Watching the World Go By

From Prague After Munich

by George F. Kennan
Princeton, 294 pp., $6.50

Diplomacy is a strange profession. Its practitioners spend their lives either actually in foreign countries or else thinking about them. Often they seem to become half foreign themselves. They develop exceptional sensitivity in two opposite ways. On the one hand, they are more acutely obsessed than their fellow citizens with the interests of their own country. On the other, they are more anxious to know what other countries are doing. Diplomats find it hard to believe that an event anywhere in the world is literally alien to them. Bismarck, we know, gave himself nightmares, conjuring up hostile coalitions—most of them imaginary. Metternich, when told that Talleyrand was dead, reflected: “I wonder what he did that for.”

Considering the turmoil in which diplomats keep themselves and, if they have their way, others, one is tempted to exclaim: “Happy the nation that has no diplomacy and no diplomatic service.” China was in this happy condition during the great days of the Celestial Empire. The United States came near to it until the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Lewis Einstein remarks that Jefferson and Lincoln conducted American foreign policy without having large staffs. When he himself went to the Paris Embassy in 1903 and to the London Embassy in 1905 the entire mission from ambassador to messenger numbered nine, as against the present nine hundred. Even nine seems eight too many. Einstein adds that there are now nearly 23,000 officials on the payroll of the State Department. Yet it cannot be said that American policy has become more successful or the United States more secure.

What can all these officials be for? Certainly not for the formulation of policy. More counselors mean more confusion. The proliferation of diplomats springs rather from the belief, universal in the Western world, that knowledge leads to understanding. Information is expected to produce a policy of itself if only there be enough of it. This may be true in the world of science, though I suspect that even here the best scientists are simply those who are best at guessing. In human affairs wisdom comes from being wise, and knowledge has very little to do with it. In saying this, as a university teacher, I am sawing away the branch which has given me a lifetime of elegant ease. Nine-tenths of what we teach our students is of no use whatever either here or in Kingdom Come. However there is no harm in saying it. No one will believe me.

The maintenance of a diplomatic service has an agreeable by-product. Its practitioners, having nothing better to do, observe what is going on around them. Unlike journalists, they do not work to a deadline, nor need they convince an editor that the events which they observe are interesting or important. Later, by the curious American practice, they find themselves unemployed halfway through their career. British diplomats are also paid off absurdly early, though with the consolation of a title and a pension. In either case …

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