Katy Burns: A failure of diplomacy

  • American troops climb over a sandbag revetment in France during World War I in 1918. AP file

  • U.S. troops of the 1st Division, the first American troops to land on French soil, parade in St. Nazaire, France, on June 26, 1917, during World War I. AP file

For the Monitor
Sunday, April 09, 2017

Last week we observed the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into the Great War.

Ring a bell? No? How about the War to End All Wars, that sound familiar? Okay, what about World War I? Aha, a light goes off. Not, of course, that we really know much about it other than the fact that it obviously came before World War II.

Briefly, then, a quick history. World War I, a.k.a. the Great War and the War to End All Wars, was not great, to put it mildly. And it most certainly didn’t end all wars, which is easily deduced given the fact that there was a World War II, its linear descendent, as well as all sorts of other nasty wars in the ensuing 100 years.

It was a particularly terrible war, involving most all of Europe, and by its end in 1918, nearly 18 million people (including 7 million civilians) had died and 20 million more had been wounded. Americans, who were engaged only in the last year of the war, lost more than 118,000. The fields of Europe were soaked with blood, and whole villages lost most of their sons. It is estimated that 2 percent of the population of the British Isles died.

That would be the equivalent of 6,400,000 Americans dying in a war today.

The armistice took effect – the guns went silent – on Nov. 11, 1918, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, ever after observed as Armistice Day in the participating countries (including ours, although we now call it Veterans Day).

Its aftermath? All it ultimately seemed to do was preview modern warfare methods and sow the seeds for the even greater conflagration of World War II.

It’s the genesis of the Great War that is so perplexing. Europe in that time was a hodgepodge of countries and principalities, most ruled not by democratically elected leaders but by a variety of kings and dukes, many of them related to one another and some, it appears today, not altogether in touch with reality. Grudges and rivalries ruled the day, and the consequences be damned. Alliances and entanglements among the powers shifted constantly. And troops were mere fodder for their feuds.

Some analysts refer to the Great War as a time when 19th-century ideologies caused a horrific war fought with 20th century weapons.

But why?

Although we are all taught that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo really kicked off the war, we never quite figured out how the death of such a relatively minor royal began a continent-wide conflagration.

Virtually every history, though, has one basic fact agreed to by all. The Great War, with all its death and destruction, was above all a catastrophic failure of diplomacy. Somehow all these potentates – often family members – should have tried diplomatically to coexist without mutual slaughter.

Diplomacy is one of the most important arts of statehood and governing. Our founders certainly knew that.

The U.S. State Department was created by statute at this country’s birth. Its first secretary, one of only five members of the first presidential Cabinet appointed, by George Washington, was no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the secretary of state was ranked in importance slightly above the other original five Cabinet members, including the secretary of war.

That shows the importance the founders of the fledgling nation placed on the art of statecraft and the management of foreign affairs. Only diplomacy could, in the long run, successfully keep other avaricious and far mightier powers at bay.

The strategy was a triumph. Deft diplomacy allowed time and space for a tiny new nation to grow into a mighty world power.

And diplomacy through the State Department has always been part of the mix, our secretaries of state people of stature, probity and knowledge who – representing America – roamed the world with impressive portfolios.

Until now, at least. In 2017’s TrumpWorld, the State Department is treated less like a vital part of our government and more like something unpleasant stuck to the administration’s shoe. Donald Trump himself is clearly bereft of any diplomatic skills, and his top consigliere, Steve Bannon, loudly scorns the very idea of diplomacy.

Trump chose his secretary of state only after the world was treated to a demeaning parade through Trump Tower of supplicants, including (sadly for him, no doubt joyously for a vengeful Trump) the groveling Mitt Romney. Eventually Trump settled on Rex Tillerson, a man with no diplomatic or even government experience who’d spent his whole life working for a huge international oil company. But he looks the part of a statesman with his swept back white hair, assertive chin and eyebrows, and portly bearing.

Thus far, though, Tillerson is something of a cipher. Used to working behind closed doors to clinch oil development deals with foreign governments, he prefers to keep out of the public eye. He ditched the small press corps that has for decades traveled with the secretary of state to keep the American public informed. He doesn’t bother visiting state department employees in his travels, and in the State Department building sightings of Tillerson are rare.

Perhaps worst, he acquiesces to a proposed Trump budget that would cut his department by a whopping 28 percent and seems unconcerned that Trump has yet to name dozens of undersecretaries and assistants who actually keep the place running.

Trump himself has little use for the State Department, despite its being the repository of knowledge that thousands of career diplomats have built up over decades while serving around the world. From election day on, the new president has cavalierly jumped into foreign encounters without a whit of that accumulated wisdom.

A few results? The Taiwan fiasco. The deliberate slighting of the president of Mexico and an insulting phone call with the prime minister of Australia – both important American allies. His ongoing and obvious disrespect for Germany’s Angela Merkel, the most powerful leader in Europe. His continued fawning over Vladimir Putin.

The abrupt about-face with Syria has been classic Trump. For years, he’s said that Syria isn’t our fight and that we should not use military force against the regime. As recently as a week ago, he essentially said that he had no problem with its criminal president, Bashar al-Assad, remaining in office, and Tillerson echoed that sentiment.

Then, suddenly, scores of Syrians, including small children, were agonizingly killed by poison gas, and the odious dictator was fingered as the man behind it. It truly was a crime against humanity, and the videos of the smallest victims were heartbreaking to watch.

Trump saw them and, like much of the world, he was horrified. But unlike much of the world, he had access to cruise missiles. And he used them. It for sure was emotionally gratifying to strike out so quickly, so devastatingly. But what, in the long run, does it mean? Is there an actual strategy? We don’t know. It doesn’t appear that Trump himself knows.

Impulsive actions are not diplomacy. Our founders could have told the current president that, if only he’d bothered asking.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow. In keeping with the anniversary, PBS is airing a much-praised three-part series, The Great War, emphasizing the war’s effect on the U.S., which will air tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NHPBS.)