By Ambassador (ret.) Chas W. Freeman
Review by Michael W. Cotter
Ambassador Freeman is one of the distinguished American diplomats of the latter half of the 20th c. He served as a deputy assistant secretary of state, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1999 Gulf War. He remains active, serving on the boards of several think tanks and foreign policy organizations. He is much in demand as a speaker and is a prolific writer. American Diplomacy is proud to have published a number of his articles and reviewed several of his speeches.
In these remarks at an August 19 forum sponsored by UCLA’s Hammer Museum, Ambassador Freeman drew a parallel between the failures of American diplomacy leading up to World War I and what he describes as similar failures since the end of the Cold War. He asserts that military strength alone is not sufficient to guarantee world order and that refusal to talk to opponents until they meet our moral standards is a recipe for impasse. He identifies the “moral absolutism inherent in American exceptionalism” as a fundamental problem for American diplomacy, leading Americans to see diplomacy primarily as a way to communicate disapproval rather than a tool for narrowing or bridging differences.
Freeman argues that the failure of diplomacy in World War I left Americans with a jaundiced view of the art and that despite seven decades of superpower status they still don’t take it seriously. The result is a “dilettantish” approach to national security unique among modern states in which career professionals’ contribution goes unrecognized while “ambitious amateurs” proliferate in key foreign policy and diplomatic positions. As an example of the absence of any national commitment to the role of diplomacy he highlights the current outrageous scandal in which almost 60 countries have no U.S. ambassador in place because the U.S. Senate won’t take up their confirmation.
Freeman’s remarks were made at a Hammer Forum on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. He followed remarks by Prof. Jeffrey Wawro, professor of military history at the University of North Texas, who spoke directly to the failures of diplomacy before that war. The full exchange and the discussion that followed are fascinating and well worth viewing. They can be found at the video link above. Freeman’s website lists many more of his speeches and publications, all of which are worth the time to read.