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FOREIGN POLICY : The Value of Personality in the Art of Diplomacy

August 27, 1995|Robert Dallek | Robert Dallek is the 1994-1995 Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History of Oxford. His newest book, "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents" will be published by Hyperion Press

The deaths of three U.S. diplomats in Bosnia last week marked another downturn in a crisis that has been threatening the stability of southeastern Europe for five years. No one with the slightest knowledge of the Serb-Croatian-Muslim conflict had much confidence that the U.S. negotiators were about to find a magical solution to the centuries-old problem of ethnic and religious hatreds in the Balkans. But if chances for a settlement were slim before Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert C. Frasure, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph J. Kruzel and National Security Council aide Col. Samuel Nelson Drew died, they are now far slimmer.

A new team of diplomats has already been named. Roberts Owen, the U.S. representative on the five-nation Contact Group on Bosnia, Brig. Gen. Donald L. Kerrick of the National Security Council, James Pardew, director of the Pentagon's Balkan Task Force, and Christopher Hill, the State Department's head of the office of South Central European Affairs, are undoubtedly as experienced, knowledgeable and devoted to their duties as their three fallen colleagues. But they come up short in one unalterable respect--they do not have the connections to the bewildering array of major figures in the Bosnian fighting that Frasure had established through a year-long effort at winning their confidence in repeated face-to-face meetings.

If diplomatic history teaches us anything, it is that personal contacts are an essential ingredient of successful negotiations. Benjamin Franklin was the first and possibly greatest of American diplomats who wielded influence through the power of their person. In December, 1776, Franklin arrived in Paris in pursuit of French support for America's war of independence against Britain. A master psychologist and showman, Franklin took advantage of his reputation as a man of letters and science to sell the American cause to the French.

His dress, manner and agreeable eccentricities captivated the sophisticated Parisians, who saw him as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. A "coiffure a la Franklin" became the rage among society ladies. His popularity translated into French receptivity to a U.S. alliance, which, helped along by self-serving calculations, became a reality in 1778 and powerfully advanced the cause of American freedom from British rule.

More than 125 years later, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey turned the tables on the Americans by exploiting U.S. Ambassador Walter Hines Page's pro-British sentiments to help draw the United States into World War I. Page, who thanked "Heaven I'm of their race and blood," and spoke with contempt of State Department "library lawyers," who were protesting British violations of U.S. neutrality rights, succumbed to Grey's assertions that Britain was fighting America's war. Compelled to present U.S. complaints to Grey, Page muted them by saying he disagreed with his superiors in Washington and by helping Grey draft replies.

Personal diplomacy is, of course, no guarantee of success in international dealings. Who would consider British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich anything but a failure? Nor is there much to be said for President Woodrow Wilson's presence in Paris in 1919, where he was forced to give ground on all his Fourteen Points.

Gen. George C. Marshall is another case in point. Desperate to avert a Chinese civil war that threatened a communist takeover in a country with both strategic and symbolic importance to the United States, Harry S. Truman sent Marshall to negotiate a settlement of the Kuomintang-Communist conflict. If anyone seemed suited to the job, it was Marshall. He had an impeccable reputation for integrity and fairness. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, for all his charm, could not jolly Marshall into supporting anything he considered unwise. Truman believed the Chinese would find it difficult to resist Marshall's reasoned pleas for an accommodation. But however much respect Marshall commanded, he could not alter decades of Chinese history and head off the civil war of 1945-49.

Yet for every case of failed personal diplomacy there are examples of successful negotiations demonstrating that personal chemistry is an essential ingredient of productive international talks. Every President since Herbert Hoover, for example, understood that a key to dealing with the Soviet Union and now Russia has been creating strong rapport with their Soviet-Russian counterparts.

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