The announcement today that President Obama has nominated John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton when she steps down presumably fairly soon, would be received by approbation in many quarters in the United States and in the world at large. A diplomat of eminent pedigree, himself the son of a former diplomat, Kerry will defend US interests in an increasingly complex international environment with maturity born of experience. He was not Obama’s first choice for this important post (not that that should unduly discombobulate him).
Reportedly, Obama wanted to elevate his Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to the position. She belongs to his inner circle and has achieved the status of confidant by vigorously supporting him in the prolonged Clinton-Obama struggle for the Democratic nomination in 2008. A newspaper today opined that Obama likes her bluntness. Apparently she likes calling a spade a spade.Rice got into hot water with some Republican Senators when last September she appeared in some talk shows giving the government version of the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi attack.Based on the talking points given to her, Rice said that the attack was based on the spontaneous reaction of some Libyans to the despicable video about the Prophet Muhammad.Some Republican Senators pounced on her for trying to cover up for the administration and for dissembling the true facts about Benghazi: in their view, incompetence.They vowed to oppose her if she was nominated.Obama was forced to back down in what could have been a bruising fight in the US Senate which he could have lost. Rice withdrew her nomination.
I find it curious that no comment that I have seen on this incident, questions why Rice was chosen as the point-man of the Administration.She is the Ambassador at the UN.The Benghazi attack was not under discussion at the UN.It was for the State Department to appear before the media to explain what happened in Benghazi.There is a State Department Spokesperson who explains US foreign policy to the media daily.She was not used.Neither were other senior officials at State.Why was the appropriate channel not followed in this case? Why was this task assigned to Rice? Let’s hope someone in the know of the sometimes byzantine workings of Washington will enlighten us some day.The upshot is that her presentations last September ignited a storm of Republican protest which derailed her nomination.
In hinting that Rice could be his choice for Secretary of State, an only too human Obama appears to have succumbed to rewarding loyalty over merit. Rice has an excellent resume: Stanford, Rhodes Scholar and Assistant Secretary of State. But what she lacks is the measured experience and gravitas of Kerry, a former presidential candidate who has been immersed in foreign affairs for the past three decades. On the contrary, her bluntness bordering on rudeness with her diplomatic colleagues has been reported in the media. In recently calling her Chinese colleague’s position on North Korea as “ridiculous” she invited the rebuke, “you better watch your language”. Such encounters are a no-no in diplomacy.They lose much diplomatic capital for the person who initiates them.Rice could have benefited from the experience of a Bush 43 appointee to to the UN, John Bolton, who was disliked and isolated at the UN for his undiplomatic behavior. Obama should remember this.
Diplomacy, as Francois de Callieres informed us in his seminal tract in 1716 is the art of persuasion. One cannot persuade representatives of sovereign nations with whom one is negotiating, by using language which is more suited to a family conversation around the dinner table. Diplomacy is a profession of proper etiquette and understatement- qualities which it takes years for career diplomats to develop and eventually master. No wonder that political appointees no matter how intelligent and talented who have not had the background to acquire diplomatic skills, do not do well in the charged multilateral UN setting.I speak from personal experience as a former diplomat to the UN.I observed how Ambassadors William Scranton Andrew Young and Donald McHenry operated at the UN.They all acquitted themselves rather well-although they were not career diplomats- through a low key normal approach.They were not prima-donnas. Another master of diplomacy Napoleon’s foreign minister advised newly recruited career diplomats, “above all not too much zeal”. In other words do not be arrogant. And let me share another Talleyrand insight: “only fools mock etiquette: it simplifies life”.
It is astonishing that in the 21st century the US system still appoints persons to important diplomatic positions not on merit and ability but on the basis of the so called “spoils system”. The victorious president rewards his loyalists by appointing them as ambassadors to key diplomatic stations.One president appointed his bosom friend, a horse breeder as ambassador to London! This practice could be tolerated when diplomacy as a profession was still developing in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its continuance in the US today cannot but raise eyebrows in powerful capitals who invariably rely on their experienced career diplomats to protect and sustain their interests. These countries would be aghast at the sight of the proverbial bulls in a china shop which some political appointees tend to be, when they are pitched into diplomatic waters which they are unable to navigate