Donald Trump is probably enjoying the awkwardness he causes diplomatic professionals by ignoring their protocols. One brazen example was a long phone conversation with the president of Taiwan, an official the U.S. has shunned since 1978 when President Carter ended some 30 years of pretending that Taiwan is China. The real China took quick offense, but is a poor petitioner for sympathy. Its government is authoritarian and intolerant.
As usual, it is hard to say how casual the alleged blunder is. The New York Times has revealed that former senator and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole is a $25,000-a-month lobbyist for Taiwan and may have had a hand in arranging Trump’s conversation.
Blunder, however, it remains – and a dangerous way to do the nation’s overseas business.
Americans take a foolish pride in their suspicion of “cookie-pushing” professional diplomats. And occasionally with cause. The pre-World War II State Department, tainted with parlor antisemitism, obstructed the admission of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler: A tragic folly that cost many lives.
Nonetheless, while diplomatic pros are not infallible, they are usually experienced and knowledgeable. And of special value to a nation that tends to insularity. I have observed them at work, including two friends of exemplary judgment.
One was Roscoe (Rocky) Suddarth, a Tennessean, who entered the Foreign Service in the late 1950s as a specialist in Arab affairs. Had George W. Bush sought and followed his advice the U.S. would not now be bogged down in a 13-year conflict that has spawned more problems for American security than it settled. Suddarth spoke the Arab dialects and knew the cultures and histories. His final posting was as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Jordan.
As a journalist, I sought his counsel. In half a century of friendship, I never managed, though I often tried, to wheedle secrets out of him. He was a skeptic of W’s impetuous war to depose Saddam Hussein (on the dubious assumption that Saddam retained “weapons of mass destruction”).
Likewise, Suddarth’s sage comments on the prospects for American intervention in the Syrian civil war were prophetic. Unless we were willing to duplicate the error in Iraq and deploy a full-scale military intervention, Assad could not be deposed. He is, Suddarth told me, “utterly ruthless, has a powerful army and will stop at nothing.” And so it has proved.
Another wise and experienced friend in diplomacy was Warren Zimmermann of Philadelphia, who specialized in European affairs. It was he, fluent in every European language, who negotiated the “hot line” with the Soviet Union. The mortally dangerous missile crisis in Cuba had shown the urgent need for a reliable channel of emergency negotiation.
In the late 1980s, he staged a conference on federalism and pluralism in Yugoslavia, where he was the last U.S. ambassador before that oil-and-water confection of Serb and Croat fell apart. His conference was a last effort to persuade the violent factions to settle their differences peacefully.
He did me the honor of asking me to speak in Belgrade on American federalism; and thanks to Zimmermann I witnessed the truth of an old saying: “The trouble with the Balkans,” says a character in a Saki novel, “is that they produce more history than they can consume locally.”
The point of these brief reminiscences of two accomplished diplomatic friends isn’t that pros are always right. The point is that by study and experience, and exposure to useful protocols, they offer experienced judgments that can save lives.
Now that American secretaries of state flit all over the globe all the time, the professionals are often ignored. Presidents surround themselves with amateurish cronies who know perilously little about the world’s hidden pitfalls.
Trump, basking as usual in his unorthodoxy, looks likely to follow their bad example and is off to an early start. His casual defiance of custom, however planned or motivated, reminds me of two characters in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” whose “vast carelessness” – Fitzgerald’s words – defeat the usual norms of courtesy and civility.
It is a familiar saying that a party in a lawsuit who represents himself “has a fool for a client.” The same is true of a president-elect too self-satisfied to consult the experts or follow any rulebook. And who may be jumping through the expensive hoops prepared by Washington lobbyists.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.