I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.
Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.
It’s no secret the State Department is poor at negotiations. In recent years, the North Koreans, Russians, and Iranians have outmaneuvered their American counterparts to the detriment of U.S. national security. Top-level negotiators edit junior diplomats’ cables and memorandums of conversation to substitute what was said with what they wished they had said. Seldom do ambassadors tolerate independent process observers.
Perhaps the State Department should take a lesson from their comrades in uniform. After every negotiating session, officials should identify what they won, what they lost, what they might have done better, and be merciless in identifying pivotal mistakes. Any new diplomat entering a region should be required to read and drill in the detail of the negotiations and their after-action reports, rather than simply taking the last agreement as a starting point.
Take the efforts to negotiate with the Taliban: While these negotiations have become the central pillar for Obama’s efforts to extricate America from Afghanistan, they are hardly new, yet there has never been a State Department effort to review their previous, unsuccessful negotiations, to determine what went wrong. I wrote about the 1995-2000 Taliban talks for COMMENTARY, but I was glad to see Karl Inderfurth, a participant in those earlier negotiations, revisit his experience in Foreign Policy. He counseled better preparation for negotiations:
“Several probing questions need to be asked of Taliban representatives,” he wrote:
- Do the Taliban accept a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, and what is their vision of it?
- Do the Taliban have a political and economic plan for the future of Afghanistan?
- Will they accept the international instruments to which Afghanistan has acceded, particularly with regard to human rights?
- Will they honor and enforce the rights of women, minorities and ethnic groups?
- Will they respect the role of shuras (tribal councils): local, provincial and national?
- Are they willing to support and abide by internationally acceptable mechanisms of legitimization, like elections, referendums or tribal consensus?
None of these questions, he related, could be answered affirmatively in the 1990s. “Can they be [answered affirmatively] today?” he asked.
Without undertaking extensive reviews of lessons learned, regular role-playing exercises—the diplomatic equivalent of war games with seasoned experts playing adversaries—and preparing extensively ahead of meetings, American diplomats, no matter how capable they might be, will get played.
Diplomacy can’t be done off the cuff, and failed episodes should never be forgotten. Inderfurth concludes his article by quoting Winston Churchill’s famous quip that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” There’s a reason, however, why the United States has the most powerful military in the world, but at present lags behind in effective diplomacy.