Monday, March 21, 2011


"Europeans mostly remember, without affection, Warren Christopher, who died this weekend at the age of 85, as the secretary of state who kept the US from intervening in the Balkans as it slid into war in the early 1990s. But that should not detract from half a century of remarkable public service and general trouble-shooting at the highest levels of government.

Among his signal achievements was as chief US negotiator in the protracted, and ultimately successful, efforts to secure the release of the 52 American diplomats taken hostage in Tehran. As deputy secretary of state in the Carter administration, he also steered through Congress passage of the controversial Panama Canal treaties in 1978 and directed the normalisation of relations with China.

A lawyer most of his non-government life with the blue chip Los Angeles firm O’Melveny and Myers, his skills as a conciliator were put to good use in reports after the inner city riots, notably in Detroit and Los Angeles, of 1965-67 and in proposing reforms of the Los Angeles police department after inner-city Watts erupted in flames following the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991.

He was, in sum, the classic example of a generation that moved seamlessly between the public and private sectors, much like George Shultz, Cyrus Vance and Paul Nitze. The difference was that he was more self-effacing than most. With his long, deeply lined face and in his trademark pinstriped suit, he looked, and sometimes spoke, more like an undertaker than a diplomat. His only known indulgence was a fondness for the better California chardonnays....

His report on the Detroit riots brought him to the attention of President Lyndon Johnson who, in 1967, appointed him deputy attorney general, working with Cyrus Vance, who, in 1977 chosen him as his deputy at the state department. However, when Mr Vance resigned after the abortive Desert One rescue mission to rescue the Tehran hostages in 1980, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was preferred to Mr Christopher as the next secretary of state.

By then, however, he was deeply into the delicate negotiations to get the hostages freed. He spent weeks in Algeria, which was helping the talks. The end result was that they were flown out of Tehran at precisely the moment when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in Washington as new president in January, 1981....

He became Mr Clinton’s first secretary of state with instructions to try and keep the US out of foreign adventures so the new president could focus on domestic affairs. But the world was in turmoil, not only in the Balkans but also in Somalia, from which the US withdrew the Marines which had landed in late 1992 following a massacre of 17 of them in Mogadishu, and in Rwanda, where genocide raged, unimpeded by external intervention.

Non-intervention appeared to be the Christopher mantra, much to the frustration of American allies, especially in Europe. Eventually the Balkan wars came to a temporary end with the Dayton peace accords of 1995, but they were brought about less by the secretary of state than by Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy who died late last year. The US intervention in Haiti in 1994 was more the handiwork of General Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs.

Even the Oslo peace accords of 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians were agreed without much overt US influence. But Mr Christopher did throw his weight behind the Nato Partnership for Peace programme, establishing closer links between the Western military alliance and the former Soviet satellite nations. He also played a leading role in normalising relations with Vietnam in 1995.

He did not serve a second term, giving way to Mrs Madeleine Albright, and, with typical diffidence, contributing relatively little to subsequent national debates about foreign policy. But he did leave, in his 2001 memoirs, a definition of how he saw his role over the years. “My task,” he wrote,” has been to serve as the steward, not the proprietor, of extraordinary public trust.'"

Jurek Martin, "Conciliator with mantra of non-intervention," The Financial Times. 21 March 2011, p. 4.

"Many of the difficulties of our governmental apparatus are, therefore, only symptoms of challenges faced by our entire society among which our sudden emergence as the major power in the free world is perhaps the most important. The qualities of our leadership groups were formed during a century of more of primary concern with domestic development. Politics was considered a necessary evil and the primary function of the state was the exercise of police powers. Neither training nor incentives impelled our leadership groups to think in political or strategic terms. This emphasis was compounded by our empiricism with its cult of the expert and its premium on specialization.

The two professions which are more dominant in the higher levels of government-industry and the law-can serve as an example....And the legal profession, trained to deal with a succession of discreet individual cases, produces a penchant for ad hoc decisions and a resistance to the 'hypothetical cases' inherent in long-range planning. Our leadership groups are therefore, better prepared to deal with technical than with conceptual problems, with economic than political issues. Each problem is dealt with 'on its merits,' a procedure which emphasizes the particular at the expense of the general and bogs down planning in a mass of detail. The absence of a conceptual framework makes it difficult for them to identify our problems or to choose effectively among the plethora of proposals and interpretations produced by our governmental machinery."

Henry A. Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. (1957), pp. 433-434.

I have always been an adherent of the old saying that: 'de mortuis nil nisi bonum', but, when one is dealing with a figure, such as Warren Christopher, who has held high office, then such politesse, insofar as it concerns high politics, is no longer valid. Of course it is a truism, as the Financial Times Jurek Martin correctly notes, that Mr. Christopher per se, was not in any way a 'bad man'. He did not steal from the state coffers, nor did he unnecessarily involve the country in a conflict that it was not prepared or able to emerge victorious. Nay, one might even say that in his own, very limited fashion, Mr. Christopher was a 'moral man'. What however I wish to do is to look at Mr. Christopher from the perspective of statecraft and machtpolitik. And from that perspective, Mr. Christopher's legacy is a less than happy one. It is not so much, `a la Henry Kissinger, that Mr. Christopher was an attorney. Admittedly, the law is not perhaps the very best training for someone who is going to be wrestling with questions of foreign policy and diplomacy. But the examples of Elihu Root, Dean Acheson and James Baker III, are more than sufficient to show that merely being an attorney does not prevent one from high achievement in the realm of statecraft. The real issue with Mr. Christopher, and others of his ilk (exampli gratia, the current American Secretary of State, Mme. Clinton being perhaps the foremost example), is their failure to go beyond mere stewardship, id est, 'hand to mouth' diplomacy and policy. With policymakers of this type, we see a constant repetition of a singular failure to formulate and implement a general policy. Instead we are habitually treated to a species of 'crisis management', in which the 'goal' of policy (such as it is) is to successfully 'manage' the crisis. But without in anyway endeavoring to handle matters as part of a larger framework. Au fond, when Mr. Christopher and before him Mr. Vance, and prior to him Mr. Rusk, as well as Mme. Clinton, we have a state of affairs, in which as they used to say of der alte Wien: 'administration had taken the role of policy'. The end results of such a situation is the current 'non-policy' of the United States in the Near and Middle East, and in the 1990's, the stop and go and stop and go American policy in the Balkan Wars of the time. To sum up, it would be useful to quote something said over fifty years ago by a premier historian of American foreign relations, concerning American diplomacy during the entre deux guerre period, which I believe still holds true to-day:

"In a fundamental sense, the diplomatic history of the United States does not resemble that diplomatic history of Europe. Essentially, the professional diplomat has always played a subordinate role. There are few Legers, few Vansittarts, few Holsteins in the record of American action. Occasionally, we have a House, or a Hopkins, or a Harriman-a non-professional-who plays a significant role....But, for the most part (and the longer the perspective the truer is the generalization), men of this type are rare."

It is not until diplomacy and nay indeed policy is fully in the hands of the professional diplomats of the ilk of a Holstein, Vansittart, et cetera, and or someone who can take a longer view of the national interest, something over and above, mere ad hoc policymaking, that one can look forward to seeing an American diplomacy and indeed American foreign policy worthy of the name. Until that time, it is all merely a case of faute de mieux.
Pur et simple.

1. Dexter Perkins, "The Department of State and American Public Opinion," in The Diplomats, 1919-1939, edited Gordon A. Craig & Felix Gilbert. (1953), pp. 282.


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