The Foreign Service Journal, December 2006

A Unique Perspective Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower John Brady Kiesling, Potomac Books, Inc., 2006, $19.11, hardcover, 320 pages. R EVIEWED BY T ED W ILKINSON Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower is really three books rolled into one. It com- bines a short autobiographical sketch of a rich and engrossing 20-year Foreign Service career with a search- light examination of several specific policy issues author John Brady Kiesling experienced in Greece, Armenia and the Indian subconti- nent. It then concludes with a wide- ranging critique of Washington’s drift away from true “realism” in its inter- national relations, particularly under the current administration. While Kiesling is perhaps the most famous FSO to resign in recent years, at least two others (John Brown and Ann Wright) also resigned in 2003 over the Iraq War. Nor, as Kiesling notes, were they the first to take such a stand over a policy issue: a group of five FSOs resigned in the early 1990s in frustration over the initial U.S. refusal to intervene in Bosnia. Still, judging from the recent acclaim that Diplomacy Lessons has received and the rebroadcasts of his book launch talks on National Public Radio, Kies- ling may have come closer than any- one else to capturing the zeitgeist of the dissenters and their many sympa- thizers. Throughout the book, Kiesling’s broad scope and incisive wit are rem- iniscent of some of Sir Harold Nicolson’s best essays on diplomacy. His critique of the Bush administra- tion, for example, is so acute and acer- bic that some might group him with Lewis Lapham and Sidney Blumen- thal (whose just-published books, in at least one reviewer’s eyes, display “a distorting case of Bush-phobia”). Kiesling asserts that President Bush and Vice President Cheney allowed themselves to be duped into an Iraq adventure by a known con-man (Ahmed Chalabi) in ways that an experienced diplomat would easily have seen through. Apart from its Iraq mistakes, the administration seriously undermined any claims to international moral sup- port — or to legitimacy, or “soft power” by other names — by abrogat- ing or ignoring the ABM Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Geneva Conventions, the Kyoto Pro- tocol and the International Criminal Court. As Kiesling ruefully com- ments, the United Nations may be a “large, unwieldy, inconsistent body that Americans are taught by their nationalist politicians to despise,” but by underfunding and/or bypassing it with “coalitions of the willing,” the U.S. is forgoing “the world’s main source of transnational legitimacy.” Kiesling saves many telling ad hominem barbs for the president and vice president themselves. Whereas “Pres. Clinton had a rare gift for expressing American values in a way that recognized that foreigners had them too, Pres. Bush prefers, for domestic political reasons, to imply that America is a uniquely virtuous and legitimate purveyor of freedom and democracy.” In press confer- ences, the president’s “inability to articulate a logical response to a diffi- cult question frightens the world more than he wants the world to be frightened.” Instead, Kiesling avers, Bush should “leave to his diplomats the job of answering the unanswer- able questions about the contradic- tions inherent in the foreign policy of any great power.” Vice President Cheney’s specific transgressions in- clude transparent attempts to manip- ulate pre-invasion intelligence on Iraq and belligerent public statements about Iran’s nuclear program. But the United States is not an “unloved superpower” just because of the Bush administration; Kiesling lists several systemic problems that pre- date and will outlast the Bush/Cheney era. One is excessive executive B OOKS 74 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / D E C E M B E R 2 0 0 6 Kiesling’s broad scope and incisive wit are reminiscent of some of Sir Harold Nicolson’s best essays on diplomacy.