The Game That Ruins Friendships and Shapes Careers
For me, Diplomacy is an addictive quarantine hobby. For my high school frenemy, it was training for the Trump administration.
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In the absence of parties and happy hours and date nights, millions of Americans living under lockdown have regressed into pastimes like playing Animal Crossing, reading War and Peace, baking sourdough bread, or attempting to learn Romanian.
For me and around two dozen friends, the diversion of choice has been Diplomacy, the strategy board game invented by a Harvard University undergraduate named Allan B. Calhamer in the 1950s, mass-marketed by the game company Avalon Hill, and eventually developed into an elaborate (and mostly free) online hobby. My friends, some of whom had never played before the COVID-19 pandemic, have quickly become hopeless addicts. For me, Diplomacy has been an on-and-off obsession since high school, when I played it at the home of one Michael Ellis, then a young conservative, and now an obscure but potent player in the Trump administration. The lessons the game taught both of us stuck, but in very different ways.
If you’ve never played Diplomacy, it might be hard to explain its appeal. The game is not for everyone, but it is ideally suited for the kind of nerd who has a deep interest in international relations, geopolitics, or really politics of any kind—Foreign Policy’s readership, in other words. This is a game for people who dream about power in its purest form and how they might effectively wield it.
Beloved by President John F. Kennedy and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy models the realist view of international relations—in which sovereign states rationally compete for spheres of influence, eventually achieving a stable balance of power. The classic version of the game is set on a simplified map of Europe in 1901, at the height of the rivalry among the great imperial powers—England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey—that would eventually culminate in World War I. There are no dice, unlike in other classic strategy games like Risk or Axis & Allies, and there are only two types of game pieces: armies and fleets. Everything about Diplomacy is simple and easy to learn, but the actual gameplay is fiendishly complex, built around social interactions between seven committed players, each pursuing their own selfish interests through a series of ephemeral military pacts.
Part of what keeps Diplomacy interesting is its versatility—there are dozens if not hundreds of variant maps spanning regions and eras. In recent months, my friends and I have played variants set in the Western Hemisphere of the 1840s and in a near-future post-apocalyptic New York City, and we are currently deep into a 21-player global-scale variant set in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (we designed the last two of those ourselves). But the spirit of the game is rooted in that pre-World War I moment when the Western imperial powers coldly, amorally divided up the rest of the world between them while maneuvering for strategic advantage in Europe—a fun, gentlemanly board game for them and a series of massacres, genocides, and myriad other oppressions for millions of people on every continent who didn’t get to play. There are no moral or ideological distinctions among the great powers; aside from geographic circumstances, one plays the German kaiser, the British prime minister, or the Ottoman sultan exactly the same way. Diplomacy encourages its players to imagine themselves as grand negotiators redrawing borders with international peers at a summit, not as rulers charged with upholding any set of religious, national, or democratic values.
I bring all this up not to “cancel” Diplomacy, without which my quarantine would be a great deal more monotonous, but simply to note why it might be considered good preparation for being a political operative in Washington. As the name implies, most of the game is spent negotiating—forming secret alliances, divvying up proposed territorial gains, playing rival powers off one another, and spreading disinformation. Each player submits secret orders, which are then revealed and executed simultaneously, after which negotiations resume (repeat ad nauseam). There are no formal penalties for lying to another player, though one’s reputation may suffer, and the damage can outlast any one game. Diplomacy is famous for ending friendships; as a group activity, it requires opt-in from players who are comfortable casually manipulating one another. It’s certainly possible to possess such skills without deploying them in one’s career—as a freelance writer, my own manipulations extend only to guilting my editor when I see he’s playing online video games on Steam. But should one wish to enter the upper echelons of Beltway politics—the cynical world of This Town, the proverbial swamp that President Donald Trump pledged to drain and instead naturally adapted to—Diplomacy is an ideal training ground.
In a satisfying game of Diplomacy, where nobody flakes out because of other commitments, shifting great-power blocs will gradually whittle Europe down from seven powers to a more manageable four or three, who will then agree to a draw—or fail to do so, thus paving the way for a solo victory by the most ruthless player. Classic Diplomacy requires exactly seven players, no more and no less, and each must be willing to commit a large block of time to the game. In person, this might mean a chaotic afternoon at a house big enough for multiple players to pair off in separate rooms for scheming. The combination of a global pandemic and the internet makes setting this up much easier. There are free websites, such as PlayDiplomacy or Backstabbr, where strangers or groups of friends can arrange games to be played out over multiple weeks, with orders submitted every 12 or 24 hours and thus plenty of time for lengthy correspondences by email, phone, text, or direct message.
But if you’re a teenager, the time commitment needed for an in-person game is a lot more plausible. My own teenage Diplomacy frenzy took place two decades ago and almost exactly a century after the classic game is set. Our little clique, spread out among several D.C.-area high schools, would meet at Michael Ellis’s house in suburban Maryland and spend whole weekend afternoons plotting and backstabbing while totally sober. (We were very cool.) I’m still friends with a few members of that crowd, but not with our host, who in a narrow sense has gone on to greater success and influence than the rest of us—an achievement reached, perhaps, by fully internalizing Diplomacy’s cynical realpolitik.
Michael Ellis has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. He was briefly mentioned in a front-page New York Times story in March 2017, as one of two Trump administration officials who allegedly leaked classified intelligence reports to Ellis’s former employer Rep. Devin Nunes. This kicked off the “unmasking” scandal and what Trump and his allies now refer to as “Obamagate”—a semi-conspiratorial narrative in which the Obama administration supposedly surveilled Trump’s presidential transition team. (The government probe into it quietly fizzled last week.) The other official, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, also grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, and is 34 years old, two years behind me and Ellis. Cohen-Watnick has been the subject of some detailed reporting, but for whatever reason, Ellis has not received a similar hard look, despite the fact that he has had a hand in a number of more recent Trump administration scandals. (There has been some routine coverage of his career.)
Ellis is mentioned in the second article of impeachment against the president last year, as one of nine administration officials who defied subpoenas from congressional investigative committees, making him a party to Trump’s obstruction of Congress. According to testimony from now-retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman last fall, it was Ellis, then a White House legal advisor, who came up with the idea of moving the transcript of Trump’s fateful June 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a classified server. Trump was acquitted on party lines in the Senate in February; the only Republican senator to vote for the first article of impeachment, though not the second, was Mitt Romney, who employed Ellis as his deputy director of strategy in Boston during his failed 2008 presidential primary campaign.
Trump’s impeachment didn’t slow Ellis’s rise but resulted in a far more powerful—though still behind-the-scenes—position. A month after the acquittal, he was promoted to senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, working closely with Richard Grenell, who recently completed a brief stint as acting director of national intelligence. It’s an extremely powerful role, in which he serves as a gatekeeper between the intelligence community and the White House, a job that has traditionally been filled by senior intelligence officers rather than political loyalists, and one that entails direct oversight on covert action.
As one former holder of the office described it, it involves everything from “setting the president’s intelligence priorities and providing guidance to the DNI on policy matters, to determining who in the U.S. government is granted access to covert action programs and other sensitive operations.” The one thing Ellis has done at the National Security Council that has been reported on was to review the manuscript of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s recent tell-all memoir—after which, despite lacking the relevant training at the time, he determined that the book contained classified information and recommended that its publication be blocked.
As Ellis himself put it in his declaration during the White House lawsuit against Bolton: “Most others of the NSC staff do not have access to the same quantity of classified intelligence reporting that I do. Neither do most NSC staff routinely attend senior-level meetings related to national security and foreign policy decisions, as I do.”
I can only speculate why nobody has chosen to profile Ellis yet—it wouldn’t shock me if he’s been a valuable source for reporters—but there was a time when I knew him about as well as anybody outside the small, backbiting circle of Trumpian officials does today .
It’s been many years since I played Diplomacy at Ellis’s house, and I can’t claim to remember the specifics of any of our games. I do remember that he had a nervous tic when he lied, and that provinces like Silesia and Galicia weren’t abstractions on a board to him; as a European history buff and an admirer of Otto von Bismarck, he knew the lands of the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs intimately. I remember he wrote a high school senior paper on the Battle of Caporetto, the main theater on the Italian-Austrian border during World War I, which was a hell of a thing for a 17-year-old American to know or care about. I assume we must have double-crossed one another on more than one occasion, and I’m sure I took it personally.
We haven’t interacted since 2004 — although I reached out to him for comment well ahead of this article’s publication; he did not respond — when he was working for Karl Rove to reelect President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney; in our last conversation, he claimed he had no idea who was behind the so-called swift boating of Democratic nominee John Kerry. But for the five or so preceding years, aged 15 to 20, we were, if not friends, at least frenemies. We disagreed on politics; he was always a staunch conservative, and I was a liberal, though not yet the leftist I’ve since evolved into. But we had a group of nerdy (and overwhelmingly liberal) friends in common, and, if nothing else, we both enjoyed board games.
The writer Emily Gould recently tweeted that “there is a specific nerdy type of fame that only people from Montgomery County, MD seem to attain.” Gould, herself a MoCo native, was on to something: Ellis and I can both be understood as products of the D.C. suburbs, a unique region of the country where upper-middle-class liberals with advanced degrees are wildly overrepresented. It’s a milieu where political operatives, defense contractors, lawyers, and federal bureaucrats are completely normalized professions—many of our parents worked in them, and many of us would follow suit. At the same time, it’s an area so conformist and so hegemonically Democratic that an ambitious teenager can distinguish himself simply by batting for the other team.
Ellis was awkward and gangly, like the rest of us, but he had a certain old-fashioned gallantry; always well-mannered, always chivalrous. He was intelligent, a star student at Richard Montgomery High School’s competitive international baccalaureate program, from which he would go on to Dartmouth College(where he edited the Dartmouth Review) and Yale Law School. He was an Eagle Scout, a classical music aficionado, and an unabashed snob. He subscribed to National Review and once chided me for reading Entertainment Weekly, and he made a point of not listening to any contemporary popular music—no alternative rock or hip-hop for him. He sometimes wore bowties; he rotated daily between vintage Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon campaign buttons; and he carried a pocket Constitution to deploy during arguments.
He was by far the more competent and hard-working of the two of us, and his reward for that has been to carry water for both of the most destructive presidents of our lifetime. As our cohort became more politically conscious toward the end of high school, some of the women we knew began questioning how Michael could support a party opposed to their reproductive rights. “Michael’s response was that he didn’t really care one way or another about abortion rights and just enjoyed politics and thought that you could have more fun as a Republican,” one friend and fellow veteran of our Diplomacy games told me.
“Growing up around D.C., you would know lots of people who wanted to work in government or politics—some of them because they liked being near power, some of them because they wanted to make a difference,” another friend we played Diplomacy with recalled. “But I always had the sense that Michael liked being the cleverest one in the room, liked winning at the game—and it was a game. I never had a clear sense where his Republicanism came from, if it came from any place other than contrarianism in affluent-liberal Montgomery County, but clearly at a certain point he found that the political right would give him ample opportunity to win at the game as nastily as possible.”
In hindsight, I see Ellis as a conservative’s conservative, an aspirational William F. Buckley or George Will, instinctively deferential to authority, tradition, and hierarchy. He was working for Bush before he was 20; by 27, he was married with a law degree and a commission in the U.S. Navy; now, at 36, he is quietly one of the most powerful officials in Washington.
It’s impossible to imagine that Ellis respects Donald Trump on a personal level, or that serving someone of Trump’s intellect was what he had in mind at the start of his career. But it was entirely predictable that he would eventually serve in a Republican White House and protect the power of the executive without any regard for morality or decency. Ellis was a born operative, not an idealistic policymaker; he spent his formative years preparing for a culture that celebrates the culture of former Trump strategist Roger Stone and Attorney General Bill Barr.
The specifics of Ellis’s career path are pretty standard as far as political wunderkinds go, but my high school friends and I do find ourselves wondering how someone so obsessed with honor and cultural refinement could find himself consciously enabling the current occupant of the White House. While I have no wish to let any of them off the hook for their past or present sins, plenty of highly educated, D.C.-based former Republican operatives—David Frum, Bill Kristol, Stuart Stevens—have chosen to disavow the Republican Party over Trump. Ellis has chosen a different path.
I’m not going to argue that Diplomacy alone set him on that path, but one thing the game does is capture the low cunning, petty backstabbing, and total lack of scruples that underlay the competition among fin de siècle European empires. I believe Ellis understands at an intuitive level that there is no contradiction between his civilized pretensions and the sordid business of politics, in the Trump era or in any other. Trumpism is uniquely grotesque in its excesses, but Ellis demonstrates that the mentality required to succeed in the Trump administration isn’t fundamentally different from what the reactionary governments of previous empires required.
I love Diplomacy because I love staring at maps and designing my own; to me, it’s the first step to knowing a place and to learning more about its history. These days, I also love it because it helps me stave off loneliness under quarantine by keeping me in touch with like-minded friends who, notwithstanding their many cold-blooded betrayals, I’m inclined to think still respect me. Recently, I played as the United States and encouraged several players in the southern cone of South America—including my cousin, playing as Chile—to join forces in order to crush the various Caribbean-centered powers between us. Once they accomplished that goal, they immediately went on to steamroll me, which they did so efficiently that I can’t even get mad. After all, it’s just a game.
But I suspect it was more than a game to Ellis, and more than a celebration of gentlemanly 19th-century imperialism, though Diplomacy is inescapably that as well. For Ellis, it was a socially sanctioned way to hone his skills at deceit and subterfuge, skills that continue to serve him—and, more to the point, to serve Donald Trump. Ellis has served the president longer and with more loyalty than many other White House apparatchiks. This is a guy who would rather be powerful than popular, and who is willing to debase himself to win. “I remember feeling like you could never trust him,” a friend told me. “If you did, you’d invariably find him grinning at you over the board as the moves were resolved and he stabbed you in the back.”
Trump’s presidency may end next January, but Ellis’s career will likely endure any temporary reversal in Republican fortunes. The perpetrators of Iran-Contra and the Iraq War have prospered in Washington under administrations from both parties, and I expect Ellis and his Trump administration colleagues will prosper too. They’ll likely stab many rivals in the back along the way—and form many alliances with people who should know better.