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Full text of Ambassador Freeman's Talk on 2/9/07

Diplomacy and Empire
Remarks to DACOR (Diplomats and Consular Officers, Retired)
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
9 February 2007
DACOR-Bacon House, Washington, DC


In 1941, as the United States sat out the wars then raging in both the
Atlantic and Pacific, Henry Luce penned a famous attack on isolationism
in Life Magazine. "We Americans are unhappy," he began. "We are not
happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to
America. We are nervous – or gloomy – or apathetic." Luce argued that
the destiny of the United States demanded that "the most powerful and
vital nation in the world" step up to the international stage and assume
the position of global leader. "The 20th Century must be to a
significant degree an American Century," he declared.

And so it proved to be, as the United States led the world to victory
over fascism, created a new world order mimicking the rule of law and
parliamentary institutions internationally, altered the human condition
with a dazzling array of new technologies, fostered global opening and
reform, contained and outlasted communism, and saw the apparent triumph
of democratic ideals over their alternatives. But that 20th Century came
to an end in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold
War, and the emergence of the United States as a great power without a
peer. There followed a dozen intercalary years of narcissistic
confusion. Americans celebrated our unrivaled military power and
proclaimed ourselves "the indispensable nation" but failed to define a
coherent vision of a post Cold War order or an inspiring role for the
United States within it. These essential tasks were deferred to the 21st
Century, which finally began in late 2001, with the shock and awe of
9/11. Then, in the panic and rage of that moment, we made the choices
about our world role we had earlier declined to make.

Since 9/11 Americans have chosen to stake our domestic tranquility and
the preservation of our liberties on our ability – under our
commander-in-chief – to rule the world by force of arms rather than to
lead, as we had in the past, by the force of our example or our
arguments. And we appear to have decided that it is necessary to destroy
our constitutional practices and civil liberties in order to save them.
This is a trade-off we had resolutely refused to make during our far
more perilous half-century confrontation with Nazi Germany, Imperial
Japan, and the Soviet Union.

There is unfortunate historical precedent for this, as the author Robert
Harris reminded us last year. In the autumn of 68 B.C., a vicious league
of pirates set Rome's port at Ostia on fire, destroyed the consular war
fleet, and kidnapped two prominent senators, together with their
bodyguards and staff. Rome panicked. Mr. Harris comments that: "What
Rome was facing was a threat very different from that posed by a
conventional enemy. These pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with
no government to represent them and no treaties to bind them. Their
bases were not confined to a single state. They had no unified system of
command. They were a worldwide pestilence, a parasite which needed to be
stamped out, otherwise Rome – despite her overwhelming military
superiority – would never again know security or peace." In response to
these imagined menaces, Pompey (self-styled "the Great") persuaded a
compliant Senate to set aside nearly 700 years of Roman constitutional
law, abridge the ancient rights and liberties of Roman citizens, and
appoint him supreme commander of the armed forces. With due allowance
for a bit of pointed reinterpretation, if not revisionism by Mr. Harris,
most historians regard this incident and its aftermath as the beginning
of the end of the Roman republic.

The ultimate effects on our republic of our own slide away from
long-standing constitutional norms remain a matter of speculation. But,
clearly, our departure from our previous dedication to the principles of
comity and the rule of law has made us once again unhappy about
ourselves in relation to America and the world. It has also cost us the
esteem that once led foreigners to look up to us and to wish to emulate
and follow us. Our ability to recover from the damage we have done to
ourselves and our leadership is further impeded by the extent to which
we now cower behind barricades at home and in our embassies abroad. The
current wave of anti-foreign and anti-Islamic sentiment in the United
States also compounds the problem. A recent poll of foreign travelers
showed that two thirds considered the United States the most
disagreeably unwelcoming country to visit. There is surely no security
to be found in surly discourtesy.

To fail to welcome the world's peoples to our shores is not simply to
lose the economic benefits of their presence here but greatly to
diminish both the vigor of our universities and the extent of our
influence abroad. To lose the favor of a generation of students is to
forfeit the goodwill of their children and grandchildren as well. And to
fail to show respect to allies and friends is not simply to diminish our
influence but to predispose growing numbers abroad to disapprove or even
oppose anything we advocate. By all this, we give aid and comfort to our
enemies and undercut the efficacy in dispute resolution and problem
solving of measures short of war.

There has been little room for such measures – for diplomacy – in the
coercive and militaristic approach we have recently applied to our
foreign relations. Much of the world now sees us as its greatest bully,
not its greatest hope. Self-righteous lawlessness by the world's most
powerful nation inspires illegality and amorality on the part of the
less powerful as well. The result of aggressive unilateralism has been
to separate us from our allies, to alienate us from our friends, to
embolden our detractors, to create irresistible opportunities for our
adversaries and competitors, to inflate the ranks of our enemies, and to
resurrect the notion – at the expense of international law and order –
that might makes right. Thus, the neglect of both common courtesy and
diplomacy fosters violent opposition to our global preeminence in the
form of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and war.

With the numbers of our enemies mounting, it is fortunate that our
military power remains without match. The United States' armed forces
are the most competent and lethal in history. And so they are likely to
remain for decades to come. Our humbling on the battlegrounds of the
Middle East does not reflect military inadequacy; it is rather the
result of the absence of strategy and its political handmaiden –
diplomacy. We are learning the hard way that old allies will not aid us
and new allies will not stick with us if we ignore their interests,
deride their advice, impugn their motives, and denigrate their
capabilities. Friends will not walk with us into either danger or
opportunity if we injure their interests and brush aside their
objections to our doing so. Those with whom we have professed friendship
in the past cannot sustain their receptivity to our counsel if we demand
that they adopt secular norms of the European Enlightenment that we no
longer exemplify, while loudly disparaging their religious beliefs and
traditions. Diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work any better than
strategy-free warfare.

When war is not the extension of policy but the entrenchment of policy
failure by other means, it easily degenerates into mindless belligerence
and death without meaning. Appealing as explosions and the havoc of war
may be to those who have experienced them only vicariously rather than
in person, military success is not measured in battle damage but in
political results. These must be secured by diplomacy.

The common view in our country that diplomacy halts when war begins is
thus worse than wrong; it is catastrophically misguided. Diplomacy and
war are not alternatives; they are essential partners. Diplomacy
unbacked by force can be ineffectual, but force unassisted by diplomacy
is almost invariably unproductive. There is a reason that diplomacy
precedes war and that the use of force is a last resort. If diplomacy
fails to produce results, war can sometimes lay a basis for diplomats to
achieve them. When force fails to attain its intended results, diplomacy
and other measures short of war can seldom accomplish them.

We properly demand that our soldiers prepare for the worst. As they do
so, our leaders should work to ensure that the worst does not happen.
They must build and sustain international relationships and approaches
that can solve problems without loss of life, and pave the way for a
better future. If we must go to war, the brave men and women who engage
in combat on our behalf have the right to expect that their leaders will
direct diplomats to consolidate the victories they achieve, mitigate the
defeats they suffer, and contrive a better peace to follow their
fighting. Our military personnel deserve, in short, to be treated as
something more than the disposable instruments of unilateral
belligerence. And our diplomats deserve to be treated as something more
than the clean-up squad in fancy dress.

Every death or crippling of an American on the battlefields of the
Middle East is a poignant reminder that, in the absence of diplomacy,
the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, however
heroic, can neither yield victory nor sustain hegemony for the United
States. A diplomatic strategy is needed to give our military operations
persuasive political purposes, to aggregate the power of allies to our
cause, to transform our battlefield successes into peace, and to
reconcile the defeated to their humiliation. Sadly, our neglect of these
tasks, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has served to demonstrate the limits
of our military power, not its deterrent value. This is, however, far
from the greatest irony of our current predicaments.

In the competition with other nations for influence, America's
comparative advantages have been, and remain, our unmatched military
capabilities, our economy, and our leading role in scientific and
technological innovation. We spend much, much more on our military –
about 5.7 percent of our economy or $720 billion at present – than the
rest of the world's other 192 nations combined. With less than a
twentieth of the world's population, we account for more than a fourth
of its economic activity. Almost two thirds of central bank reserves are
held in our currency, the dollar – which, much to our advantage, has
dominated international financial markets for 60 years. The openness of
our society to new people and ideas has made our country the greatest
crucible of global technological innovation.

The moral argument put forward by both left and right-wing proponents of
aggressive American unilateralism is that, as a nation with these
unexampled elements of power and uniquely admired virtues, the United
States has the duty both to lead the world and to remake it in our
image. But our recent confusion of command and control with leadership
and conflation of autocratic dictation with consultation have stimulated
ever greater resistance internationally. Thus the aggressive
unilateralism by which we have sought to consolidate our domination of
world affairs has very effectively undermined both our dominion over
them and our capacity to lead.

The most obvious example of this has been our inability, despite the
absolute military superiority we enjoy, to impose our will on terrorists
with global reach, on the several battlegrounds of the Middle East, or
on Iran or North Korea. But, in many respects, these illustrations of
the impotence of military power are far from the most worrisome examples
of policy backfire. After all, despite all the lurid domestic rhetoric
about it and the real pain it can inflict, terrorism poses no
existential threat to our country – except, of course, to the extent we
betray American values in the name of preserving them. The more
worrisome examples are the mounting effects of unrelentingly coercive
foreign policies on our political credibility, economic standing, and
competitiveness.

As distaste has succeeded esteem for us in the international community,
we have become ever more isolated. Our ability to rally others behind
our causes has withered. We have responded by abandoning the effort to
lead. We are now known internationally more for our recalcitrance than
our vision. We have sought to exempt ourselves from the jurisdiction of
international law. We have suspended our efforts to lead the world to
further liberalization of trade and investment through the Doha Round.
We no longer participate in the UN body charged with the global
promotion of human rights. We decline to discuss global climate change,
nuclear disarmament, or the avoidance of arms races in outer space. If
we have proposals for a world more congenial to the values we espouse,
we no longer articulate them. The world is a much less promising place
for our silence and absence.

Our recent record in the Middle East alone includes the six-year
suspension of efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians
and a seeming shift from the pursuit of al-Qaïda to the suppression of
Islamism in Afghanistan. Although we seem belatedly to be improving, we
have become notorious for delusory or self-serving assertions
masquerading as intelligence assessments. Our disregard for treaties
abroad and the rule of law at home is leading to the indictment of our
operatives abroad by our closest allies. Our scofflaw behavior thus
undercuts transnational cooperation against terrorists. The bloody
consequences of our occupation of Iraq for its inhabitants are too well
known to require mention. We continue to provide military support and
political cover for Israeli operations entailing intermittent massacres
of civilian populations in Lebanon and Gaza. We sit on our hands while
wringing them over parallel outrages in Darfur. We are indifferent to
the views of our friends and refuse to speak with our enemies.

Taken together, these acts of omission and commission have devastated
American standing and influence, not just in the Middle East but more
widely. There are examples of such policy backfires to be found in every
region; I will not cite them to this audience. You've read the polls.
You've heard the speeches at the United Nations and the applause with
which they were received. You know how difficult it now is for us to
obtain support from the international community and how often we need to
exercise our veto in the UN Security Council. The point is this: every
leader needs followers; with rare exceptions, we have lost or are losing
ours. And even a superpower needs political partners.

This is true for the economic arena as well. Our ability to do business
with others in our own currency has been a unique aspect of our global
economic power. But our budget, trade, and balance of payments deficits
have grown to levels at which some foreigners now have more dollars than
they know what to do with. The value of our currency has come to depend
on central bankers continuing to play a reverse game of chicken, in
which they nervously hang onto dollars while watching each other to make
sure that no one can bail out without the others' noticing and dumping
the dollar too. No central bank wants to be the first to devalue its own
and everyone else's dollar-denominated reserves. So every day, Arab,
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian officials as well as assorted
gnomes in the "Old Europe" lend our Treasury the $2.5 billion it needs
to keep employment here up, interest rates down, and the economy growing.

Unlike central bankers, however, businesses and private investors are
notoriously bad at "coordination games." They are not willing to wait
for the dollar to approach collapse before getting out of it and into
other currencies and places. As a result, there are now many more euros
in circulation than dollars. The euro has displaced the dollar as the
preeminent currency in international bond markets. In a few years, the
Chinese yuan will clearly join it in this role. Hong Kong and London
have overtaken New York in IPO's. The regulatory environment in our
country, including the expensive annoyances of Sarbanes-Oxley and
class-action suits, does, as New York Senator Schumer has claimed,
indeed have something to do with this. But an equally important factor
is our increasingly frequent resort to unilateral sanctions and asset
freezes based on assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction over the
dollar.

Over the past decade, we have adopted unilateral sanctions against some
95 countries and territories. Most recently, we have worked hard to shut
down banking in the occupied territories of Palestine, severely curtail
it in Iran, and prevent the use of the dollar in Sudan's oil trade. The
nobility of our motives in each case is not the issue. But, if we assert
the right to confiscate dollar-denominated wealth, and to do without due
process or legal recourse and remedy, it should not surprise us that
people begin looking for ways to avoid the use of our currency. There is
now an active search on the part of a growing number of foreign
financial institutions for ways to avoid the dollar, bank-clearance
procedures that touch New York, or transactions with US-based financial
institutions. Adding oil traders to the list of the dollar-averse
increases the incentives for them to find alternatives to our currency.

Our ill-considered abuse of our financial power may thus have put us on
the path to losing it. The dollar accounts for much of our weight in
global affairs. American investors are now increasingly hedging the
dollar and going heavily into non dollar-denominated foreign equities
and debt.

You would think that growing disquiet about American financial
over-extension would impel our government to make a major effort to
boost our exports to rapidly growing markets like China. Our exports are
in fact growing. But our government's present policy focus, judging from
its hiring patterns, is not export promotion but an attempt to block
exports of scientific knowledge and technology to China and other
potential rivals. Export controllers want to require export licenses for
foreign graduate students and researchers in our universities and to
compel U.S. companies to conduct detailed due diligence on prospective
foreign purchasers of their goods and services. These initiatives
reflect the mood of national paranoia and the concomitant growth of a
secrecy-obsessed garrison state that have made Osama Binladin the
greatest creator of federal employment since FDR. They encourage
would-be customers to buy un-American.

Along with unwelcoming visa and immigration policies, such
export-suppressive measures are a small part of a much broader assault
on the openness of our society. The increasing restriction of American
intercourse with foreigners encourages the outsourcing not just of jobs
but of innovation in science and technology, research and development,
engineering and design services, and industrial production. Xenophobic
policies and practices have begun to erode the long-standing American
scientific and technological superiority they were intended to protect.
Like economic protectionism, intellectual protectionism, it turns out,
weakens, not strengthens one, and makes one less rather than more
competitive in the global marketplace.

The last half of the 20th Century was, as Henry Luce had hoped, in many
ways an American century. We became the preeminent society on the planet
not by force of arms but by the power of our principles and the
attraction of our example. The effort to replace that preeminence with
military dominion is failing badly. There will be no American imperium.
The effort to bully the world into accepting one has instead set in
motion trends that threaten both the core values of our republic and the
prospects for a world order based on something other than the law of the
jungle. Militarism is not an effective substitute for diplomacy in
persuading other peoples to do things one's way. Coercive measures are
off-putting, not the basis for productive relationships with foreign
nations. Other peoples' money can provide an excuse for continued
self-indulgence; it is not a sound foundation for economic leadership.
Obsessive secrecy is incompatible with innovation. Fear of foreigners
and rule by cover-your-ass securocrats is a combination that breeds
weakness, not strength.

More than anything now, we need to get a grip on ourselves. 9/11 was
almost five and a half years ago. There has been no follow-up attack on
our homeland. We are far from Waziristan and al-Qaïda's leaders are
obsessed with matching, if not exceeding, their previous standard of
iconic success, something even much more talented terrorists than they
would find it hard to do. Perhaps in time they will succeed but our
nation will endure. Meanwhile, Al-Qaïda's associates elsewhere have felt
no such operational constraints, especially in Europe. Yet, despite all
the bombings there by homegrown and al-Qaïda-affiliated terrorists,
government offices in Europe are still accessible to the public,
security measures at transportation nodes are respectfully efficient,
the rule of law continues to prevail, and the rights of citizens remain
intact.

The contrast with the situation here underscores the extent to which
al-Qaïda has achieved its central objectives. It has unhinged America
and alienated us from the world. We are apparently willing to sacrifice
everything, including the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our
posterity, to achieve absolute security from risks that others rightly
consider nasty but manageable. Quite aside from the fact that absolute
security is absolutely impossible, this is not who we were. It is not
who most of us want to be.

America defines itself by its values, not its territory or ethnicity.
The supreme purpose of our foreign policy must be to defend our values
and to do so by means that do not corrode them. By these measures, what
we are doing now is directly counterproductive. It must be changed. Let
me very briefly propose a few principles to guide such change:

First, an America driven by dread and delusion into the construction of
a garrison state, ruled by a presidency claiming inherent powers rather
than by our constitution and our laws, is an America that can be counted
upon to respect neither the freedoms of its own people nor those of
others. The key to the defense of both the United States and the freedom
that defines us as a great nation is to retain our rights and cultivate
our liberties, not to yield them to our government, and to honor and
defend, not to invade, the sovereignty of other nations and individuals.

Second, it is time to recognize that freedom spreads by example and a
helping hand to those who seek it. It cannot be imposed on others by
coercive means, no matter how much shock and awe these elicit. Neither
can it be installed by diatribe and denunciation nor proclaimed from the
false security of fortified buildings. We must come home to our
traditions, restore the openness of our society, and resume our role as
"the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all ... [but] the
champion and vindicator only of our own."

Third, credibility is not enhanced by persistence in counterproductive
policies, no matter how much one has already invested in them. The
reinforcement of failure is a poor substitute for its correction. Doing
more of the same does not make bad strategy sound or snatch successful
outcomes from wars of attrition. All it does is convince onlookers that
one is so stubbornly foolish that one is not afraid to die. Admitting
that mistakes have been made and taking remedial action generally does
more for credibility than soldiering blindly on. The United States needs
big course corrections on quite a range of foreign and domestic policies
at present.

Fourth, we must recover the habit of listening and curb our propensity
to harangue. We might, in fact, consider a war on arrogance to
complement our war on terror. And to demonstrate my own humility as well
as my respect for the limited attention span of any audience after
lunch, even one as polite and attentive as you have been, I shall now
conclude.

Guantánamo, AbuGhraib, the thuggish kidnappings of "extraordinary
rendition," the Jersey barrier, and an exceptional aptitude for
electronic eavesdropping cannot be allowed permanently to displace the
Statue of Liberty and a reputation for aspiration to higher standards as
the symbols of America to the world. To regain both our self-respect and
our power to persuade rather than coerce the world, we must restore our
aspiration to distinguish our country not by the might of its armed
forces but by its civility and devotion to liberty. The best way to
assure the power to cope with emergencies is to refrain from the abuse
of power in ordinary times.

All the world would still follow America, if they could find it. We must
rediscover it to them. That, not bullying behavior or a futile effort at
imperial dominion, is the surest path to security for Americans.
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