in the sand" that U.S. officials draw on a regular basis.

Here are some of the numerous things that have recently been asserted to be "unacceptable" and "intolerable" to the United States:

  • A nuclear-armed Iran. "Unacceptable to the United States." (Hillary Clinton) "We’re not going to tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of [Iran]." (President Obama)
  • A nuclear-armed North Korea. "We will not tolerate it. We will not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program." (George W. Bush) A decade later? "The rhetoric that we’re hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable." A nuclear North Korea "will not be accepted." (John Kerry)
  • Bad behavior by Pakistan. Pakistani safe havens for the Haqqani Network? "That’s unacceptable." (Leon Panetta) Also, corruption in Pakistan: "We will not tolerate corruption." (Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley)
  • Eritrean meddling in Somalia. "It is unacceptable, and we will not tolerate it." (Susan Rice)
  • Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. "Unacceptable in the 21st century." (George W. Bush)
  • Chinese unfair trade practices. "Unacceptable." (Former Commerce Secretary John Bryson)
  • The U.N. Security Council, which, due to a dispute between the United States and Russia over the wording of a resolution condemning terrorist attacks in Damascus, ended up passing nothing at all. "It is unacceptable to the United States that the U.N. Security Council not…express its outrage at the heinous, sustained attacks on innocent civilians that the Syrian regime continues to launch." (Eric Pelton, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations)
  • Aggression across borders in the Middle East. We "will not tolerate" it. (President Obama)


That’s just a partial list. Believe me, we find plenty of other things "unacceptable" as well.

There are two problems with this kind of rhetoric.

First, as everyone and their cousins have been lately observing, it’s not at all clear how U.S. interests are advanced by declaring behavior to be "unacceptable" when we have no intention of doing anything about it. (There are notable exceptions — ask Muammar Qaddafi — but in general, most activities condemned by the United States as unacceptable continue to this day, or, to the extent that they have stopped, they stopped with no credit due to us.) Iran routi
kicks sand on U.S. red lines, as does North Korea. Then, of course, there are all those "red lines" with Syria.

If we aren’t willing to take decisive action to stop the Syrian government’s appalling activities, what can it possibly mean to thump our chests and claim to have a red line? "Men," wrote Machiavelli, "must either be caressed or annihilated." Teddy Roosevelt proffered similar advice: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." We speak loudly, and though we undeniably carry a big stick, we mostly seem to flail about with it at random.

This isn’t an argument for using military force in Syria, or Iran, or anywhere else — maybe the use of force is justified and useful and maybe it’s not. But if we in fact intend to accept the "unacceptable" and tolerate the "intolerable," we would be wise to develop a different and more nuanced vocabulary.

There’s a second and less frequently noted problem with our absolutist rhetoric. It’s just obnoxious — and its sheer obnoxiousness makes it dangerous. The rhetoric of "unacceptable" and "intolerable" risks generating and reinforcing the very bad behavior we’re trying to stop — not just because each empty threat further reduces our credibility, but because our general stance toward the world has become so hectoring and schoolmarmish.

In general, U.S. diplomats treat foreign states and leaders like badly behaved toddlers. True, they often deserve it — but as Machiavelli would surely have observed, that’s not the point. The point is to advance our interests, defuse potentially dangerous conflicts, and dissuade others from engaging in brinksmanship. By using "my way or the highway" language, we frequently make things worse, by eliminating the possibility of face-saving compromise.

This is fine if we’re not interested in compromise, of course: If our goal is to force our adversaries into corners and then crush them, we should hector and insult to our hearts’ content. But if we’re actually trying to modify the behavior of foreign states, we might consider being a little more…diplomatic.

Traditional realist theories of international relations posit that states are self-interested rational actors. But "states" are governed by human beings (even vicious dictators are human). And these individuals, like all individuals, are products of their cultures, and influenced as much by ego and the expectations of those who surround them as by strictly rational cost-benefit calculations. A state can’t feel insulted or humiliated, but an individual certainly can — and at the end of the day, it’s individuals, not abstractions, who determine Iranian nuclear policy and Syrian military strategy.

Summarizing recent research on negotiations and conflict resolution, psychologists Michele Gelfand, Ashley Fulmer, and Laura Severance observe that, "not surprisingly, negative emotions have generally been shown to hinder negotiations, [generating] more critical reactions and less compliance." As they suggest, this is something most of us intuitively understand (though we may find it difficult to act on). From couples counseling to corporate negotiations, it’s something every good mediator knows: Compromise is far more likely when negotiators — even those with profound disagreements over values — treat each other with at least surface respect.

Apparently, senior U.S. diplomats neither read Machiavelli nor study negotiation theory (although there are plenty of excellent resources available should they feel inclined to remedy this lack). If they did, they might be a little less prone to declaring the behavior of foreign states "unacceptable" and "intolerable." For once senior U.S. diplomats publicly declare something "unacceptable" or "intolerable," how can any foreign leader back down without humiliation?

In the United States — which is about as far from an honor culture as it is possible to get — multiple about-faces are an accepted part of politics. This is far less true in many Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern contexts, in which "loss of face" may be considered far more devastating than loss of allies, loss of economic benefits, or even loss of life. Nonetheless, we continue to use rhetoric that backs our interlocutors into corners, instead of leaving open face-saving routes to compromise.

To be fair, this failing is not unique to U.S. diplomats. The Russians, for instance, seem similarly prone to declaring everything they don’t like "unacceptable." And in the United States, it’s a failing that afflicts Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Almost a decade ago, Fred Kaplan penned a devastating critique of the Bush administration’s North Korea policy, which was, he argued, characterized by "a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism [and] a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy." Shrill American rhetoric continued even as crossed "red lines" were ignored and multiple opportunities for real diplomatic progress were overlooked. If this sounds familiar, it should; we’re currently locked into similar destructive patterns with Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

This is not an argument for pussyfooting around. "Wisdom," observed Machiavelli, "consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil." There are plenty of acts that deserve harsh condemnation and may ultimately require a coercive response. Sometimes, conflicts are too intractable to be peacefully resolved, even by the most skillful and subtle diplomatic negotiations. Syria may well be a case in point. But the fact that some conflicts are intractable is no justification for diplomatic stupidity in all the rest.

Where’s Machiavelli when you need him?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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