Philip C. Habib Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Work of Diplomacy: Conversation with Philip Habib; 5/14/82, by Harry Kreisler

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The Diplomat's Role

It might be helpful to understand what a diplomat, a peace negotiator, does.

Not all diplomat are peace negotiators, but all peace negotiators are diplomats.

In the diplomatic service, you've assumed different roles. You've been an ambassador, you've served at high levels in Washington. And then you've been the fireman sent out to put out the fires. Let's talk a little about those roles.

Let's first of all take a look at a diplomat. The old canard that a diplomat is a man who's sent abroad to lie for his country is nonsense. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, the most fundamental requirement of successful diplomacy is honesty. So that dismisses that old saying.

Secondly, the function of a diplomat, when he's exercising the responsibilities of a diplomat, is to represent the view of his government, his nation, because, in this modern world, it isn't sufficient to say that the diplomat is the representative of the sovereign to another sovereign. In the modern world you have a much wider responsibility. In many ways you represent the interests of your nation as well as the policies of the government that you may be serving at the moment. I've served in every administration since Harry Truman in one way or another, in more or less important posts. But in every respect, what we were serving were the national interests of the United States, in the broadest possible terms. Whether in terms of trade relations or political relations or the pursuit of peace, which is of course the overriding objective of American foreign policy. An embassy, for example, is the representation of American foreign policy interests abroad. An embassy sits with a diversity of activity: it has an economic section, it has a political section, it has a consular section which deals with such mundane things as visas, passports, the protection of American citizens abroad. Obviously, every organization has to be administered, so you have an administrative section. You have a public relations or public affairs section that deals with the presentation of American views and American culture to the country in which you are present. So the embassy is a complex organization, designed to represent American views and the American ethic, to some extent, the American culture, to the country in which it is present.

Now obviously, when you are abroad in an embassy, your functions are different than when you are in Washington participating in the headquarters operation. When you are in Washington, you are working much more broadly in the field of foreign policy, depending on what level you are working -- whether you are junior officer sitting at a desk, or you're an analyst in a research office, analyzing trends and events abroad, or whether you're in a sufficiently senior position to be directing and helping to formulate foreign policy, directing its implementation. I've done a little of everything. By good fortune, I've had the opportunity to serve almost at every level in the department and equally almost, at every level abroad. From the most junior officer at an embassy to an ambassador, and from a junior analyst in the research division of the Department of State to Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. And I've represented the United States in many international meetings. So the Washington aspect of a diplomatic career is linked, but it requires a different sort of effort than when you're abroad.

Foreign policy is formulated in Washington. It's constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive, of the President. The formulation of that policy takes place in the Washington environment of different departments with different points of view. The Department of State also serves, in effect, as a formulator of policy for the President, presenting to him various options, possible courses of action in any particular situation, setting forth for him the consequences of action or not taking action in any given circumstance. He can then decide between alternatives, between options. Once that's done, then you have to implement a decision. The role of the State Department, as well as some other departments of government, then moves outward from the Washington scene to multilateral international agencies, maybe bilateral relations with a given country, maybe to an alliance relationship or a council of alliance relationships. Or it may involve a specific negotiation for a specific purpose. All of this is the bread and butter of the conduct of foreign affairs.

A career diplomat, obviously, has one thing to look forward to, and that is that he can serve through a succession of administrations, that is, he is not partisan. The proper term for a career diplomat, who is a career bureaucrat of course (there's nothing nasty about the word "bureaucrat," despite some people's attitude toward it), the key element is non-partisanship. It's not a question of being bipartisan; non-partisanship serves the national interest through the mechanism of the State Department. I've found no difficulty from administration to administration. I've served in both Democratic and Republican administrations at a fairly senior level and what we provide, what the career service provides, is depth of knowledge, continuity of experience with issues, and a certain familiarity with the outside world in which we've worked (by the time you get to a senior position), all our lives. You know the people. In many cases, you're quite well aware of the cultural differences and the historic traditions of different cultures and different nations. All of that, as I say, is part of the bread and butter of diplomacy.

In recent times some parts of the service have come under criticism. For example, the problem that we've had where our embassy loses touch with the political situation in a particular country. Would you address yourself to that problem for a moment?

You know, perfection is not necessarily a common human trait. And there are occasions where you are less than successful in your effort. Now any embassy worth its salt doesn't lose touch with anything. It may not sufficiently understand, or its analysis may be faulty, or it may be proceeding on insufficiency of facts, but that it would literally turn out to be incompetent -- things just don't happen that way. But human beings are fallible. You can make errors of judgment. You can make errors of analysis. I would imagine that even on this brilliant campus there are analysts who make errors of analysis, and there are people who make errors of judgment. Now, of course, you would hope not to, you would hope for perfection. To expect it is desirable; to get it is sometimes rare. Obviously, there have been cases where the capacity to reach out to a society and understand it may not have been as complete as you want. But generally speaking, my own feeling is that if you look a little deeper, you'll find that that was not the problem. The problem in the conduct of our foreign policy is very seldom the lack of knowledge. We have an enormous capacity to gather information. We have an equally enormous capacity to analyze it. Then somebody has to make a judgment, and that's the critical point. There's rarely a lack of information. What there usually is, if there is something less than success, is either a situation which altered (circumstances changed), or somewhere along the line, judgment faltered. And that again is a very human failing. I don't think it's a question that can be answered by saying, "Oh well, it's the system." I don't think it is the system. And I don't think it is the people in the system. Sometimes you will get a square peg in a round hole, someone who doesn't have the kind of understanding or capacity to understand. But even then, there are so many layers of checks and analysis at different layers, and there's so much opportunity for reconsideration of what you are doing and on what basis you are doing it, that I would argue that, by and large, we're well served by the system. The nation is well served by the system. Of course, I'm biased, again.

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