Why you should care
Because America’s place in the world is shifting — fast.
John Brady Kiesling spent nearly 20 years as an American diplomat before tendering his resignation in February 2003 in protest of the imminent invasion of Iraq. Now living in Athens, Greece, Kiesling spoke recently with OZY about how Donald Trump is changing the diplomatic game. This interview has been edited for clarity.
How does the current moment compare to the lead-up to the Iraq War?
John Brady Kiesling: By comparison, George W. Bush seems like Mahatma Gandhi. I was so appalled and Europe was so appalled at the way George W. presented the United States as a nation of unthinking cowboys, and yet ultimately he had a softer side, and at certain moments he could articulate some kind of higher message. Maybe I’m romanticizing that in retrospect.
Diplomacy is fundamentally massively hypocritical.
John Brady Kiesling
Trump’s style is refreshing to his domestic supporters. How does it play in a diplomatic setting?
Kiesling: Diplomacy is fundamentally massively hypocritical. And the way a country can be hypocritical and successful is by compartmentalizing. You send out who represents you — well-spoken, idealistic, earnest, honest, hardworking diplomats whose job is to sell the America they think they want to work for. When I was a diplomat, I genuinely believed in the wonderful things I said about the United States. Because I believed them, I was very convincing. Meanwhile, a bunch of much more cynical people in Washington were profiting from my diplomatic skill — skill isn’t the right word, plausibility — to push interests that are fairly antithetical to the ones I was using as my argument.
Trump will keep his supporters happy with the language he uses, and by selling this rhetoric of America having been victimized by foreigners. But that rhetoric is deadly when it’s used and foreigners are listening. We have to remember that foreign policy is always a stepchild of domestic policy. The United States, because it is a superpower, can be as stupid as it wants to be overseas to please the voters back home because the hard stuff is domestic policy. That’s where the ox gets gored and the big fights break out and people can lose elections.
Is there some benefit to speaking frankly?
Kiesling: That clarity costs us … [because] foreigners aren’t any more charitable than we are. They do things if it’s in their interest, and normally the interests are domestic political interests. When you have a popular American president … a foreign leader pays no political price, or almost none, to cooperate with us, as long as there’s some at least threadbare justification for it. When [you have the opposite, an unpopular leader abroad], any politician who associates himself with us is going to pay a price domestically.
What diplomats do is build up personal relationships with foreigners that allow them, when they need to, to go in a back room and speak very frankly to them and say, “Look, don’t be an idiot. If you do this, the following six bad things are going to happen, and your head falling off is one of them.” The idea that you can speak harshly and frankly in public to a global audience, unfortunately what that does is it creates an obligation in any society … to respond with the most powerful message they can: “We are not intimidated by you, and we can do what we want to do.”
Talk tough privately, but in public you use diplomatic language essentially to say, “We are on the side of the angels. We are on the side of this vast concept of morality and human rights.” And with the unstated but clear implication that if you want to be on the side of the angels too, do what we say. But you don’t threaten them.
What do you think of Trump negotiating the release of the student Otto Warmbier from North Korea, and the aid worker Aya Hijazi from Egypt?
Kiesling: Normally, these things are essentially lubricants — the free candy the airline gives you when you sit down that makes up for the fact they’re not giving you food and drink. I don’t know how seriously Trump took those gestures, and I don’t know how much he paid for them. I hope it wasn’t much.
Does all this put a strain on the diplomatic corps?
Kiesling: Diplomats are pretty demoralized, the ones I’ve talked to.… We’ve seen, of course, the slack getting taken up by the Defense Department, which has the mission of force projection. It puts people in dangerous places and tries to keep them safe by altering the environment around them. It’s a foreign policy, but a really short-term and expensive foreign policy. And in the long run, we’re not going to like the result.