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by Philip Zelikow

Practical leadership has two dimensions. The first dimension is one we know well: choosing what to do. The second dimension is less well known. How to do it? If leaders provide guidance about what is to be done, and how to do it, the rest is management and execution.

The first part, the “what to do part,” is an easy debate to follow. It is mostly about goals. People discuss problems, which problems they care about, their values, the role of government. The news is naturally devoted to spotlighting problems and making claims for attention.

The second part, the “how to do it part,” is a good deal harder to understand. The debates are far more obscure. People have to make judgments about practical action. That requires specialized knowledge about the available instruments and the relevant circumstances. My argument is that between these two dimensions—the well-known what to do part, the little known how to do part—the “how” knowledge is the high card in the deck. Once it is played, high sounding goals often turn to dust. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it this way: “Ideas are not policies. Besides,” he added, “ideas have a high infant mortality rate.”

The “how” is the “craft” in statecraft. Usually, the best diplomacy is a kind of choreography. Roles are assigned, steps are planned. Each of the dancers hits their marks. Mastery of the “how,” as any sergeant can tell you in a platoon, is the true source of practical leadership. Yet this dimension is not well understood. It is infrequently studied and rarely taught.

The Failure of Woodrow Wilson’s Peace Initiative

Let me relate an illustrative story from history.  The turning point of World War I came in the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917. It did not occur on the battlefield and was all but invisible to the relevant publics. The great secret was that the war was on course to wind down and come to an end. Leaders in Britain and France confided that they saw no plausible path to victory. It was clear by late 1916 that Russia could not survive much longer unless something changed.  The fall of the tsar happened in March 1917, the Bolshevik revolution in October or November 1917, depending on which calendar you use.  As I detailed in my book, The Road Less Traveled, the British and French leaders expected that President Woodrow Wilson would call a peace conference to end the war. By the summer of 1916, they had secretly discussed these expectations.

There was an even greater secret. Even those who wanted to fight to victory—and those factions were in every capital—knew at the very top that the Allied side could not go on much longer even if it wanted to. It was running out of the dollars to be able to purchase the food and munitions that sustained nearly half their war effort. The Americans cut off unsecured loans to the Allied side in November 1916 which, the lead financiers knew, meant that the dollars to sustain the Allied war effort would run out by the spring of 1917.

Meanwhile, the Germans and their allies had also decided that they had to end the war. With the kaiser’s explicit approval, Germany’s Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg secretly reached out to President Wilson in August 1916 and urged him to proceed with the peace conference. The Austro-Hungarian leaders secretly approved of this move and of the large concessions the chancellor secretly confided he was prepared to make. In fact, when the chancellor went to the kaiser to get permission and he said, “We’ll have to agree to give up Belgium,” the kaiser replied, “Oh, of course.”  Bethmann later offered this to Wilson, who had never even raised Belgium, as an indicator of good faith.

So, for Wilson, the “what to do” part was clear. He was anxious to help, motivated by a desire to end the awful war and aware that, just 10 years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt had mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese war and received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.  The German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff, rightly judged that at least from May 1916 until January 31, 1917, Wilson was genuinely neutral and passionate about making peace.

President Wilson and his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, in Wilson’s White House office

Often portrayed in the literature as woolly-headed and idealistic, Wilson regarded himself as a pragmatist.  He was realistic about the prospects for either side to gain a decisive victory; about the futility of trying to decide who was at fault for the war; and about the prospect that, if peace were not made soon, America might be pulled into a war that both he and the country fervently did not want.  Wilson was also quite realistic in his modesty about trying to reorganize Europe. In late 1916 and early 1917, he did not wish to even engage on questions of territorial peace terms and sought what he called—following the line of a lead editorial that Walter Lippmann wrote in the New Republic—a “peace without victory.”  His objective was to encourage a reasonably conservative settlement, avoiding a series of annexations or humiliations that would only plant the seeds for future conflicts. In this respect, his fundamental outlook on Europe’s evolution was similar to that of similarly conservative statesmen seeking peace in both Britain and in Germany.  Wilson explained in his December 1916 peace note and then again in his January 1917 “peace without victory” speech that a “peace without victory” was the best, and perhaps the only, way to secure peace that might endure.

Wilson was realistic, yet again, when he accepted the British argument that the US had to take part in a post-war League of Nations to reassure the Allies that a compromise peace could last. Knowing that was a key issue for the secret British peace party, he made that pledge in a May 1916 speech, breaking with 150 years of traditional American reluctance to make such permanent foreign engagements.

It all failed. As we know, instead of the war ending, it actually became much, much worse. Having predicted correctly that a peace accompanied by bloody victories and humiliating defeats would not last, Wilson found himself toward the end of his life condemned, like some figure in mythology, to suffer the prolonged and painful validation of his own dark prophecy. Because America ended up entering the war rather than ending it, the war fell off a precipice that led to unremitting conflict across the whole length of Eurasia and across the Middle East, leaving wounds that never healed. Thus, in 1919, Wilson found himself orating fruitlessly against the doom he had himself once prophesied. Then, after his physical breakdown in September 1919, Wilson had to watch the ruin continue until death took him early in 1924.

To reprise, by September 1916 all the stars were in alignment for Wilson’s peace move. In secret, leaders on both sides were pessimistic about their prospects in the war and worried about their ability to continue. The Germans had formally asked Wilson to act and had secretly volunteered the restoration of Belgium to show their good faith readiness to reach a compromise peace. The British and French were reluctant to make a peace based only on the mid-war status quo, the status quo of 1916. It was a measure of their desperation that a significant faction was willing to contemplate even that. Others open to peace needed a little more.

They could have had more. Wilson could have brokered a peace conference conditioned on a clear German commitment to restore Belgium, which would have taken away the issue in Britain for the British public, and a commitment to withdraw from at least most of occupied France. The restoration of Belgium immediately implied all Germans would withdraw from Northern France. Wilson could have gone further and attempted to arrange armistice lines, while the talks were underway, that accomplished much of those withdrawals in a civilized manner, perhaps accompanied by the relaxation of the sea blockades being imposed on both sides.

In 1916-17, therefore, why did Wilson fail to make peace when all the circumstances were right? He did not fail because he was encumbered by ideals. He failed because he simply did not know how to do it. He was the man who sits down at the poker table and, dealt a hand with three kings, throws back two of them in the hope of getting better cards.

Between September and November 1916, Wilson did nothing because of the happenstance that 1916 was a presidential election year and he felt he could not move until he was reelected. For another month, a vital month from mid-November to mid-December, Wilson did nothing even though he felt an extreme urgency to act, even though he intended this to be his top priority the first day back in the office after the election, because his government had made no plans whatsoever, and offered no advice at all, not one page on what Wilson should do.  Further, Wilson was effectively delayed and deflected by his two relevant subordinates, Edward House and Robert Lansing.

Edward House

Improvising entirely on his own, with no staff help at all, Wilson did set the stage in November 1916.  In secret written and oral communications with the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, William Proctor Gould Harding, he personally orchestrated the cut off of unsecured loans to the Allies. He then dictated a harsh secret letter to the British telling them that they needed to make peace now.

Then, in late December, Wilson issued—after the delays that House and Lansing had orchestrated–an ineffectual peace note that was a complete misfire. The note he originally drafted called for the peace conference and made all the right arguments. House made the argument to him that, to paraphrase, ‘the Allies will resent this so deeply. You just have to do something to prepare the way and soften their attitudes towards you—just take out that call for a peace conference.’ Then what’s the action item in the note, with the call for a peace conference removed? House had no ideas. In fact, he was trying to block the whole thing and was privately conspiring with Lansing to do so.

Looking around for an alternative to the peace conference to include in the note, Wilson found a New York Times op-ed that had been written under a pseudonymIt was actually written by the president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler; Wilson hated Butler, but he didn’t know Butler had written it.  This op-ed suggested asking both sides to publicly announce their peace terms, to just lay out their bottom lines in the public arena.  Because he got no advice from his people, Wilson borrowed what he read in the op-ed and included it in his note.  The warring capitals predictably reacted with a kind of bewildered “What do we even say to this?” shaking of heads. The British decided to ignore the note for a while and then conjured up some rhetorical nonsense to at least answer the mail. The Germans shook their heads and wondered if this was all an allied conspiracy. In the end, the note suggested no practical action, after it had been delayed by Wilson’s advisors for at least three weeks.

German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff

About six weeks of confused efforts to get a better peace move going followed.   Wilson realized that his note had been a bust, but he was still not getting any constructive advice from his own people. Bernstorff, a very capable professional diplomat, and William Wiseman, who represented the British Secret Service in America, attempted to guide House with kind of, “Here’s how you do this.” Finally, Bernstorff and House worked out a way to do this in which the Germans would agree to certain preconditions and Wilson would then call for the peace conference.

While Bernstorff was awaiting the German chancellor’s approval of what he and House had agreed to, Wilson was preparing an entirely new plan.  Still having gotten no advice internally, Wilson drew from essays published in The New Republic in late December and early January suggesting that he make a speech laying out the conditions the warring parties should meet if they wanted American help in the peace process. Bernstorff got the green light from Berlin, agreeing to the requested preconditions for a conference. Yet Wilson embarked on the new idea he drew from the magazine, which had no action plan. Wilson and House reacted to the Germans by switching gears again, adding new conditions for a conference – for the Germans to confide their terms.

On January 31, 1917, the German government delivered two notes to Wilson. One was the note going ahead with expanding the U-Boat war, because in Berlin the kaiser had given up on the Wilson peace move.  One reason he gave up was because House lied to Bernstorff about the reason the Americans were delaying for so long on this. House kept saying that he, House, was so supportive of your peace move. It’s Wilson. He’s just vacillating. He’s afraid of what the Allies will say.  This was a complete lie. We know it is a complete lie from House’s own diaries. House had exactly reversed the positions. It was House who was trying to undermine the peace move and Wilson who urgently wanted to move forward. But House told the Germans fatefully that it was just the other way around. And of course, that was the information that went to the kaiser and led to the U-Boat decision.

Yet meanwhile, at the same time, the German ambassador delivered a second note, a secret letter to Wilson from the German chancellor. It confided Germany’s planned terms, as Wilson had requested. Bethmann knew these terms would start a negotiation, but a diplomat would recognize that his terms showed a readiness to compromise. And Bethmann promised Wilson that, if he got the peace conference going, Germany would stop the submarine warfare.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg

Wilson was stunned by the note about submarine warfare. He thought that he was on the road to calling the peace conference that would end the war, which might possibly be only weeks away. Shocked and reeling, Wilson just blew off the other note, the German chancellor’s letter offering a way to keep the peace option alive.

Wilson still did not want to bring America into the war. He spent more than another month debating internally and agonizing over whether to do it. But, having just sent the German ambassador home and broken relations, Wilson eventually found that war was the only option he had left. It was the only remaining card.

This is a story of the difference between knowing what you want to do and knowing how to do it. It is possibly the single most tragic episode in the entire diplomatic history of the United States. The war was on a path to end one way or another. Only American entry could have sustained the war, because only American finance could keep the war effort going. The credit supply ran out as forecasted, and the American government, now at war, had to lend money out of the Treasury on a gigantic scale to its allies in order to keep the war effort alive. And then we sent two million soldiers to France.

And of course, world history changed. Russia then not only had the removal of the tsar, but the following autumn, with Russia still in the war, the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded, with all its attendant consequences. Understanding “how to do” diplomacy is important, as this tragic episode in history illustrates.

The Present Need for US Foreign Policy

I want now to carry the story forward to the present day.  As a historian, I believe that we have now entered a period of high crisis, the most intense period of high crisis since 1962. I think this is a prolonged period that began, at the latest, in early 2022, and will continue for some time. And I don’t know how it will turn out.

In this period of high crisis, this period of world history, the world is demanding that we have a foreign policy on many things. And I’ll tell you, the demand for effective American foreign policy far exceeds the supply.

I define the term “policy” in two senses. There is policy that is figurative, performative: “I have a policy because I have a position.”  I have a posture, I strike a pose—a pose of friendliness, toughness, but it’s just a pose. It’s a paper policy.  I can’t meet the demand to actually do something. So, instead of giving you real coinage, I print some paper.

There is a second sense of policy, the sense I want to dwell on, the demand for America actually to do something in the world that has real effects in the world. That’s what the real demand is for. In a period of high crisis, in a period of emergencies, operations matter. The doing of things is what matters in emergencies, not the pose, not the statement of willingness to help, not the statement that you care.

It’s interesting to contemplate why the supply of that kind of foreign policy is so constrained right now. Part of this is the relatively narrow base for American foreign policy in the United States itself. This is historically true; the post-1940 period of intense interest is anomalous set against the entire course of American history.

About half of Americans do not own a passport. Most Americans are not interested in and do not attend to foreign affairs. And if they attend to them, it’s probably somewhere below the attention they give to their local sports team, so that you have a relatively narrow base of political interest and attention.  In addition, you have a relatively narrow base of the capability to do things. A lot of the capability that does exist is devoted to intelligence work, which is all about identifying problems but devotes no time on how to solve them, and then there are, of course, the military instruments.

What we have in recent years is a sad record of many failures of policy supply. I testified recently to the House of Representatives on Russian assets in Ukraine and the need to move that money.  In subsequent conversations with veteran diplomats, their immediate reaction was to ask how you would do it.  How would you actually move the money, deploy, and distribute it?  They moved automatically to questions about the supply of real policy and then to recognizing the shortage of it.

The tendency to react to events rather than drive them, vague objectives, confusing guidance, little grasp of organizational capacities, inability to adapt organizations to new problems, over-reliance on ill-managed contractors…these are all symptoms. They are symptoms of policies that are badly designed, of weak knowledge of the history of certain issues or even of the government’s own policy record, of a superficial grasp of other communities or institutions, and of a preoccupation with reactions to daily news. And these, too, are symptoms. They are symptoms of a weakening capacity for in depth professional assessment that’s geared to practical action.

Of course, the marked tendency to militarize policy, to rely on military instruments and military policymakers, which was repeated again in the COVID war’s Operation Warp Speed, is no cure. It is another symptom of the breakdown, as American policymaking is dumbed down and becomes praetorian.

Some of these problems can be blamed on bad structures and on polarized, dysfunctional politics. But that’s not all of the story. I think a big part of the story is the broad inattention to that second dimension, the “how to do it” part, to the “craft” in “statecraft.”

As the immensely powerful Qing Empire in China began to decay in the early 1800s, a leading scholar began calling for reform of the Confucian system that selected and trained the country’s administrative elite. He looked around and saw, “Everything was falling apart. The administration was contaminated and vile.” The scholar, Bao Shichen, “found [himself] drawn toward more practical kinds of scholarship that were not tested on the civil service exams.”  Bao Shichen “would in time,” according to the scholar writing about this, “become one of the leading figures in a field known broadly as statecraft scholarship, an informal movement of Confucians who are deeply concerned with real world issues of Administration and Policy.” Tragically, for Bao and many of his allies, their efforts were not enough. They could not reverse the decline in their empire.

The United States government has plenty of problems, too. Fortunately, it is not yet at the point the Qing Dynasty reached. Americans’ seemingly bygone skills for policymaking and tackling emergencies were not in their genes or in the air. They need not be consigned to wistful nostalgia. The skills were specific, they were fostered by the surrounding culture, and they can be relearned. Knowledge relates ends and means. Know-how relates ends and means. Know-how guides and inspires confident performance. The study of statecraft would profit by spending less time on the “should” and more time on the “how.”End.

Philip Zelikow is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. For 25 years he held a chaired professorship in history at the University of Virginia and, before that, taught at Harvard University. In his scholarship, Zelikow focuses on critical episodes in world history and the challenges of policy design and statecraft. An attorney and former career diplomat, Zelikow’s federal service includes work across the government in the five administrations from Reagan through Obama, and as a consultant for the current Biden administration.  Zelikow has also directed three successful and bipartisan national commissions, including the 9/11 Commission.

This article is based on remarks delivered by Professor Zelikow on October 18, 2023, at the DACOR Bacon House as the Distinguished Speaker for the Annual General Membership meeting of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.  Some of his remarks are based on his book The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Turning Point of the Great War, 1916-17.  

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