When the Prince Flunks Diplomacy 101

Obama Speaks At Holocaust Days Of Remembrance CeremonyBy its handling of China’s claim of a defense zone in international waters, Obama & co. violated diplomacy’s timeless fundamentals. First they loudly declared that America continues to regard the zone as international waters, and sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into the area to underline the point. Then they told US airline companies that the US government would not try to protect them in these international waters and advised them to submit to Chinese authority therein. Finally, when the Japanese government asked for US support for its own claims in the area, Vice President Biden told the Japanese to deal with China as best they can – much as the Administration had told US citizens. People who act this way should not be allowed near positions of power. They could not pass a basic exam in the field.

Teaching basic courses in international affairs, I often presented students with the following exam question: Country A claims some exclusive rights over waters theretofore regarded as international. What would you advise the executive of country B to do?” The student could earn a passing grade by answering along any of the following classic lines.

1. Customarily, a government responds only to events of which it chooses to “take note.” Country B is not obliged to respond at all. It can leave country A unsure of what it will have to deal with, and place on it the burden of deciding of whether or not to “take note” of non-compliance with its claim. Alternatively, if country B does comply with A’s claim, it can do so without commitment and without giving the appearance of having bent to a claim that it considers onerous.

2. B may choose to inform A quietly that it will not respect the claim and of the measures it is prepared to take to enforce what it considers its own rights. It can also inform its allies and its own citizens of those preparations. Quiet demurral saves A from having to react to a confrontation while leaving no doubt of the gravity of the confrontation, should it choose to enforce its claim. Perhaps A will decide quietly that the game is not worth the candle.

3. B may choose to respect the claim, judging that avoiding confrontation with A overrides other interests, and that its readiness to acquiesce will gain A’s good will. In that case, B informs A of its desire for accommodation and negotiates the best quid-pro-quo that it can for that accommodation.

I flunked a lot of students in my day. But I do not recall ever giving an F on this question. This was an easy one because, in international affairs, the fundamentals are so obvious: minimize expenses, maximize gains, and avoid losses.

No undergraduate – and I had some not-so-good ones – ever tried to argue that B should wave a nuclear flag in front of A, and then advertise that it will not protect its own citizens. And if a student had ever suggested that B’s reply to its own ally’s request for help in rolling back A’s claim with Vice President Joseph Biden’s suggestion that the ally (Japan) develop “crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication,” the great big “F” I would have scrawled on the exam paper would have been followed by this.

“What you suggest brings your country all losses and no gains. Since you had no concrete plans to protect your citizens or your allies in the exercise of their rights under international law, what was the point of your asserting that right provocatively but abstractly and un-seriously? You could have gone for option 3, a negotiated surrender of your rights, or for a variant of option 1, a tacit surrender of your rights. Instead, you surrendered those rights in a way that called attention to your surrender. To top it all off, you threw your biggest ally in the region under your misguided bus.

Why would anyone think that way? I can only guess that it has something to do with the words you use: “crisis management” and “effective channels of communication.” Dictionaries tie words to reality. But you attempt to evade reality by using empty words. What should you do in a crisis? The word “management” is no answer. “Communication,” you say? But the real question is “what are you going to communicate? By evading substantive questions, you communicated that your country deserves contempt.

I advise you no longer to pursue a degree in international affairs, at least until you have acquired a better grasp of the English language and some knowledge of history.”

Never did I write such a comment on an exam paper, because the least of my undergraduates never sank to the level of Obama & co.

The Obamanians’ management of the China defense zone crisis is just what one expects of folks who trumpet their intelligence, and then demonstrate stupidity.

Reader Discussion

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on December 08, 2013 at 13:23:00 pm

Dr. Codevilla:

I hope that you are right that these continuing misadventures may be attributed to nothing more than blatant stupidity.
However, when one looks at the broad range of "misadventures" that this motley crew is responsible for, one has to ask, if this is not part of the "fundamental change" that the Enlightened One and his minions promised us. What is the change? A weakened nation that no longer warrants the respect and allegiance of other nations - a "comeuppance" - and a predilection for betraying those who share common values and history.

I doubt that this is what Washington and Madison meant when they indicated their desire that the United States be a "respectable" nation.

Again, I hope it is mere stupidity!

take care

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Image of gabe
on December 08, 2013 at 20:21:22 pm

[…] Angelo Codevilla writes that if a student in one of his basic international affairs classes answered an exam question suggesting the course of action taken by the Obama administration in response to China’s air defense zone declaration, he would have flunked him. […]

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Image of Links for 12-8-2013 | Karl Heubaum
Links for 12-8-2013 | Karl Heubaum
on December 09, 2013 at 10:48:46 am

I'm thinking it's neither stupidity nor an evil master plan, but a combination of hubris and something like ADD. I have caught myself making embarrassing mistakes on blog comments; I am distracted by more urgent matters and only THINK I remember what I have already said. In a similar way, this administration is clearly much more interested in domestic policy than in foreign relations, and the premature Nobel Peace Prize has surely given it a sense that it can do no wrong.

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Image of Howard
on December 09, 2013 at 13:55:44 pm

[…] […]

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Image of Mark Levin - Codevilla: Republican leaders care more about power than preserving - ALIPAC
Mark Levin - Codevilla: Republican leaders care more about power than preserving - ALIPAC
on December 14, 2013 at 12:42:05 pm

Dr. C, you are a jewel! Keep up the narrative - you are one of the few that has "decoded" the behavior of the incumbent class. Your essay in AS was classic!

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Image of gueppebarre
on January 01, 2014 at 21:16:25 pm

You very much correctly described Obama & Company's governing style: "All loses and no gains--at great expense."

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Image of Tom Osborne
Tom Osborne
on July 30, 2015 at 16:36:37 pm

In the aforesaid comments I hear absolutely nothing about the world we actually live in. It seems we always hear that voice that wants to go back to a time that never was. My friends, there is no putting the Genie back in the bottle. Iran was two months away from a bomb when negotiations with them began. Bombing will not stop the regime from getting a bomb, and sanctions are crumbling as we speak. The Russians and the Chinese are ready to do business yesterday. They, by the way, have a permanent seat--with a veto--in the UN Security Council. For those who don't think this matters a hoot, look what happened with "Mission Accomplished" in 2003. Iran, with sanctions accomplished all that it had hoped. Iran without sanctions will become a member of the nuclear club before you can say, "It's 2015"-- not 1955.

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Image of Tom Osborne
Tom Osborne

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.