A skilled diplomat and negotiator, James A. Baker III served as the Secretary of State during a period of tumultuous change, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm, and the U.S. invasion of Panama. In these remarks, which lay out specific steps on Ukraine and are at times critical of President Obama, Secretary Baker outlines his “Baker’s Half Dozen,” six pragmatic rules of thumb for foreign policy, including presidential commitment, consistency, and a balancing of values and interests. Secretary Baker was given the Ralph Bunche Award for Diplomatic Excellence for his many contributions to foreign policy at ADST’s biennial gala dinner in May 2014 .
“Baker’s Half Dozen”
Thanks to the Association for its focus on the history, practices, and traditions of U.S. diplomacy. America’s Foreign Service officers have always been, and they remain, among our nation’s very best assets in helping create a secure and peaceful world.
So, it is a special privilege today for me to receive an honor named after one of our country’s finest gentlemen and adroit diplomats — Ralph Bunche.
One of my favorite stories about Bunche came at the conclusion of his legendary work at the end of the 1940s involving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Much of Bunche’s negotiations were done directly with Israel’s Moshe Dayan over a pool table.
Optimistically, Bunche commissioned a potter to create memorial plates bearing the name of each negotiator. When the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1949, Bunche awarded the gifts.
Upon receiving his, Dayan asked what would have happened if no agreement had been reached.
Bunch responded: “I’d have broken the plates over your damn heads.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to be here tonight and pleased to share my thoughts on the conduct of foreign policy. My focus will be less upon grand strategy than upon what could be called “rules of thumb.”
This emphasis reflects my own pragmatic approach to foreign policy.
And so, let me share a few rules of thumbs – a “Baker’s half-dozen,” if you will – that I think could help guide U.S. diplomacy. The list is by no means exhaustive. But it will, I hope, provide a useful starting point in assessing America’s current foreign policy and its future course.
First, presidential commitment is critical.
A vast amount of our diplomacy is, frankly, fairly routine. And most of it can be handled at lower levels. That’s why we have a Secretary of State and a substantial bureaucracy to support the White House.
But there are certain times – notably during international crises and while pursuing important initiatives – when presidential involvement is indispensable. This is particularly true of situations where policies touch on domestic politics. Here the president must be prepared to weigh in if a policy is to succeed.
The Arab-Israeli Peace Process is a case in point. I laud Secretary Kerry’s recent efforts. No Secretary of State can expect to achieve anything unless he or she is willing to fail. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the best example that I can think of where presidential commitment is indispensable to success.
I experienced such a commitment first-hand in 1991 when I was Secretary of State and began working on what, later that year, became the Madrid Peace Conference. Some members of our foreign policy team argued that trying to negotiate Arab-Israeli peace was futile and thus, they said, a poor use of my time and our diplomatic assets.
But President George H.W. Bush wholeheartedly backed me, both during internal White House discussions and through his public statements and actions. His support was unequivocal.
The result of that support was that we broke a longstanding taboo and Israel and all of her Arab neighbors eventually sat down at the negotiating table for the first time ever to discuss peace. None of that would have happened had President Bush not been willing to use his political capital to achieve that result.
Second, consistency matters in foreign policy.
Predictability reassures our allies and puts down clear markers for our potential adversaries. Let me very clear here: I am not saying that the United States should continue unwise policies simply because we have supported them in the past. As circumstances change, we should be willing to reassess – and, if need be – reverse course.
But we should be very careful about making promises or threats without thinking through the consequences. This is especially the case when it comes to presidential declarations, which are authoritative statements of U.S. foreign policy.
President Obama’s famous “red line” on chemical weapons’ use by the Syrian government is a cautionary example of the disarray that an injudicious statement – however off-hand — can cause. The awkward handling of the Syrian chemical weapons issue last year – when U.S. policy seemed to shift, at times, from day to day — clearly fostered unnecessary uncertainty among our friends in the Middle East and elsewhere.
There is room for “creative ambiguity” in foreign policy. But, as a general rule, we should say what we mean and mean what we say.
Third, effective foreign policy requires using all the tools at our disposal.
Our current approach to the crisis in Ukraine is an example. We should do far more to demonstrate both strength and resolve in opposing Moscow’s aggression.
These are actions that the United States can take on its own. Our European allies are going to be far more reluctant to consider broad economic sanctions. But we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to a lowest-common-denominator approach.
Let’s be clear. Russia’s actions in “rolling the tanks” is inconsistent with any concept of a stable world order.
Diplomacy is important, we would all agree. But I think we might also agree that diplomacy alone will not always settle all differences between nations. Competition between major nations is inevitable and therefore diplomacy is best conducted with a mailed fist.
Fourth, values matter, but so do interests.
Should the United States support democracy and human rights? Of course we should! We have long espoused our values as part of our foreign policy. But those values must be weighed against our other interests.
In the Mideast, for instance, those interests include not only seeking to promote peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but also ensuring security of oil and gas supplies to world markets, and encouraging joint action against terrorist threats to the United States or our allies.
As a practical matter, this means cooperation with regional governments that fall short – sometimes far short — of Jeffersonian ideals. And it further suggests that the United States should be very careful of “rhetorical overreach” when it comes to democracy and human rights.
Such language can both raise unwarranted expectations of support by Washington and subject us to inevitable charges of hypocrisy as we – correctly, in my opinion — take a case-by-case approach to the countries of the region.
Fifth, relationships are vital.
First and foremost, strong ties of trust and confidence between the President and Secretary are critical to an administration’s success in foreign affairs.
Let me share another anecdote, one that illustrates the importance of a seamless relationship between a President and his Secretary of State.
After Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Iraq. When two heavily-laden Iraqi tankers bound for Yemen refused to be boarded, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and even Margaret Thatcher recommended using military force to halt them. We would look weak if it didn’t act, they said.
I was at my ranch in Wyoming, but on the phone with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze asked me to give the Soviets a couple of days to see if they could convince Iraq to turn the tankers back.
And so, I argued from afar that they should be given that time and not risk the Soviets abandoning their general posture of support for the U.S. line regarding Iraq.
The President later wrote that he trusted me, and so he agreed with my isolated position. Ultimately, the Soviets convinced Iraqis to turn their ships back.
Had President Bush not supported me, the Soviets would not have remained with us in the Security Council and we would never have been able to secure the Chapter 7 use-of-force resolution that we later got. (By the way, that was the only time — before or since — that the UN Security Council has invoked use-of-force against a member state, except Korea in the ‘50s when the Soviets walked out on the vote.)
Meanwhile, at an institutional level, close working relationships among all of the President’s foreign policy team promote consistency and avoid debilitating squabbles carried out through leaks to the press.
Speaking from experience, I believe that much of the foreign policy success of the George H. W. Bush Administration was directly attributable to a foreign policy team that, despite often sharp differences, was united by mutual respect for each other and a common belief in the President’s agenda.
The fact that this was so — was due to the President’s personal leadership and his understanding of the importance of teamwork. He selected a Secretary of State, a Secretary of Defense [Dick Cheney], a National Security Advisor [Brent Scowcroft] and a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Colin Powell] who had all worked together in previous administrations.
I am biased, of course, but I think the way the nation’s foreign policy and security apparatus functioned during our administration was an exception to the rule — (and should be a model.)
Last, but not least, we need always to recall that our current role in world affairs depends upon our economic strength.
Our country’s decisive advantage in military might is critical, surely. And so is the dense web of foreign alliances that permit us to leverage our influence.
But we cannot remain strong militarily or diplomatically unless we are strong economically. Our vibrant economy is the core reason we have been the world’s pre-eminent power for so long. This is why defusing what I call our fiscal “debt bomb” is the number one challenge confronting our leaders and policy makers.
Our total public debt to GDP ratio at 100 percent is simply unsustainable. Unsustainable federal debt will inevitably squeeze our defense and diplomacy budgets. And it will also lower overall economic growth, making it ever harder to marshal public support for engagement abroad.
Let me end on a note of optimism. At times like today – as crisis brews in the Ukraine, the Syrian Civil War rages on, tensions rise in the Far East and terrorism grows stronger not weaker – it is easy to despair.
But we would be wise to recall that we still face a far more benign international environment than we did during the Cold War. And we should remember that, for all the current difficulties, we remain a country of unique economic, military and diplomatic power.
Our task today is to sustain that power and use it wisely. We have met far greater challenges in the past.
And, if we have proper leadership, we can and will do so again.