Recovering Diplomatic Agility: Ambassador Chas Freeman on the Future of US Diplomacy

A good diplomat should be able to tell you to go to hell and make you want to get there right away.” For Chas Freeman, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and State Department veteran, this dictum holds true whether you’re talking to friend or foe, and it encapsulates what the United States must learn anew in order to retain its ability to shape the world in its interest. In the third installment of a three-lecture series, Freeman picked up where his discussion of America’s struggle to react to recent changes in the international order had left off, inquiring how the successes and failures of the last two decades should inform US foreign policy going forward.

His key point? In a new world order, no longer defined by Cold War dynamics nor US hegemony, American diplomacy needs to become more agile and adaptable. It must also shed its habit of engaging adversaries through rigid posturing and punitive measures. Only then can the US work to create a global environment that reflects its long-term interests — an urgent task, given the fact that its relative power will fade as rival players emerge.

In a powerful lecture with carefully picked examples and anecdotes, Freeman stressed that diplomacy need not entail reconciliation, compromise, or relinquishing one’s interests. More than anything, it is a highly strategic maneuver, an exercise in empathy but also in manipulation, recognizing mutual interests or reshaping foreign perceptions until a mutual interest emerges. This, Freeman argued, can even entail obstructionist tactics during negotiation, as long as these serve to advance one’s goals. 

In a new world order, no longer defined by Cold War dynamics nor US hegemony, American diplomacy needs to become more agile and adaptable.


This line of reasoning is clearly meant to push back against the view that engaging in diplomacy with one’s adversaries is a sign of weakness or lacking resolve. Indeed, sanctions and other tough, coercive strategies only tend to work when combined with effective diplomacy. Pointing to the US’s experiences with Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, Freeman noted that instead of bringing about regime change or compliance, sanctions without the prospect of negotiations are mostly “good politics and bad policy.” They demonstrate American toughness, but rather than changing the adversary’s behavior, they often simply stiffen relations. They can embolden the target regime to defy what it perceives as bullying, increase its support at home and confirm its view that it will need to develop, say, nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. The only sensible way to use sanctions, according to Freeman, is as leverage in negotiations, where they can help put pressure on the other side. That, however, requires the US to be willing to negotiate in the first place, which has not always been the case. Of course, when the US struck down offers to negotiate in the past, it could have been betting on a better bargaining position in the future, waiting for its economic sanctions to further bleed out their target — an argument Freeman did not seem to have considered.

Be that as it may, the inability of sanctions to achieve much on their own is compounded by two factors. First, the increasing complexity of global supply chains makes it harder to impose costly economic sanctions unless you can make sure that they are universally complied with, something the US “will have to learn the hard way.” Second, when the US cuts its political and economic ties to a country, this also restricts its ability to shape future domestic developments in its interest. Thus, Freeman pointed out, when pro-democracy protests erupted in Myanmar in 2007, years of sanctions against the country’s military junta had already limited the US’s ability to throw its weight behind the protesters of the so-called Saffron Revolution, while others, including China, were in a better position to take action.

A second arena in which Freeman underlined the importance of agile diplomacy is that of post-war settings. The US not only needs a clear exit strategy when engaging in conflicts abroad. It also needs to wake up to the fact that, just as sanctions are of no great use if the target cannot respond but with defiance, military defeat is rarely the final chapter of war unless it is coupled with negotiations. Without a dialogue that reconciles the defeated with the implications of their loss and provides a new status quo acknowledged and accepted by all parties, the prospects for real and enduring peace are dim. According to Freeman, the US should have learned this from its failure to force Saddam Hussein into compliance after his defeat in the First Gulf War and from the widespread sectarian warfare that engulfed Iraq soon after the 2003 invasion.

Looking ahead, Freeman warned that US relative power would diminish, even though the country would undoubtedly remain a central force in the international system. This should encourage the US to act now to secure its long-term interests — for Freeman, this means treading more carefully, strengthening international law and operating through international organizations that can aggregate political and economic clout, such as the UN, while also building stronger ties to Europe. For guidance on how to face rising rivals, Freeman suggested the US look back on its own rise at the end of the 19th century, arguing that the United Kingdom’s decision to build cooperative ties with a challenger it could no longer defeat militarily “paid off big time” throughout the 20th century. In line with this cautious approach, Freeman added that the US should “play hard to get” in terms of security assistance in order to avoid any risk of moral hazard among states that rely on its military clout for their own security.

Ending on a sobering note, Freeman rightly pointed out that the likelihood of the US revising its strategy in such a fundamental way is, to put it mildly, low, as it would require addressing a number of institutional obstacles. These include a foreign service partly formed through a spoils system and a Congress attempting to retaliate against the use of executive orders by sabotaging the President’s foreign policy, even sending a letter to Iran’s leaders in the lead-up to last year’s nuclear deal with the country. For Freeman, the right advice once again lies in the distant past – specifically, in the words of John Quincy Adams: “America is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”