- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Here’s what may seem an undiplomatic suggestion: Everyone confirmed as secretary of state should be required to surrender his or her passport. This suggestion is made in full knowledge that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently was in Moscow and Western Europe trying to negotiate a deal on the Iranian nuclear program.

Why should she, and all future secretaries of state, be more or less restricted to the seventh floor of the State Department’s headquarters in Washington’s celebrated “Foggy Bottom”?

Here are a few reasons:

(1) Negotiations should be carried out by officials low enough on the totem pole so that any positions they take, and any agreements they make, can be reviewed and, if necessary, overruled, by superiors in Washington with time to think about what is being negotiated. Traditionally — or at least since summit diplomacy became somewhat normal, with Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Harry Truman and Clement Atlee traveling to meet Josef Stalin during the Second World War — there have been essentially two types of diplomacy: That carried out by experts at the working level and then ratified at whatever level; and summitry, where most, if not all decisions are made at lower levels and are then rubberstamped by junketing heads of government.

On very rare occasion, summitry has gone off the rails, as at Reykjavik, Iceland, when Ronald Reagan flummoxed his advisers by proposing to Mikhail Gorbachev that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union destroy all their ballistic missiles.

Presidential diplomacy is obviously risky, but at least it is relatively rare. Diplomacy conducted personally by the secretary of state has become the norm, rather than the exception. It’s like a right-handed boxer leading with his right. It doesn’t leave room for effective follow-up.

(2) Having secretaries of state handle routine negotiations undermines the Foreign Service. We have thousands of intelligent, hard-working, well-informed professionals working in the Foreign Service. Leaders around the world have gotten the bad idea that the only sure sign Americans take a problem seriously is if the secretary of state gets on a plane and goes to meet somebody. They feel insulted if they have to deal with anybody other than the secretary.

Furthermore, to at least some extent, it takes the experts out of the loop. Any secretary of state may know more about certain areas than anybody on his or her staff, but no secretary of state can know more about everything than everybody on the staff. When a secretary of state thinks he or she knows more than anybody else around, the results have not been good. For example, before Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, the United States was the only power on good terms with Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. After Henry Kissinger took negotiations out of the hands of the experts, the United States wound up as the villain in the eyes of all three, and the wounds have never been fully healed.

(3) This is a tactic with ever-decreasing usefulness. In essence, it was invented by Henry Kissinger in his dramatic “shuttle diplomacy” between Israel and various Arab capitals following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Because it was so unusual, it had some effect. But now it is the most common thing for U.S. secretaries of state to pop up anywhere on any excuse, so the effect has been largely attenuated.

(4) Secretaries of state are too important — or should be — to send wading into just about every part of the world to stick their noses into whatever mess crops up. It also exposes them to all kinds of silliness, as, for example, when the King of Morocco kept Secretary of State Colin Powell cooling his heals for two hours to punish the U.S. for our policy in the Middle East. If some junior official gets insulted, we can ignore it and go on with business. Not so with the secretary of state. When somebody does something nasty to the secretary of state, of course there’s a flock of journalists on hand to witness the embarrassment, and it becomes a classic “international incident.”

Of course this idea can be taken too far. Franklin Roosevelt had little use for his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, except as a means of selling his foreign policy to the U.S. Senate, so that what had happened to Woodrow Wilson after World War I would not happen to Roosevelt after World War II. Roosevelt flatly prohibited Hull from participating in any of the summit conferences, which had the interesting effect of making it impolitic for other participants’ foreign ministers to show up.

But FDR’s mistrust extended way beyond Hull to include the entire Foreign Service, so he conducted much of his administration’s diplomacy through the Treasury Department, through private individuals like Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini, or through his trusted friend Harry Hopkins. These improvised, back channel arrangements did significant and long-lasting damage to America’s ability to conduct effective foreign policies.

The idea is not to weaken the Foreign Service, but rather to rely on the professionals. Let the secretary manage the department instead of trying to run things out of his or her back pocket by constant, whirlwind globetrotting.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington, D.C., and Florence, Italy.

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