Review- Jacobs, “Rogue Diplomats”

Seth Jacobs, “Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in American Foreign Policy” (2020) – My advisor wrote this! Seth is a good guy and was a good advisor to me during my time at Boston College. He’s also a good diplomatic historian and writer. I remember when he started this project- after years of teaching US Foreign Policy courses, he noticed how often American foreign policy seemed to pivot on American diplomats saying “yolo” and defying instructions from Washington… and most of the time, making better (in an American nationalist realpolitik sense) deals than if they hadn’t.

The story starts early, when communications took a long time, enabling diplomats to get away with more than they might. At the negotiations that ended the American Revolutionary War, John Jay (the least “sexy” of the writers of the Federalist Papers) decided to blow off provisions that American negotiators stick closely to the positions of their French patrons. He saw he could play the British and the French off each other. He got a lot more out of Britain than a nascent ex-colony that only barely beat its mother country in a protracted war could have expected, most importantly a western border that went out to the Mississippi River. The French only wanted their American buddy to go to the Alleghenies, but were faced with a fait accompli.

Similarly, wordy political appointee Nicholas Trist accompanied the American army conquering Mexico when the US jumped that country in the 1840s. He got a lot of confused messages from back home- President Polk, another creature of hacky politics, was trying and failing to balance various factions and their demands to variously seize part of Mexico, seize all of Mexico, or seize none of Mexico. Trist, on site and seeing just how unstable the wartime Mexican government was, and how intransigent the Mexican people would become if more of them were occupied, wrote and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, taking Texas, California etc but not dismembering Mexico to such an extent that the US would be forced, with its relatively small and unprofessional army, to occupy the whole country. Everyone congratulated him but Polk, an asshole in more ways than one, still ruined Trist’s career for his disobedience.

But it’s not all comms troubles making for ambassadorial disobedience, though, Jacobs persuasively insists. Even when something like modern communications technologies come on line, American diplomats still disobeyed. I will say, though, I noticed the disobedience became more “elided orders and went off-message” than straight-up “signed a treaty against orders” disobedience. Walter Hines Page, US ambassador to Britain under the Wilson administration, went whole-hog on US support for Britain during WWI in ways that could be understood as compromising US neutrality. On the other side of the coin, Joseph Kennedy emphasized American neutrality in the lead up to its entry into WWII above and beyond what FDR had in mind while he held “Embassy London,” descending into out and out apology for Nazi Germany. It looks like Henry Cabot Lodge probably didn’t have direct orders to greenlight South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem (and his family) when he did in 1963, to clear the way for a more competent (and compliant) ruler- he just interpreted vague documents about encouraging Ngo to go away, made contact with the generals, and the rest was history.

All of these stories are told in engaging style, and I read enough diplomatic history under Seth’s direction to know you can’t take that for granted. More than anecdotes, Jacobs points out the ways in which this record of disobedience at key points illuminates a uniquely American style of politics. The US didn’t have a formal civil service for decades after most important European countries adopted one. It was routine for American presidents to give away ambassador posts as patronage appointments (and still is). Important posts might get somebody more competent… or might just get a higher bidder. Among other effects, this guaranteed that many American diplomats in important spots were independently wealthy, not reliant on a civil service salary (among other things, that didn’t — still doesn’t — cover the budget for all the socializing you’re meant to do as a diplomat, which is wild to me). They were self-assured men, often “aristocrats” (Joe Kennedy was an arriviste, even if he probably had more cash than all the others combined), confident of their ability to make independent judgments in matters of state independent of “superiors,” no matter said superiors ability to win elections. Sometimes, it paid off.

Jacobs also depicts all of these rogue diplomats as winners, for American policy aims if not in their personal lives, with the exception of Joe Kennedy. I’m ambivalent about this. Seth understood my politics were more radical than his and never dinged me for it- he’s a fair, broad-minded guy. I get that from a realpolitik perspective, stealing a third of Mexico probably “made sense.” I get from both that perspective and from a more liberal, “let’s try to ameliorate things” perspective, stopping Mexico from collapsing completely after we dismembered it was probably a “good” thing for Nicholas Trist to do. But it still leaves a weird taste in my mouth, praising anyone involved with the American side of the Mexican war.

As far as American involvement in WWI goes… that’s a weird one, even from a realpolitik perspective, and it’s made foggier by the fact that the American historical profession as we know it in many respects emerged out an act of parricide- routing old-school “progressive” historians, many of whom were as suspicious of the American founding fathers as they were of America going “over there” in 1917 (or abolitionism, or, as in the case of at least one prominent historian from that cohort, the Holocaust- skepticism can become a disease), from the profession and trashing their legacy in grad seminars across the land. Jacobs follows that rebuke and agrees that America should have intervened in WWI. You all know me, revolutionary defeatism and all that, but just taking the “American perspective,” I guess I’m on the fence, but come down to sort-of agreeing in an attenuated way. I think German brutality in WWI was inexcusable, but also circumstantial, not an essential part of the Kaiserine regime (above and beyond the “normal” cruelty of imperialist powers). British were no strangers to brutality, as their effort to starve Germany shoes, and I think the big surprise was that the Germans were willing to directly kill (as opposed to genteelly starve) “civilian” white people, Belgians and ocean liner passengers. I’m not sure Germany was a direct threat to America, beyond its shipping, at the time. What it was, especially after years of terrible war making everyone involved more extreme, was a threat to an Anglo-centric world order America was set to inherit from the British. Who the hell knows what would have happened if the Germans had won? Whereas we know what happens if the British won- by and by, we’d inherit more and more of their mantle. Duck soup- in that way, Page knew what he was doing.

Lastly, Vietnam… well, from both an American realpolitik and a revolutionary perspective, we never should have been there. Jacobs argues, against some historians (and many counterinsurgency boosters- a lot of latter day counterinsurgents like Ngo, an opinion not shared by contemporary counterinsurgents like Roger Hillman), that getting rid of Ngo extended America’s play in Vietnam. Maybe, but is that a good thing, for anyone? I guess according to Lodge and his bosses in the Kennedy White House, it would be, unless we buy the Oliver Stone theory that JFK was looking to get out (he wasn’t).

Anyway! This was a fun and interesting book with good insights into American diplomatic history. I’d recommend it even to people to whom the phrase “diplomatic history” doesn’t seem to promise good times, because of the quality of the writing and the intrigue of the stories. I like to think I’d say that even if I didn’t like and respect Seth Jacobs as a teacher, scholar, and all around good guy. ****’

Review- Jacobs, “Rogue Diplomats”

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