About 43 years ago, at the end of my first year in graduate school, I decided that I would study diplomatic history--the history of the relations among states, and especially, in my case, the reasons that wars occur among them. That seemed like a natural decision, given the state of history at that time and the age in which I and my teachers were living in. Every major college and university history department had at least one diplomatic historian, and many had more. One of my most treasured books is a volume of conference papers, Pearl Harbor as History: Japanese-American Relations, 1933-41I, in which several dozen American and Japanese historians discussed the roles of various parts of the governments in Tokyo and Washington in bringing about the Second World War in the Pacific. In the late 1970s, as a Harvard assistant professor, I had the pleasure of assigning about half of it as optional reading, as well as relying upon it myself.
It would be quite impossible to convene a similar conference today either about the Pacific War or about any other war, because historians who can discuss such subjects competently are an endangered species. The change in the profession over the last 43 years profoundly affected my own life, but that is not what I want to talk about today. When the historical profession abandoned the study of politics and government in favor of issues of gender, race and class as they apply to average or marginalized citizens, it removed itself from public affairs, and stopped teaching its students about how the world got into the shape that it is in today. No one cared that two generations of undergraduates (Gen Xers and Millennials) would leave elite colleges and universities without any sense of how international relations works and how nations become involved in wars. I admit that I am marginally overstating my case--there are still some capable diplomatic historians working in various schools--but not by very much. And now, I am convinced, the effects of this are showing up in the bankruptcy of American strategic thought, and the eclipse of any independent perspective on world affairs based upon history and diplomatic experience that can compete with political imperatives.
These thoughts arose after I read this story in yesterday's New York Times, about a new documentary that will appear this fall on HBO based upon the recorded diaries of Richard Holbrooke, one of the last of the old-school diplomats. Holbrooke, a younger member of the Silent generation, got his career off the mark in 1962 in South Vietnam, where he became a provincial adviser in a large province of the Mekong Delta. There he discovered that the hundreds of strategic hamlets listed by the South Vietnamese government existed mainly on paper. When he returned to Washington a few years later, he found himself futilely trying to explain to President Johnson that there were limits to what the U.S. could accomplish in Vietnam. In the 1990s, Holbrooke negotiated a belated end to the war in Bosnia--a peace that has held ever since. And under Barack Obama, he was given responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he dreamed of bringing yet another war to a successful conclusion. He was unable to do so before a ruptured aorta killed him late in 2010.
To judge from this story, Holbrooke wanted to begin negotiating with the Taliban and its Pakistani patrons at once in 2009, but he could not do so. The Obama Administration bowed to the will of the military and escalated the American presence in Afghanistan instead, trying a new surge that has now wound down almost to nothing without appreciably improving the situation. We shall have to wait for the full documentary and diary, but it seems that the President did so for political reasons: he was playing it safe. He and his advisers at the White House, including his national security adviser, did not really have a policy and strategy in Afghanistan, but they wanted to look as if they were acting sufficiently vigorously. That meant more troops and more deaths, without bringing peace into view.
The same criticism can be leveled against the drone program, a tactic which the United States apparently borrowed from the Israeli government after 9/11. (This is confirmed by the testimony of a retired head of Mossad in the Israeli film, The Gatekeepers.) In this case, as in the war on terror generally, the Obama Administration has simply followed the lead of its predecessor. Because 9/11 was hatched in Afghanistan and other terrorist acts have been hatched in Pakistan, we must do what we can to kill potential terrorists there, whether they have any active designs upon the United States or not. (In fact, although we have had one major terrorist incident in Boston and two failed ones in Times Square and in an airliner over Detroit, all of those were perpetrated by young men who had spent most of their lives in the United States.) Drone strikes inevitably kill innocent people and stimulate resentment, but this Administration, like the last one, seems to live in terror of another major incident here at home, and even more of seeming to have done too little to stop it.
A real policy and strategy for the Muslim world from Syria to Pakistan would require a realistic sense of the possibilities for the various countries of that region, and an emphasis on allowing them to live together in peace. No policy offers quick and beneficial results. The Sunni-Shi'ite split has not been so bad for centuries. The President's opening of relations with Iran is at least a step in the right direction, but in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen he has not been able to stem the deterioration of the situation. Nor has he shown any talent for the whole of his Administration for engaging with foreign leaders. When he met with the Italian Prime Minister just the other day he did not bother to inform him that American drones had killed an Italian hostage along with an American one.
John Kerry has focused upon crises in Ukraine and Syria and the talks with Iran, and he helped broker the Syrian chemical weapons deal and move the Iranian agreement forward. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, undertook no major diplomatic initiatives in her four years as Secretary of State. Emphasizing issues like women's rights and human rights generally assumes that the world is in a relatively stable state already--and it is not.
Clinton's campaign is running into more trouble almost every day. This morning's revelations about the Russian-Canadian uranium deal that seems to have profited the Clinton foundation while she was Secretary are serious. Since the Democrats have no other candidate who even qualifies as a national figure, this will probably benefit the Republican candidate. A Republican victory would probably put neoconservatives in positions of influence once more. I would not dare predict exactly what they would do, but I would not count on them for a rebirth of American diplomacy.
Diplomacy is more difficult than ever now, since the populations of the non-western world are so much larger and more autonomous than in the 19th and 20th centuries, making their histories, cultures and interests more important. The naive neo-Hegelian assumption that they are all destined to become ore like us is no substitute for real knowledge of their history--and ours. The growth of western influence over the last two centuries was closely tied to advances in western knowledge and education. Those advances, in history at least, came to an end some time ago.