Diplomacy, the Third Strand of War and Peace

In Tolstoy’s great work, today’s diplomats can learn a lot about how a brilliant writer once viewed their profession and how many people still regard it.


A portrait of Russian author Leo Tolstoy in 1868, one year before his novel War and Peace was first published in its entirety.
Agefotostock / Alamy

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unleashed by Vladimir Putin in February as a “special military operation,” has led to wanton carnage similar to that of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812—only this time Russia is the aggressor. To grasp the titanic forces clashing in war, we would do well to pull from the shelf one of the greatest epic novels of the 19th century, Count Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (or Special Military Operation and Peace, as wags have called it). The first section of the novel appeared in 1865, the year the American Civil War ended. Tolstoy, a historian noted, towered over his age as did Michelangelo and Beethoven in their day. And yet when he stooped to satire, and his massive novel is streaked with it, he lost none of his authority.

Take, for instance, Tolstoy’s rendering of diplomats—his tone usually bemused, sometimes mocking, always insightful. Practitioners of the diplomatic profession today can learn a lot about how a brilliant writer once viewed this profession and how many people still regard it. Diplomacy is the fascinating third strand of War and Peace.

Tolstoy portrays diplomacy through his vibrant characters and takes another stab at it in his polemical essay at the end. He compared his tour de force to the Iliad, but Homer lacked the Russian aristocrat’s uncanny sense of the motley practice of diplomacy. That understanding was almost a birthright. Born into Russian nobility, Tolstoy counted ambassadors as well as generals among his family’s ancestors.

On the very first page of the novel, which opens in St. Petersburg in 1805 as Napoleon begins to dominate the continent, Tolstoy establishes the sardonic treatment: A guest at a soirée sighs he must also make an obligatory appearance at a weekly event hosted by the English ambassador. Other Russians complain of the boring English gathering. And another guest, a young Pierre Bezukhov, the story’s hero and, in some respects, the avatar of Tolstoy, considers going into diplomacy as a profession. But, no, a diplomatic life simply won’t do. Pierre finds it not to his liking. We imagine the same for young Tolstoy deciding on his career.

The Diplomat’s Charm

Tolstoy inducts a multinational cast of ambassadors into his narrative: the English, Russian, French and Dutch envoys, as well as the Danish chargé. One of the novel’s most memorable characters is the Russian diplomat Bilibin. In his inimitable style, Tolstoy pumps lifeblood into the character. This is no caricature, no stereotype. We learn that Bilibin has served in Paris and Copenhagen and, before Napoleon ousted the Russians, in Vienna. He is young, only 35, but experienced, having trained and served since he was 16. He is not one of the run-of-the-mill diplomats who advance solely by speaking French and keeping their head down. He is a hard worker. He takes pains in producing memos and reports (what we would call tradecraft), and yet—here a Tolstoyan salvo—he seems more concerned with the “how” in chronicling events than the “why” in comprehending them.

It’s a resounding critique, for Tolstoy is supremely interested in the big Why. He scoffs at discussions among his characters as to whether a diplomatic note was well or awkwardly composed. Trivial matters these, in his Olympian view. He dismisses the contention that a certain Diplomatic Note No. 178, through its poor wording, marked a turning point in the Napoleonic wars. How is not Why. Tolstoy, the gifted author, betrays a slight admiration for the diplomatic wordsmith. The fierce philosopher does not.

Bilibin has several striking qualities, foremost of which is a facility with bon mots. Time and again, he launches them at social events. To signal their coming, Bilibin always screws up his face, as Tolstoy describes a dozen times in his most sustained satirical sally. Bilibin assumes they are so sparkling, they will be repeated often. If, however, he senses the company is not appreciative, he “treasures them up.” Mostly these are puns and wordplays, amusing but not profound, drawn from incidents of the day or—here a Tolstoyan zinger—from Bilibin’s own dispatches.

Born into Russian nobility, Tolstoy counted ambassadors as well as generals among his family’s ancestors.

The Russian diplomat has another habit, not unfamiliar to practitioners then or now. Bilibin relishes a cock-up story. How, for example, Napoleon secured a bridge that should have been blown up by the retreating Russian army; or how the Russian high command fell into inane bickering. The diplomat enjoys schadenfreude in the retelling, even if the misadventure involves his own side. He chafes at diplomatic discretion as a form of “torture.”

Tolstoy does not consider all diplomatic work as empty. He credits Bilibin with solving the irksome puzzle for the Russians of how to address a diplomatic note to Napoleon without bestowing any undue status. Thus, “Emperor” or any other exalted title are out of the question. The ingenious solution: “To the Chief of the French Government.” Bravo, Bilibin. And yet the author seems to whisper, small potatoes.

Tolstoy also applauds some fancy footwork by the Russian ambassador who recoils when Napoleon drops his handkerchief in front of him, a cunning test of both his manners and loyalty. The ambassador quickly realizes that turning on his heel would be bad form, and bending to retrieve the article even worse. So, he devises a face-saving stratagem: He drops his own handkerchief on the same spot … and then picks it up … and leaves the other. Tolstoy seems to enjoy this rebuke to Napoleon. (We might venture a pun ourselves on the ambassador’s toss: a put-down, an instance of one-downsmanship.) Well done, ambassador. But again that whisper, just a piece of linen.

The Envoy’s Blunder

One diplomatic episode in the novel may be open to interpretation, but practitioners will readily infer Tolstoy’s point. After Napoleon crosses the Nieman River and invades Russia in 1812, Tsar Alexander sends his envoy, Balashov, to warn him of the consequences. The instructions are stern. The tsar “commanded” Balashov to insist all the invaders in the multinational force pull back; it is a firm condition that must be satisfied before the tsar would consider negotiations with Napoleon.

The passage bears study: “Balashov remembered those words [from the tsar]: ‘As long as a single enemy under arms remains on Russian soil,’ but some complicated feeling checked his utterance of them. He could not utter those words, though he tried to do so. He stammered, and said: ‘On condition the French troops retreat beyond the Nieman.’ Napoleon observed Balashov’s embarrassment in the utterance of those words” and then he flew into a rage.

In other words, the envoy Balashov watered down his instructions, and Napoleon sensed weakness and pounced on it—and continued his march all the way through Borodino to Moscow. Is this a déformation professionnelle? A tendency to stint on tough instructions delivered in person to a foreign leader? Tolstoy may be on to something. History offers a few real examples.

The Opposite Number

Employing his dazzling literary technique, Tolstoy creates characters that embody qualities opposite to those of the diplomats. Consider, for example, the peasant Karataev, a “centered” personality, as we would say, a man of many folk sayings, which Tolstoy does not mock as platitudes but serves up as Russian wisdom. (The character borders on a stereotype, perhaps the only one in the novel’s multitude.) Karataev could not score with a pun if his life depended on it, but he does exude earthy sagacity and simple integrity. These qualities have a transformative influence on Pierre, his companion in French captivity.

The other counterpoint to the diplomats is the old warhorse, the Russian commander Kutuzov, one of Tolstoy’s characters drawn from real life and superbly fictionalized. One-eyed but all seeing, poorly informed of the latest military maneuvers but profoundly in sync with the currents of history, Kutuzov doesn’t bother to read dispatches or absorb briefings, the very stuff of diplomacy. He speaks with a “homely coarseness.” He operates on a higher, or deeper level. He moves on a Tolstoyan plane.

Tolstoy, the gifted author, betrays a slight admiration for the diplomatic wordsmith.

Another diplomatic episode, call it “the dog that didn’t bark,” illustrates the author’s outlook. Having clashed with Kutuzov at Borodino before advancing to occupy Moscow, Napoleon assumes the tsar would be ready for a peace settlement. To initiate talks, he sends him a note in St. Petersburg and awaits a reply. None is forthcoming, so another note is transmitted. Again, no answer from the imperial capital.

In the event, there would be no reply to Napoleon and no negotiations. Tolstoy portrays this diplomatic silence as a masterstroke, the very absence of diplomacy as a Russian triumph. Facing a burnt-down Moscow and an icily silent St. Petersburg, the French invader realizes the snare has sprung. After five weeks in Moscow, Napoleon orders the winter retreat of his Grande Armée out of Russia, back across the Nieman. It is one of the most harrowing retreats in history and most gripping in literature.

The Statesman’s Chair

This still from the 1968 Russian film version of War and Peace shows its protagonist Pierre Bezukhov walking with Prince Andrei Volkonsky.
RGR Collection / Alamy

Early in the novel, Tolstoy dispenses with the contribution of diplomats by ironically postulating that the Bilibins of the world use clever words to exert “influence on so-called great events.” There is a lot of poison in that phrase “so-called.” And a lot of distillation of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. The diplomats in the novel stand out. Their diplomacy, however, is small-bore.

In his dense essay at the end, rather demanding after a thousand pages and utterly lacking the rousing climax of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” Tolstoy ridicules the concept of “Talleyrand’s chair.” We may know the theory better as “Cleopatra’s nose”—that is, the fanciful notion that little things, such as the style of a chair at a negotiating session or the pulchritude of an Egyptian queen, could jolt History. Such trivialities might rattle teacups, or tweak “so-called great events,” but they do not cause upheaval among tectonic plates, not in Tolstoy’s view.

To grasp his philosophy of history, we might turn to the latest Nobel Prize in physics, awarded to three scientists for their pathbreaking work in modeling complexity in geophysical phenomena and theorizing on chaotic and apparently random processes. For Tolstoy, history is made partly in such a way, by and in the “swarm” of people and their individual actions. Tolstoy tries in the novel to model his conception of history’s complex interaction, what he sees as a massive collision of countless variables.

Sadly, by the time of his death in 1910, Tolstoy had not won the Nobel, not for physics, a pardonable oversight, and not for literature, a gross miscarriage. The Nobel Committee selected the Russian writer Boris Pasternak in 1958 and noted—ruefully, one senses—that he could be compared to Tolstoy. (Not the only Nobel misstep: Surely Richard Holbrooke deserved the Peace Prize for ending the savage war in Bosnia.)

Reading War and Peace is a long but rewarding trek. Its memorable characters—Pierre, Natasha, Andrey—endure great suffering and, at the same time, achieve wisdom, a peace after war. This is an echo of Aeschylus that wisdom comes because of suffering, not in spite of it. (It is the Aeschylus quote on Robert Kennedy’s grave.) Our dear Bilibin, the consummate diplomat, the paladin of high society, the spinner of gossamer witticisms, never suffers … that is, until he is forced to leave Vienna for a charmless village. Tolstoy ultimately abandons him, leaves him behind at a St. Petersburg soirée and bars him from the epilogue, where much of the grand denouement takes place.

The Practitioner’s Handbook

Then what can modern-day practitioners of diplomacy take from the diplomats of War and Peace? We should resist the temptation, out of wounded pride, to wave away the novel’s diplomats as shallow stereotypes. This is, after all, Tolstoy, creator of archetypes. Like Michelangelo and Beethoven, he soared above stereotypes.

Further, we can take solace in the fact that Tolstoy lampooned other professions, as well. He portrays, for example, an officer who measures his life not in years but promotions; an official who chooses his opinions like his clothes according to the latest fashion; and an author—here a Tolstoyan confession—who might not be immune to flattery. Touché, we recognize these types.

The great Russian novels, a critic wrote, “added something to the nation’s knowledge of itself” and, during Tolstoy’s reign, were sources not just of pleasure but also “guidance and deliverance.” We should open War and Peace in this spirit, seeking an enlarged knowledge of our diplomatic profession. Thus, we can nod at our literary forebears, recognizing traits that still have purchase on the profession. We can shake our heads at the recurrent follies of the diplomatic corps. Above all, we should face Tolstoy’s insights and take to heart his lessons, including in connection with Putin’s spetz operatsiya in Ukraine.

Puns are not policy. Cleverness is not wisdom. Intuition can be a better compass than information. Humility in the face of complexity is a virtue. Time and patience, Kutuzov’s two strategic principles, should be cultivated. The craft of How is inferior to the quest for Why. Diplomatic Note No. 178 does not belong in an anthology, nor Talleyrand’s chair in a museum. Sometimes silence is the best response. St. Petersburg is not Moscow. Nor is it Borodino, nor the vast countryside. The capital (read: the Beltway) may be the room where it happens, but it is not the front line, the realm where it happens, where History really happens.

And literature, especially a magnificent epic, is a marvelous teacher. It can offer guidance. Maybe even deliverance.

During his Foreign Service career, Fletcher Burton served in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. His remembrance of Ambassador Vernon Walters, “From Boswell to Johnson,” appeared in the June 2003 FSJ. (Author’s note: Burton has used the translation of War and Peace by Constance Garnett, a worn volume his mother read in 1957 and whose marginal markings accompanied him the entire way.)