'These are not serious people.'
27 MARCH—It is getting downright difficult to keep track of all the epithets our statesmen, stateswomen, political leaders, and legislators use to tell us just who Vladimir Putin is and with what bottomless contempt we should think of the Russian president. I long for the days when he was simply “Hitler,” as when Hillary Clinton compared him with der Führer after Moscow reannexed Crimea in response to the coup the U.S. had just engineered in Kiev. That was it back in 2014, no complications: All we needed to do was hate him.
Now the names we have for Putin roll around among us like pinballs. “He’s Hitler” has fallen somewhat out of fashion, the hyperbole having proven too silly—or maybe because the NATO allies are now arming a Nazi-infested regime in Ukraine. But he’s all sorts of other things that keep us well on the side of repugnance and hostility and safely away from any serious, adult understanding of the man, the nation, and what the man and the nation are doing—in Ukraine at the moment but anywhere else for that matter.
In an encounter with reporters 10 days ago, President Biden described the Russian leader as “a war criminal” just as demands for a direct U.S. intervention in Ukraine grow shriller. You have to love The New York Times, and especially its national-security clerk, David Sanger, for adding, “He was speaking from the heart, his aides said.” A man of humane passions, our president.
You would have thought “war criminal” was enough, but no. Biden went on to call Putin “a murderous dictator, a pure thug.” Our David, who operates far too close to the spooks in my professional judgment, then explained in case we missed the point: “Mr. Biden and his top aides frame Mr. Putin as a pariah, an indiscriminate killer who should be standing trial at The Hague.”
And more this weekend, when Biden finished up a state visit to Poland. We now have to get it into our heads that Putin is “a butcher.”
See what I mean? You can’t keep track of this stuff anymore. Making matters worse, there are numerous other people just like Putin, our guardians in Washington want us to know. Bashar al–Assad is also Hitler, a thug, a war criminal, a butcher, and and a pariah. Nicolás Maduro can’t be a war criminal because he wages no war, but the Venezuelan president is absolutely a thug, a dictator, and Hitler.
During his postwar presidency—late 1950s, early 1960s?—de Gaulle finished up a state visit to Brazil, climbed the stairs to his airplane, and turned back at the top, where he is reputed to have said, “Ce ne sont pas des gens sérieux,” These are not serious people. Let us thank goodness the great French leader is not alive today to pay a visit to Joe Biden’s Washington so we don’t have to think about what he would say as he departed for Paris.
There are, these thoughts apart, some serious things to think about here, consequential things. A friend the other day sent a link to a story he wanted me to read and wrote in his subject line, “American Infantilism.” I’m stealing the phrase. This is what we have to think about.
Straight off the top there is the question of statesmanship. When those purporting to serve as America’s statesmen and stateswomen think calling other world leaders names is properly part of the diplomatic repertoire—a prominent part, I’ll add—we are left with only one conclusion: We have no one capable of sailing our ship of state, no one in any position of influence worthy of the title “diplomat.” These are not, in short, serious people.
A brief qualification here. I am certain there are plenty of mid-level people trained in the foreign service now in mid-level or senior positions at the State Department. But they do not count, by and large, as what passes for diplomacy in Washington is driven not by skill, experience, or subtle intelligence but by fidelity to American ideology and a good nose for what plays in Peoria.
There will be no diplomacy. Power and coercion are all the Americans know.
Over the weekend I found myself thinking about FDR. I thought about Roosevelt in that famous photograph with Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference. There they are in their overcoats against the cold of February 1945 (FDR in a dashing cape). Then I thought about Joe Biden and his nonsense name-calling and his refusal even to consider an encounter with Putin at this crucial moment.
Then I had a choice either to laugh or do the other thing.
It is not easy to find truly good diplomats in the post–1945 annals of the American Foreign Service. I am talking about people who understood that one of the primary responsibilities of any diplomat is to understand how those on the other side of the table think and see things, what the other side wants and why.
There is a good reason for this: Simply stated, power obviates the need for serious statecraft: The powerful nation has no need of diplomacy. A figure such as George Kennan was the exception proving the rule, and he was an exception because he saw the need to understand how the world looked to the Soviet Union. I put Chas Freeman, now retired, in the same category. He served in China and the Middle East and learned Mandarin and Arabic to do so. Henry Kissinger, while an exception in many ways, simply proved the rule: For all his claim to diplomatic skill, Hank K. was a wielder of American power with an acutely calculating mind, nothing more.
The rest follows naturally: Antony Blinken is not a serious diplomat. Samantha Power is not a serious diplomat. As a diplomat (and various other things), Hillary “He’s Hitler” Clinton is a walking calamity, a crude, blunt instrument. Joe Biden, who has spent his career selling snake oil off the back of a buckwagon, is not a statesman of any kind, serious or un–.
We should consider when, precisely, calling other leaders names became an accepted feature of American “statecraft,” and I will insist on the quotation marks. When did our statesmen and stateswomen become unserious? When, why, and what are the consequences of the undignified practice of insulting other leaders?
I date this phenomenon to the events of September 11, 2001. The lineup of secretaries of state and senior diplomats prior to the attacks in New York and Washington is other than brilliant, but it was by and large accepted that talking to America’s adversaries was at least as important (and often more so) as talking to America’s friends. It was the Bush II regime, with all its kooky ideologues in positions they never should have gotten near, that declared, “We don’t negotiate with our enemies.”
This was advanced as if it were a sound, baseline rule of wise statesmanship, if you recall. There were corollaries. Diplomatic contacts with those deemed enemies would “give them credibility.” At the outside there was Richard Perle’s infamous dictum. Perle, one of Bush II’s intellectual ornaments, urged “decontextualization” upon us: We must not put things in a context such that we will understand them. We must confine ourselves to reaction (in both meanings of the term, it now occurs to me).
These responses to the events of 2001 bear careful interpretation. The all-but-stated assertion in them is that America would no longer take any interest in other people and other perspectives. The American way of seeing and defining the world was the only acceptable way. Nothing else need be considered. This is how empires conduct themselves when they are suddenly aware of their vulnerability, the September 11 attacks having forced Washington onto its back foot.
How much distance is there between decontextualization and the we-don’t-negotiate-with-enemies bit and “he’s Hitler, he’s a thug, a dictator, a criminal, a butcher”? I see none. In this way, all post–2001 American administrations are descendants of George W. Bush’s. They are late-empire regimes as a matter of their basic character—defensive, nostalgic, refusing to accept the world as it has evolved.
There may be an argument for casting the Obama administration as an exception, but I don’t buy it. At bottom, Barack Obama’s perspective on the world and America’s place in it was no different than any other post–2001 president’s. He tinkered with the methods of American power—fewer invasions, more drones, a veneer of diplomacy—to obscure our continued reliance on power alone and our indifference to other people’s rights, views, aspirations, and interests.
Look where all this has landed us. Every time I hear Biden call Putin or some other world leader not to Washington’s liking a name out of the American inventory of epithets, it is a reminder of how grotesquely U.S. “statecraft” has been infantilized. We cannot be surprised. How much distance is there between the infantilization of the American public and the infantilization of our post–2001 excuse for diplomacy? Again, I see none.
Let us call this the Peoria problem. It has long struck me as one of the weirder practices of those Americans posing as statesmen that, depending on the circumstances, they are prone to addressing foreign officials as if they were in third-grade because they are primarily concerned with appealing to a domestic public they long ago took to treating like third-graders.
Infantile imperialism: Have we invented it over the past 21 years? It looks that way.
More than this, we Americans now, post–2001, live in a state of intellectual isolation so pervasive most of us are not even aware of this condition. Name-calling, as a symptom of the anxiety and insecurity that has overtaken us these past two decades, is how we express our patriotism (our comforting euphemism for our nationalism). We are left utterly incapable of imagining—to say nothing of creating—new possibilities in a new, multipolar global environment.
Diplomacy, not too much to say, is destined to be an essential skill in the century now swiftly taking shape around us. Every time Biden or another American “leader” hurls one of their playground insults at the leader of another nation, Putin being the Beelzebub du jour, they are reminding us: There will be no diplomacy in the way these people represent America abroad. They have no idea how to conduct it in Washington. Power and coercion are all they know.
No, these are not serious people. And this is a serious and dangerous matter for the rest of us.
Courtesy of Consortium News.
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