The Life of a Real U.S. Diplomat Chief of Staff


Let’s agree to disagree on the use of the descriptor “diplomatic,” as in “she’s very diplomatic in how she handles idiots at work.” of diplomacy. In other words, diplomacy may be a formal mode of negotiation, an alternative to military conflict, or even an organizational bureaucracy/process (“let them handle it diplomatically”).

To wit, its not really about being “nice” to people.

Kim, who is currently chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, questioned the widely accepted meaning of the word “diplomatic” as nice and tactful.“It’s not about being nice to people or not saying hurtful things. In fact, in the jobs that I’ve had to do, we’ve had difficult and sometimes combative conversations,” she said. “In the most acute cases, like North Korea or Iraq, it’s about talking to someone so that guns don’t get pulled out. It’s a way to avoid or end conflict, and to get people to compromise.”

Source: Diplomats in the Trenches: ‘Diplomacy Isn’t About Being Nice to People’ | HuffPost by Nicholas Kralev


Prepping to Negotiate with North Korea



What advice would @mickeybergman, one of the people responsible for negotiating with the DPRK to release Otto Warmbier, give to President Trump ahead of his tete-a-tete with Kim Jung-Un?

In an interview with FP’s Sarah Wildman, print editor, and Dan De Luce, chief foreign policy correspondent, Bergman explores his experiences with non-state actor diplomacy in the grey area between states and individual actors.  And based on his past experience working with North Korean interlocutors, he explores strategies that would be important for any negotiation with North Korea.

For example, Bergman observes that the Koreans make three fundamental assumptions going into a negotiation:

  1. The world is out to get us. (Consider regional history from Japan, China, South Korea, as well as the U.S.)
  2. We are surrounded by giants. (China, Russia, and the U.S.)
  3. We need an asymmetric three to maintain our way of life (nuclear weapons)

In PostWorld this week, he writes that one tactic to expect from the North Koreans is a feint that could shut down negotiations:

In the 1990s, when one of us, then-congressman Richardson, was an unofficial envoy, his U.S. delegation extended an offer of food aid to North Korea during one break in arms-control discussions as a gesture meant to encourage their counterparts to return to the talks. The North Koreans publicly rejected the aid, insisting that they didn’t need it, but then quietly accepted it, nonetheless. For show, they briefly reopened negotiations, but they weren’t serious. Nothing happened, and they blamed us for the impasse. A typical North Korean dodge.

via WaPo, Kim Jong Un won’t give up his nukes. Trump should meet with him, anyway.

Discussions could take much longer than just a one meet up between two highly visible heads of state:

In 2016, negotiating on behalf of Otto Warmbier’s family in Pyongyang, the other one of us, Mr. Bergman, received a flat “no” from the North Koreans on a proposal to bring Otto home during the official portion of a meeting. Minutes later, during an unofficial conversation, one of his counterparts casually commented: “There is a saying in my country: it takes 100 hacks to take down a tree.” The North Koreans negotiate with patience and deliberation, something Trump must take into account.

How will Trump do, the self-described master negotiator? We’ll have to wait and see–and hope for the best.



When President Trump announced the decision to pick a Sec State from Exxon, bringing private sector talent to the country’s foremost institution of diplomatic power, many were skeptical. I shared those concerns–but one friend pushed back, wondering why someone with business background couldn’t succeed in such an important position at the top of government service? I decided to withhold judgement, to give him a chance.

Time has proved Tillerson to be a very weak Secretary. Dan Drezner writes today in WaPo, and it’s even worse than many imagined:

Spoiler Alerts has written a fair amount about Tillerson’s incompetence and ineffectiveness as secretary of state. He was so incompetent that I called for him to resign in August. I would wager that everything I said in that column holds with greater force today. His influence within the administration waned over time. His proposed redesign of the State Department was botched, and botched badly. His incompetent management of Foggy Bottom helped trigger an exodus of seasoned Foreign Service officers and crushed morale among the remaining diplomats. It seemed as though he could not visit a region without saying something that offended his hosts. There is no signature idea or doctrine or accomplishment that Tillerson can point to as part of his legacy. He was woefully unprepared for the job on Day One and barely moved down the learning curve. His incompetence undercut his ability to advance any worthwhile policy instinct.

via “Five Thoughts on the Firing of Rex Tillerson

Drezner quotes Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris who pile on, too:

But perhaps the most puzzling part of Mr. Tillerson’s tenure was his poor oversight of the State Department. As a former top business executive, his managerial skills were thought to be his chief asset.

But he failed to quickly pick a trusted team of leaders, left many critical departments without direction and all but paralyzed crucial decision making in the department.

He approved one global conclave in Washington just eight days before the event was to start, ensuring that few leaders from around the world were able to attend. He rarely sat for comprehensive briefings with many of his top diplomats and often failed to consult the State Department’s experts on countries before visiting.

Foreign diplomats — starting with the British and the French — said Mr. Tillerson neither returned phone calls or, with much advance warning, set up meetings with his counterparts. Strategic dialogues with many nations, including nuclear weapons powers like Pakistan, were ended without explanation.

via NYT

Some like David Frum, wonder about the connection between the timing of Tillerson’s firing and the Russia criticisms. Others are parsing the personnel aftermath, wondering what this means for the globalists v nationalist street fight amidst Trump’s appointments. Meanwhile, State Department staff have been told to “freeze further amplification of content that features (Secretary Tillerson)“–which may be the strangest line of all in a Twitter-driven Presidency.

“I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we’ve had,” Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst Secretary of State in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era State Department official. [Vox]

Illustration by Matt Wuerker, Politico

Let’s Meet: Trump’s Approach to Diplomacy

And with a short, 45 min meeting, Trump makes what could be a fateful decision in US/Korean Peninsula relations.

The story of how this came about, assembled through interviews with officials and analysts from the United States, South Korea, Japan and China, is a case study in international relations in the Trump era. A president with no prior foreign policy experience takes on a festering conflict that has vexed the world for years with a blend of impulse and improvisation, and with no certain outcome. One moment, he is hurling playground insults and threatening nuclear war, the next he is offering the validation of a presidential meeting.

Via Peter Baker, NYT

Civility Gets Real, Holiday-edition.

Holidays are a time to practice civility, which is another way of saying “diplomacy in action” around the table. The French have a unique approach to civility, which might be worth considering. But here in the U.S.,  just 31 percent “said they were eager to discuss the latest news with their family and friends” according to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll. and 84% surveyed by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate “experienced incivility” with 59% noting that they are giving up paying attention to politics as a result.

How can you enjoy your meal, have an exchange views, and still get along–let alone maybe even learn something?


First, remember civility isn’t Festivus, the airing of grievances. So what is it? Writing in 1997, Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess observe:

In short, any reasonable definition of civility must recognize that the many differing interests which divide our increasingly diverse society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult moral and distributional issues. Often these issues will have an irreducible win-lose character and, hence, not be amenable to consensus resolution. While continuing confrontation is inevitable, the enormous destructiveness which commonly accompanies these confrontations is not.

via Beyond Intractability, “The Meaning of Civility”

Mark Shields and David Brooks offered some tactical advice in 2013:

David Brooks: My first tip: if you have a deep-down disagreement about how you were treated at your 13th birthday party, deal with it honestly and don’t submerge it into a political fight. Most family political debates are fought because of deeper family issues. Second, the key to a civil political debate is to consider the likelihood that you’re wrong.

And this useful anecdote when discussing healthcare (or insert difficult issue here):

Let’s start with story about a rabbi who came to the synagogue with two pieces of paper in his pocket. One said the world was created for me and the other said I am nothing but dust and ashes. And the reason the rabbi carried those papers is they were both equally true. So when dealing with health care or any other issue, it’s normal to have two opposing ideas be equally true. In Obamacare, it would cover millions of new people and it’s also true that the website doesn’t work well and it may hurt the economy. So, the big issues are always about balance.

via Holiday guide to civility from Mark Shields and David Brooks | PBS NewsHour

Again, the Burgesses provide these key concepts, as well, all of which are easier said than done:

  • Separate people from the problem
  • Obtain available facts
  • Use fair processes
  • Limit escalation
  • Honor legitimate uses of legal, political and other power
  • Separate win/win from win/lose issues
  • Limit the backlash effect
  • Keep trying to persuade and allow yourself to be persuaded

Maybe there is a Thanksgiving connection to civility after all–looking back to disagreement and contempt in early American history. In the 1600s, Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, practiced a form of civility that incorporated that Teresa Bejan describes as “mental toughness to tolerate what we perceive as our opponents’ incivility, to live with them and continue to engage, even when we think them irredeemable.” She writes:


As practiced by Williams, mere civility was more often an expression of mutual contempt than mutual admiration. We might recognize it as the virtue governing those unpleasant-but-unavoidable interactions with ex-spouses and bad neighbors, as well as anyone who voted for the other gal (or guy). But even mere civility can be quite demanding: In attempting to understand other minds on the model of our own, people make sense of disagreement by concluding that our opponents are stupid, bigoted, evil or even insane. Yet mere civility demands that we keep the disagreement going, no matter how disagreeable, to continue the battle of words without resorting to violence.

via Post Everything, WaPo, ‘You don’t have to be nice to your political opponents. But you do have to talk to them.”

Incivility isn’t just a dinner table issue–as it can spill over to the economy. There is a cost to incivility, particularly in the workplace. According to Christine Portal and Christine Pearson, writing in HRB, creativity suffers, performance decreases, customers retreat, and, when HR needs to get involved, costs can increase.

Even so,  not everyone things civility is essential. Consdier Hillary Clinton’s alienating “basket of deplorables” line, an ongoing discussion of racism and how to address it, as well as Senator Jeff Flake’s assertion, as reported on Daily Beast, that

[those] who do not call out President Donald Trump for incivility are complicit. “There are times when you have to stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry, this is wrong,’” Flake said on CBS’ Face the Nation. 

[Watch it on YouTube.]

Good luck… and could you please pass the cranberry sauce?

Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

At its essence, diplomacy is about understanding human behavior–and the mental mistakes we make must be understand to get a holistic picture. Information is power–but is easily diluted or misdirected.


Here’s all 188 cognitive biases in existence, grouped by how they impact our thoughts and actions. We also give some specific cognitive bias examples.

Source: Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

Key Speeches | Liberty Medal Award for Senator John McCain

Last July, John McCain chided his beloved Senate colleagues for extreme partisanship and a failure to get work done. Now, he takes on the political culture led by the Breibartians embodied in a toxic type of nationalism and as what the NYT calls “an unfettered voice against Trumpism”. The speech has earned high praise from former political adversary Mitt Romney, who called it Lincolnesque and is, according to David Brooks, a “rallying cry around which the nation rediscovers its soul”. He further observes, after noting McCain’s failings such as a banking scandal, Sarah Palin this summation as to why the good Senator’s speech warrants close reading:

The moral fabric of society is invisible but essential. Some use their public position to dissolve it so they can have an open space for their selfishness. McCain is one of the strongest reweavers we have, and one of our best and most stubborn teachers.

Here is the full text via Time, including my own bolded highlights:

Thank you, Joe, my old, dear friend, for those mostly undeserved kind words. Vice President Biden and I have known each other for a lot of years now, more than forty, if you’re counting. We knew each other back when we were young and handsome and smarter than everyone else but were too modest to say so.

Joe was already a senator, and I was the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. My duties included escorting senate delegations on overseas trips, and in that capacity, I supervised the disposition of the delegation’s luggage, which could require – now and again – when no one of lower rank was available for the job – that I carry someone worthy’s bag. Once or twice that worthy turned out to be the young senator from Delaware. I’ve resented it ever since.

Joe has heard me joke about that before. I hope he has heard, too, my profession of gratitude for his friendship these many years. It has meant a lot to me. We served in the Senate together for over twenty years, during some eventful times, as we passed from young men to the fossils who appear before you this evening.

We didn’t always agree on the issues. We often argued – sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems. We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity. And through it all, whether we argued or agreed, Joe was good company. Thank you, old friend, for your company and your service to America.

Thank you, too, to the National Constitution Center, and everyone associated with it for this award. Thank you for that video, and for the all too generous compliments paid to me this evening. I’m aware of the prestigious company the Liberty Medal places me in. I’m humbled by it, and I’ll try my best not to prove too unworthy of it.

Some years ago, I was present at an event where an earlier Liberty Medal recipient spoke about America’s values and the sacrifices made for them. It was 1991, and I was attending the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The World War II veteran, estimable patriot and good man, President George H.W. Bush, gave a moving speech at the USS Arizona memorial. I remember it very well. His voice was thick with emotion as he neared the end of his address. I imagine he was thinking not only of the brave Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941, but of the friends he had served with and lost in the Pacific where he had been the Navy’s youngest aviator.

‘Look at the water here, clear and quiet …’ he directed, ‘One day, in what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.’

He could barely get out the last line, ‘May God bless them, and may God bless America, the most wondrous land on earth.’

The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so very grateful.

What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.

We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.

We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

I am the luckiest guy on earth. I have served America’s cause – the cause of our security and the security of our friends, the cause of freedom and equal justice – all my adult life. I haven’t always served it well. I haven’t even always appreciated what I was serving. But among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight. I see now that I was part of something important that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by other interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past.

And I have enjoyed it, every single day of it, the good ones and the not so good ones. I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me. I’ve seen Americans make sacrifices for our country and her causes and for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity, sacrifices that were much harder than the service asked of me. And I’ve seen the good they have done, the lives they freed from tyranny and injustice, the hope they encouraged, the dreams they made achievable.

May God bless them. May God bless America, and give us the strength and wisdom, the generosity and compassion, to do our duty for this wondrous land, and for the world that counts on us. With all its suffering and dangers, the world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become, another, better place. What greater cause could anyone ever serve.

Thank you again for this honor. I’ll treasure it.