Richard Gowan Monday, Dec. 29, 2014
The Christmas story is full of joy and wonder, but it also includes a cautionary tale about a diplomatic blunder. The blunderers are the three ostensibly wise men from the east who visit King Herod in Jerusalem to ask: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Their opening question contained two major mistakes. The Magi give away their one big piece of intelligence—the existence of the Messiah—immediately, reducing their leverage. They compound this gaffe by simultaneously revealing the main gap in their intelligence: The exact whereabouts of this Messiah. This lets Herod seize the agenda, persuading the wise men to look for his new rival on his behalf.
Luckily the wise men have a miraculous dream after finding Jesus, telling them to find another way home. This ensures Jesus’s survival, but also precipitates Herod’s massacre.
So as international missions go, this was not exactly a triumph. As The Economist notes in a delightful essay, the Magi have been presented in many literary and artistic traditions as “floundering and beset” and even “small, feeble and scrawny.” Other artists who portrayed the Magi as mighty kings may have been somewhat overgenerous.
If the wise men had been actual kings with decent diplomatic advisers, they would surely have taken a more oblique approach. This would have begun with a proper assessment of King Herod’s personality and genocidal tendencies. Having recognized him as a potential psychopath, the Magi could have tried to gather intelligence on the Messiah’s location through covert means. With their supplies of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they should have found it easy enough to buy information on, for example, unusual recent events involving angels and shepherds.
Then they could have opened talks with Herod with misleading questions. “Noticed any unusual stars of late? We are on an international astrological fact-finding mission! Could we go to Bethlehem? Oh, by the way, do you like myrrh?” That sort of thing. Having lulled Herod into a false sense of security, the Magi could have found Jesus without causing unnecessary bloodshed.
This is, of course, a mischievous misreading of an ancient story. But it contains a truth that, while not divine, needs to be firmly restated at regular intervals at the present time: In international affairs, secrecy and subterfuge are sometimes preferable to transparency, honesty and plain dealing.
This is not a very popular position, at least in Europe and the United States. A prolonged spate of scandals, from the misuse of intelligence to justify the Iraq War to Edward Snowden’s leaks about U.S. surveillance techniques, has corroded the public’s faith in official secrets and those who guard them. This month’s Senate report on the use of torture by U.S. agents after 9/11 has only intensified this trend.
Whatever one feels about Snowden, it should be clear that investigations such as the Senate report are necessary to promote democratic debate about state power and its abuses. Yet not everything that is secret involves waterboarding.
Covert work still does a lot of good. U.S. President Barack Obama underlined this before Christmas with his announcement that after 18 months of undeclared talks with Cuba, Washington was finally ready to end the island’s isolation. Although many analysts had an inkling that Washington was talking to Havana, attempting to hash out a deal in public would have been an almost impossible task.
Obama has in fact proved rather adept at secretive diplomacy. He created an opening for serious nuclear talks with Iran in 2013 by authorizing off-the-radar contacts in Oman. In November, he injected unexpected energy into global climate change negotiations by revealing that his administration had cut a bilateral deal with China on the two countries’ carbon emissions. Both processes would have wilted if exposed to premature public scrutiny.
Promising secret processes are often derailed once they go public. The U.S. failed to cut a final nuclear deal with Iran in heavily hyped talks this year. The Sino-American carbon deal has not resolved many of the toxic issues facing multilateral climate change diplomacy, and may even have added to them by alienating other states.
Nobody could claim that 2014 has been a good year for “open” diplomacy. As I have previously noted, efforts to end the Syrian war through a much-vaunted international conference in Geneva flopped, as did public United Nations Security Council talks over the conflict in Ukraine. These were especially hard crises to tackle, and whatever was going on in these forums was accompanied by huge amounts of bargaining behind the scenes. But there may be long-term lessons from these cases.
In a period of mounting international uncertainty and mistrust, it appears easier to cut meaningful diplomatic deals with minimal public scrutiny. Public diplomacy, by contrast, is liable to focus on rhetoric and point-scoring rather than real bargaining.
Major powers such as the U.S., China and Russia are concomitantly likelier to invest in carving out bilateral deals rather than trusting in multilateral processes—as, in reality, they always have been. The rest of the world will probably have to get used to them making even more crucial decisions behind closed doors.
That puts an onus on democratic institutions like the U.S. Senate to investigate covert affairs with even greater tenacity. Middleweight powers will also need to promote transparency when they can. A group of nations shepherded by Switzerland, for example, keeps up a praiseworthy battle to open up the Security Council’s byzantine decision-making in New York.
But ultimately, the world may have to accept that bigger powers like the U.S. usually need to do most their business under a cloak of secrecy if they are to do anything at all.
That may be undesirable but, as the three wise men may have ruefully reflected, maintaining secrecy is not necessarily immoral. None other than Pope Francis helped facilitate the Cuban-American rapprochement. A little subterfuge is not always a mortal sin.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.