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May 2009

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Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft
Review by John M. Handley, Ph.D.
Text Box:

Angelo M. Codevilla, Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft, New York: Basic Books, 2009, ISBN 978-0-465-00483-6, 280 pages plus endnotes and index, hardback, $27.50.

Angelo M. Codevilla, a former naval officer and Foreign Service officer, served as a senior staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence between 1977 and 1985.  He has worked as a senior research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and taught international relations at Princeton and Georgetown Universities prior to accepting his current position as a professor of international relations at Boston University. 

His published works include The Character of Nations; Informing Statecraft; War: Ends and Means, as well as a new translation of The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli.

At the outset, Dr. Codevilla tells his reader that this book “outlines the essentials of international affairs – diplomacy, alliances, war, economic statecraft, intelligence, and prestige...” by contrasting them “with the two convenient constructs current in American discourse” (xi). 

The two constructs include first the foreign relations as practiced by the founding fathers up to the 1890s and the Spanish-American War, and second everything since then, with particular emphasis on the period from the Wilson presidency through the second Bush presidency.  Generally, the author concludes that clear terminology, as practiced prior to the 1890s, well served diplomacy and statecraft; while the muddled, often feel-good terminology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries created more problems for diplomacy than could have been for seen.  His call is to return to basics in all things diplomatic – including the use of language.  Say what you mean and mean what you say.

One interesting and frustrating aspect of this book, certain to both irritate and motivate every potential reader of any particular political viewpoint, is the fact that the author views the current practice of U.S. statecraft from three differing schools: Liberal Internationalists, Neo-Conservatives, and Realists.  He is not happy with any of them and basically considers all three approaches more similar than different. 

The Liberals want to use U.S. power and prestige to support international organizations, the Neo-Cons hope to convert the nations of the world into democracies, and the Realists somehow believe that enlightened self-interest will drive the nations of the world toward moderation.  Thus all three want to better the world: to reform, to teach, and to stabilize – creating a “secular, peaceful, orderly, emancipated, and cosmopolitan” world remade in the image of America (xv). 

These various approaches to diplomacy deny the relevance of differences between and among peoples, places, cultures, and religions, “treating all as if they were not foreign at all, confusing the human race with homo economicus californianus” (xvii).  Today’s statesmen seem to forget that foreign relations are about dealing with foreigners, who have their own identities and agendas.

Each of the nine chapters addresses a specific aspect of diplomacy, starting with the appropriate use of words, followed by chapters on realistic axioms as opposed to idealistic ones, ideas and their consequences, the correct role of diplomacy, power and money, war, intelligence, and security.  The last chapter, “Keep It Simple,” returns to the author’s basic theme of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.  To provide a few brief examples of what you will find within the pages of the text, in the first chapter, “Use the Dictionary,” the author describes how statesmen have developed “what amounts to a tribal language, meaningful only to themselves” (7).  His views on “international community” and “equality” are particularly enlightening:

Our statesmen got used to pretending that the perfumed representatives of smelly regimes were other than Communists, despots, tin-pot dictators, parasites, savages, desert bandits, and terrorists.  Through fanciful language they evaded pondering who is trying to do what to whom at any given time, what is more or less just, who might fight for what, and what their own responsibility might be for securing our interests. (15)   

Language continued to morph into something other than what was previously understood when, in the 1960s, enemy, war, and victory became competitor, conflict, and prevailing (21).   The use of language changes again as statesmen attempt to use military personnel in “peacekeeping” missions or “humanitarian interventions.”    

In the chapter on axioms, the author scrutinizes axioms such as “the interests of mankind,” “the march of history,” and “the force of world opinion.” He addresses America’s supposed duty to “all mankind,” the world as simply “one global village [that] shares the same aspirations,” all the world’s diverse cultures as “compatible and commensurable,” the multi-cultural view of “cultural equality” in which all the cultures of the world, except that of America, have worth, and even the Beijing Olympic slogan “One World, One Dream,” which fails to consider the dreams of Tibetans, or any other ethnic entity currently carrying a grudge against another community. 

“Ideas Have Consequences,” includes a fairly in-depth attack on Joseph Nye and the use of “soft power,” which the author equates to prestige.  He demonstrates how the United States has failed to use soft power while providing examples of Soviet success in this area.  The attraction the USSR held for “hundreds of thousands” of Western intellectuals allows these fellow travelers to influence today “the commanding heights of education, the media, finance, and government bureaucracies” (49).  He concludes that “soft power” is not about empowering America as much as it is “about making Americans do what people like Joseph Nye want” (50). In a section on religion, the author states: “Ignorance of religion is perhaps the defining cultural characteristic of America’s foreign policy establishment” (57).  On contempt, he finds that the smallest amount of contempt can turn resentments into flaming hate, but “while others alone can decide whether they hate us, we alone, exclusively, control whether they hold us in contempt” (61).  The worst thing you can do is “to define America as open to any and all cultures and ideas.  By doing so you tell us to risk our lives for the privilege of believing in nothing, and convince mankind that Americas are empty shells (73).”      

In the chapter on “Diplomacy,” the author defines diplomacy as “the verbal representation of a persuasive reality” (75).  Diplomatic representations are warnings.  Competent diplomats warn, they do not threaten.  Diplomacy is about frankness and truth, and as such it requires precise language.  The more abstract the words the less meaningful.  For diplomacy, “Directness is the greatest subtlety” (78).  Most diplomats make the mistake of believing that foreigners “think, value, hope, and fear more or less as he does” (80).  The author ends with the observation that the diplomat’s job is to bear his country’s burdens, which are heavy enough, not to bear the burdens of others. 

I could go on but I believe these few examples should give you an idea of what to expect is this book.  It is not politically aimed at suggesting or arguing for any particular political philosophy, but rather seems to challenge all the prevailing schools of thought by pointing out their vast similarities as used by today’s American diplomats. 

There is much to give pause in this book as well as much to learn or re-learn.  One may heartily disagree with the positions taken by the author, but he does make one stop and think, and that is indeed valuable.  I certainly recommend Advice to War Presidents to anyone in government service.



 

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