As a former diplomat, I had the opportunity to observe the behavior of nations at close range and from a commanding view.
The complexities and challenges facing America and other countries in today’s multi-polar, interdependent, tumultuous, and fast-moving world is mind-boggling. But the art of statecraft remains unchanged since the birth of nation-states and can be reduced to five basic rules or principles, all of which are closely related.
Together, these rules constitute the playbook by which the leaders of the world operate to accomplish their goals in the dangerous arena of foreign affairs.
Rule No. 1: The first duty of a state is to survive.
Survival is paramount. Everything else is secondary. Values and morality are expendable in the altar of survival. All important acts of a state, herein defined simply as an organized political community operating under a government, are aimed at preserving itself, its system, and way of life.
This rule was invoked by the United States when president Truman ordered atomic bombs to lay waste the civilian centers of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It was a carnage of unprecedented magnitude on non-military targets but it was justifiable on the ground that it was necessary to force Japan to surrender without further delay. The nuclear bombs in fact did just that and thus saved perhaps as many as a million American lives.
The end (the survival of an inordinately large number of American lives) justified the means ( the massive destruction of two Japanese cities).
Rule No.2: Foreign Policy is an extension of a country’s domestic interests.
When world leaders go to the negotiating table they bring with them the hopes, fears, and dreams of their peoples. Specifically, what every leader is willing to give (in return for what the other side wants) depends on how each item on the table impacts on his country’s domestic policy and interests. In a very real sense, every leader is a hostage to this reality.
Take the war in Afghanistan where the US and its ally Pakistan can’t see eye-to-eye on the problem of Taliban insurgents operating from their sanctuaries in Pakistan. To the US military leaders, the Talibans continue to survive and mount attacks aimed at American targets because Pakistan is coddling the insurgents.
Why is Pakistan, an ally that received billions of US aid in recent years, protecting the Talibans? Because it’s greatest security fear is its big neighbor, India. Pakistan needs a friendly Afghanistan buffer that will act as a counterweight to India’s growing power. This fear overrides it’s discomfort of displeasing Washington.
Both have been allies for many years but due to divergent, conflicting national interests,
Pakistan and the US see the Taliban problem through different lens.
Rule No. 3: We cannot Escape Geography.
Geography is the nourishing mother of nations and its first line of defense against invaders. Woe to a nation that neglects this reality.
The US is not called “fortress America” for nothing. Fortunate to have a continental size country bounded on its Eastern and Western flanks by two of the world’s largest oceans, the US is geographically endowed with protective barriers against the great land wars that ravaged continental Europe during two world wars.
A nation’s foreign policy, being a continuation of its domestic policy, should never lose sight of it’s geographic interests: the wealth on its shores or lack of it, and the same reckoning of its neighbors. This accounting and inventory of a nation’s assets and liabilities, from its military, manpower, land, internal waters, natural resources, intellectual infrastructure, etc. is consistent with the dictum, “know yourself, your friends, and your enemies.”
A leader that goes to negotiations without a firm grasp of his country’s strengths and weaknesses is an unprepared leader with a weak and shaky hand.
Rule No. 4: Size (Power) Matters.
Powerful, triumphant states write (or rewrite) history. In war and in peace, size matters. From the Roman empire to post-war, Pax Americana, power (military, ideological, political, psychological, and economic) dictated the course of history.
But although most often, big states get what they want, directly or indirectly, smaller states who know how to play the power game can sometimes make up for their smaller size. One simple way is to have strong relations and partnerships with powerful states, like the US, Russia, or China, an alliance that protects weak states from the predatory machinations of stronger ones.
Short of war, most of the time, powerful states accomplish their foreign policy goals through a combination of quiet diplomacy, persuasive leverage, and rewards and punishment (carrot and stick).
A rare example of a small state wielding respect and power far beyond its shores is Singapore. This tiny island city-state, lacking any natural resources, earned its spurs by replacing its underdeveloped status with a powerhouse, high-end economy that is the envy of many nations. In international forums, Singapore’s voice is always accorded respect.
Rule No. 5: There Are No Permanent Friends, Only Permanent Interests.
Foreign policy is governed by the morality of hard-nose pragmatism. To paraphrase strategic thinker Leslie H. Gelb, idealism, reason, and values are fine “but they are only foreplay.”
Today’s friends may be tomorrow’s enemies and vice-versa. Consider the following:
1). China and Russia, once America’s nasty cold war enemies could now be considered relatively viable partners in international relations.
2). Germany, a formidable and hated American enemy during the last two World Wars, is now a reliable US ally.
3). Similarly Japan, the country that inflicted a near mortal blow against US naval forces in the Pacific theater, has been a close American ally.
Again, the end (economic and security partnerships) justifies the means (sleeping with a once hated enemy).
Statecraft recognizes that the world is neither black or white but a combination of both. A wise leader quickly learns that it’s best to be as self-reliant as possible and not to expect too much from other nations.