Best Defense

Ben Rhodes and the decline of professionalism in foreign affairs

The arrogance and cynicism of White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes is the subject of a recent, largely admiring profile by David Samuels in "New York Times Magazine." It has generated ample criticism, ranging from the subtle and eloquent to the admirably and justifiably brutal.



By Eric R. Terzuolo
Best Defense guest columnist

The arrogance and cynicism of White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes is the subject of a recent, largely admiring profile by David Samuels in New York Times Magazine. It has generated ample criticism, ranging from the subtle and eloquent to the admirably and justifiably brutal. There is no need to pile on. But, for someone like myself, a practitioner of diplomacy for over twenty years, and more recently a teacher and scholar of international issues, the Rhodes profile is doubly depressing. It is, in my view, an obituary for professionalism in the conduct of foreign affairs.

I am not offering a naïve, total defense of the mainstream foreign policy makers and commentators that Rhodes disparages as “the Blob,” or of the implementers charged with making policy directives into reality. The historical record of U.S. foreign policy includes plenty of errors. But there also have been important successes, e.g. a highly successful relationship with Europe during the Cold War, which Rhodes appears to neglect, intentionally or not. (Perhaps they do not fit into his preferred narrative.) My lament for the passing of “foreign affairs professionalism” is not based in a belief that only career professionals can properly conduct international relations. In fact, if forced to pick the best ambassador I worked for (a tough call), I would single out a distinguished political appointee. The fact that Rhodes studied creative writing at NYU, rather than international relations, also doesn’t bother me. I had utterly brilliant Foreign Service colleagues with an enormous range of educational backgrounds, and fancy graduate degrees all too easily can prove worthless.

When I think of the best examples of foreign affairs professionalism I have encountered, a number of fairly simple and straightforward characteristics come to mind. And, based on the Times Magazine profile, Ben Rhodes’s rise illustrates how these characteristics are now devalued.

True foreign affairs professionals, in my view, care about the substance of issues, not just about how to present a policy to the public. (Though they do appreciate the importance of the latter.) They can make a distinction between a story about an international situation, and the situation itself. They distinguish between fiction and analysis, and try to discern underlying realities, beyond the veils of words covering them. I usually found respect for diverse inputs and opinions in the search for analyses that featured a healthy concern for truth. (This implies, of course, that simply cherry-picking bits of often questionable intelligence to support a pre-determined line of policy, based on wishful thinking, is not part of sound foreign affairs practice. And it’s not, though it can happen, as we know.)

In my experience, real foreign affairs professionals also know a lot, and it shows when you talk to them. In any number of ways, they acquire expertise on a single complex and important country, on a region, or on a transnational challenge like international narcotics trafficking or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But we now seem to have reached the point of complete separation between expertise on issues and expertise in communicating policy, markedly privileging the latter.

My only in-person view of Rhodes came a few years ago, when he spoke at a conference at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department’s professional development facility. He delivered a competent, if notably affectless, recitation of U.S. policy priorities with respect to a series of world regions. What struck me, however, was a lack of connection between the policy prescriptions and any visible appreciation for the specific characteristics and dynamics of said regions. In retrospect, there seems to have been no reason to expect anything different.

A foreign affairs professional, in my view, practices discretion. Diplomacy is, among other things, a context in which national representatives must be able to disagree, even quite vigorously, but in a way that avoids bruising egos — national and personal — and leaves open the possibility of effective negotiation. It works if participants can say things without having them immediately Tweeted. It also requires holding one’s tongue, not insulting negotiating partners or others that help form the context in which negotiations occur. It can be hard sometimes, usually in fact.

A foreign affairs professional actually practices what the profile’s author describes, with seemingly little basis in actual practice, as Rhodes’s mantra: “I’m not important.” Of course, in any highly competitive, high-stakes field of endeavor, powerful egos sometimes will be on display. But a real pro will try to keep that under control, and remember the work is first and foremost about the United States, its interests and role in the world. Ambassadors sometimes will write diplomatic cables in the first person, but it is precisely the rarity of such personalization that gives these messages their special impact.

Finally, a real foreign affairs professional knows how to be the grown-up in the room, maintain self-control, and model a constructive and at least potentially collaborative approach. This is a fundamental skill, whether in contentious inter-agency meetings in Washington, in frustrating bilateral or multilateral negotiations, or when a foreign political representative is angry about some disagreement or perceived slight.

One imagines that young people seeking careers in foreign affairs will read carefully the profile of a man identified as the President’s “foreign-policy guru,” looking for clues as to what it takes to succeed. Perhaps the ability to mount an effective Twitter campaign will prove to be the key attribute of foreign policy professionals for years to come. It would be nice to think, however, that the central figure in US foreign policy also might model some other historically proven traits of solid foreign affairs professionals.

Based on the Times Magazine profile, however, the case of Ben Rhodes suggests that those traits are not relevant anymore. We learn that his story about the genesis of Iran nuclear agreement “was largely manufactured for the purpose of selling the deal.” “Even where the particulars of that story [were] true,” we are told, consumers of the story were encouraged to draw “misleading or false” conclusions. By implication, fiction masquerading as fact. We also learn that the number one salesman for the Iran accord lacked any “investment in the technical specifics” or “any particular optimism about the future course of Iranian politics and society.” Hardly encouragement for the next generation of foreign policy practitioners to invest in acquiring actual expertise.

Discretion too has been cast to the winds. Rhodes revels in recounting the detail of his manipulations, and does not hold back his scorn for the foreign affairs “establishment” or the media. (Interestingly, however, we also learn that his entrée to the foreign policy world, rather uncommon for writers of fiction, came thanks to a family connection with the chief of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, not exactly a wild and crazy fringe organization.)

Although Rhodes insists that he is merely the President’s humble servitor, it is impossible to come away from the profile without feeling that the real narrative, which he seemingly is itching to share, is actually all about him. And, as for being the adult in the room, Samantha Powers’ analogy to Holden Caulfield, the classic snarky adolescent, says it all. The fact that it recurs in the profile author’s voice makes me doubt that Rhodes is uncomfortable with the metaphor.

For all these reasons, the Rhodes profile strikes me as an obituary for important aspects of foreign affairs professionalism. Fortunately, for those who want to enter the field, there have been and still are better models out there. Unfortunately, though, they tend not to receive lengthy profiles in the New York Times Magazine.

Eric Terzuolo served in Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean as a member of the Foreign Service from 1982 to 2003. He has since taught at institutions including the University of Amsterdam, University of Rome 3, and the Foreign Service Institute. He is author of two books on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and co-editor of a book on the collapse of non-democratic regimes to be published later this year. He holds a PhD in history from Stanford University, and recently completed an EdD at the George Washington University.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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