The Lessons of Five Decades of Foreign Service

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U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia: James Dobbins has had years of experience representing U.S. interests abroad. Along with his numerous positions, he was also lead negotiator to the Bonn Agreement, which re-created the state of Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with Ambassador Dobbins about his experiences as a diplomat, what role the U.S. has abroad under the Trump administration, and his new book, “Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Policy.”

The Cipher Brief: This book covers a long period of time – five decades of foreign service – what do you want people to take away from the book when they read it?

James Dobbins: Well first, I just wanted to tell a good story about a varied career covering many different issues in many different places under many different presidents, secretaries of state, and colleagues over the years. I also wanted to give people an impression of how diplomacy has changed and how it’s remained the same over the last 50 years. How much it resembles the diplomacy of the 19th century, and yet how very different it is in some senses.

On the one hand, one still deals with nation states, governments, and foreign ministries, on the other hand one often operates in societies that don’t have governments, where creating a government is actually part of the job.

I think there are a lot of individual lessons along the way, but the main intent was just to tell a story about what life as an American diplomat is like over the duration of a career.

TCB: Over this incredibly long career you’ve worked on some of the most famous conflicts in American history, and you became kind of the crisis manager of choice for a number of different administrations. What are some of the common patterns that you have seen between these episodes, and is there a particular conflict or crisis that has stuck with you?

Dobbins: One thing I’m struck by is that new administrations often start out poorly, make beginners mistakes, and then get better over time. Yet our system does not allow for those lessons to be conveyed, at least not adequately, to the successor administration, which often slips back to the bottom of the learning curve and begins to make the same mistakes again.

I saw this in particular in the passage of the Clinton Administration to the administration of George W. Bush, where a lot of what we had learned about post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction – first in failed efforts in Somalia and Haiti, and then in successful efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the second term of the Clinton Administration – were basically ignored by the Bush Administration, which then went on to make similar mistakes with much more catastrophic effect with their initial interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

TCB: Is there an element of new administrations always fighting the last war to this?

Dobbins: Not so much that. There is always that problem – that one bases too much on prior experience – but I think this is kind of the opposite. It’s the tendency of new administrations, particularly when the new administration is of a different party, to dismiss whatever its predecessor had done as a worthless failure not to be repeated. The tendency is not to distinguish between those actions of a prior administration that were in fact failures, and those that were in fact successes. The sort of “not invented here” attitude that new administrations bring to the White House is pretty costly to the United States.

We have to accept that there is learning curve with new administrations, but it shouldn’t be as steep as it is.

TCB: You worked under 10 presidents and with a wide range of influential figures from Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright, which of these figures stuck out to you as truly exceptional, and what did you learn from them?

Dobbins: Kissinger was perhaps the most impressive if also the most frustrating and annoying of the secretaries of state I worked with. He was clearly a very original mind, and a very powerful speaker and intellectual. He was a very difficult person to work for. I worked for one of his principal deputies so I was somewhat insulated from his occasional rages, but my boss was certainly subjected to them, as were others. But on the other hand he was powerful, he was influential, and that’s the kind of secretary that one wants to work for. One is prepared to accept a certain level of abuse if meaningful work and powerful influence goes along with it.

I think Jim Baker was the most consequential of the secretaries of state. That was partly because he was very close to the president, partly because he was a very smart and canny operator. But it’s also because he had the greatest opportunities. With the collapse of the Berlin wall, the opportunity to reunify Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was simply a world historic period, and he was able to make more of that than he would have in a more static situation, such as occurred through many periods in the Cold War.

Madeleine Albright was my favorite secretary, perhaps because she gave me the greatest opportunities, but I also admired the way she handled herself as a woman in a man’s world – the first female secretary of state – really all of her colleagues in the U.S. administration were men, and all of her colleagues in foreign governments were men and I thought that she handled that situation very well.

She was committed not so much to making the state department better, but making the world better. And in particular to ending the bloody decade of conflict in the Balkans, and she succeeded and I think she deserves credit for that.

TCB: When you look at the headlines today, it’s a rare day that Russia and Vladimir Putin are not mentioned. When you look back at the Soviet Union and subsequent policies of NATO and EU enlargement, do you think there was a better way to move forward that would not have seen Russia rise again as an adversary?

Dobbins: Shortly after Russia fell – still in the George H.W. Bush Administration – we had a preliminary debate about whether or not the countries of the Warsaw Pact should be brought into NATO, and I argued against it at the time. I felt that the only country – maybe in the world and certainly in Europe – that could do the United States any harm was Russia. Russia continued to have a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the United States as a society overnight. Therefore, I thought that our priority should be to establish a relationship with Russia that made that unthinkable, and at that time this wouldn’t have been too hard. Russia was friendly, Russia was positive, Russia wanted to cooperate. So why do something that was ultimately going to antagonize them?

The neutral countries of Europe had gotten through the Cold War without difficulty. Sweden, Finland, Austria, had been prosperous, democratic, and had been neutral. They hadn’t joined NATO or the Warsaw Pact, so why couldn’t Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the other countries essentially join with those neutral states and enjoy prosperity and democracy without the burdens of alliance membership? I then went off to assignments which took me out of Washington, so I wasn’t part of the debate that led to the initial NATO expansion, and I thought it was probably a mistake.

A decade later, I was running the European Bureau and the second expansion began to be debated, and by that time it was clear that the membership in NATO, membership in the European Union were important anchors for some of the less stable countries in Eastern Europe. Not the ones that had originally come in – Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary – but the Balkans had fallen into conflict in the 90s, and the only way those companies were going to be modernized, democratized, and pacified – if you will – was if they were going to be anchored in something bigger, and something that gave them meaning and direction. So I supported the second enlargement, which brought in Romania and Bulgaria.

I had doubts about bringing in the Baltic states, which hadn’t been members of the Warsaw Pact – they had actually been part of the Soviet Union – and before that, they had been briefly independent and then they’d been part of the Russian empire for hundreds of years before that, so I thought bringing the Baltics in was probably going one step too far. But frankly it was politically essential. In the United States there was a lot of sympathy for the Baltic states and there was not much interest or sympathy for Romania or Bulgaria, so if you were going to get the enlargement through the U.S. Senate, you were going to have to include the Baltic states.

Now we face a situation where we have a security guarantee to three states, which we can’t as a practical matter defend because of geography. That probably was a mistake.

TCB: Jumping off the point about the Balkans, you were closely involved in that conflict, and then later served as the former special envoy for Afghanistan. What lessons would you draw from those experiences to apply to the seemingly unsolvable conflicts of today in places like Syria, for instance? And what advice would you give Secretary of Defense James Mattis as he prepares the administration’s new policy for Afghanistan?

Dobbins: I think that the Dayton settlement for Bosnia in 1995 and the subsequent resolution of the Kosovo conflict were high points of the Clinton Administration. And it was a turnaround for an administration that had done poorly in the international field for the first few years but had finally gotten a grip on things.

I thought the Bush Administration didn’t adequately appreciate what had been achieved and didn’t appreciate the lessons that had been learned. The administration went into Afghanistan, which was a country that was ten times bigger than Bosnia or Kosovo, feeling that it could make a much smaller commitment than we had made in Bosnia or Kosovo. In Bosnia, there were 60,000 NATO troops in a country of three million people, in Kosovo we had 50,000 NATO troops in a country of two million people, and in Afghanistan at the end of 2002 – after the Taliban had been chased out but before Afghanistan had its own army or its own police force – we had a total of 8,000 troops in a country of 30 million people. So on a per capita basis, the force we deployed in Bosnia was 40 times bigger than the force we deployed in Afghanistan. Similarly, the amounts of economic assistance we provided was much less. On a per capita basis, the amount we spent on Bosnia or Kosovo was about 16 times bigger than what we provided in the first few years of Afghanistan.

So this technique of making an absolutely minimal commitment and then increasing it only when the initial commitment had clearly failed turned out to be much more expensive than confronting the problem, recognizing its dimensions, making adequate commitments, and then scaling back only once security had been established and the process had begun to move forward.

Unfortunately, I think that the American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have not encouraged the view that we need to do better next time, it’s rather encouraged the view that we need to just not do this any more. And so there is a sort of “nation-building never works” sentiment in the government – both in the current administration and the Obama Administration – and in the country at large.

I think that’s a mistake. There are many examples of where these kinds of interventions have produced very beneficial results and haven’t turned into endless quagmires. But at this point, it’s not realistic to think that the United States is going to make those kinds of commitments in Iraq or Syria, particularly not in Syria.

I don’t think that we’re going to be able to replicate the successes we had in the Balkans or in some of the other earlier interventions.

TCB: When you look at the Trump Administration, what do you see? Do you recognize any leadership styles or traits from your experience in government? If you could, how would you advise him to use his State Department and diplomats, especially in light of the deep budget cuts he is proposing to State?

Dobbins: The greatest continuity has been in the Defense Department. The military of course continues from one administration to another, and the Defense Department is mostly military, so it doesn’t go through the same wrenching transition that other departments do. On the civilian side, there are a number of political appointments in the Defense Department but that’s actually gone somewhat more quickly and smoothly than has been the case in State.

I’m a little concerned that Secretary Rex Tillerson seems to think that he has a year or two to decide how to organize the State Department before he begins to staff it. While the State Department could certainly use some reorganization, I don’t think he’s going to be there long enough to get the full fruits of such a reorganization. If he was a corporate CEO who was planning on running the reorganization for 20 years, it might be feasible to run it on half cylinders for a year while you get the structure right, but that’s not how we operate.

I think that in moving so slowly to staff the department, in being unsure exactly how he wants to organize it, and with the State Department being periodically undercut by the president on matters of substance, State has been left a bit adrift.

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