Lessons for the Obama Administration from America’s First Diplomat

As the world passively watches the crisis unfold in Ukraine, and the Obama Administration continues to enforce economic sanctions as effectively as it did red lines in Syria, war becomes a more likely possibility everyday.  The dovish policies of the Obama Administration have not only allowed Al-Assad to remain in power, but have permitted the ex-KGB and bear hunting Putin to play Obama as Kasparov would a novice chess player.

America’s first diplomat viewed chess as a metaphor for both diplomacy and life.  It was this viewpoint and perspective that undoubtedly aided his efforts at helping to draft the Declaration of Independence, to forge America’s alliance with France, to broker the treaty between England, France, and America, and to ensure the passage of America’s founding document – the U.S. Constitution.  Not bad for a man who started his career journey as a humble printer in Philadelphia.  This man was Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin famously described the connection between chess, life, and diplomacy when stating: “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement.  Several very valuable qualities of mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it.  For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain and competitors or adversaries to contend with.”  He found the game taught foresight, circumspection, caution, the importance of not getting discouraged, and an important etiquette to practice in chess, diplomacy, and life – never hurry your opponent, do not try to deceive by pretending to make a bad move, and never gloat in victory.  It may even be best to allow your opponent to retract a bad move for while you may lose the game, you will gain something far more valuable: that person’s esteem.

In the process of securing a peace agreement between England, France, and the United States near the end of the Revolutionary War, Franklin found himself in the middle of a three-dimensional game against two aggressive players.  From his opening move to his final checkmate, Franklin had the foresight of producing a peace agreement with England while preserving French friendship in the process.  He achieved this goal by exhibiting great patience and circumspection when his pieces were not properly aligned,  but attacked with swift confidence when strategic advantages presented themselves.  He expressed his unwavering desire to avoid violence at all costs as he believed that “all wars are follies, very expensive, and very mischievous ones.”  He asked: “When will mankind be convinced of this, and agree to settle their differences by arbitration?  Were they do to it, even by the cast of a die, it would be better than by fighting and destroying one another.”  As he famously wrote to a friend, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”

Compromise, for Franklin, was not only a practical approach to diplomacy, but a moral one as well.  The virtues of tolerance, humility, and a baseline respect for others required and demanded it.  While compromises may not make great heroes or infamous villains the way brute force or steadfast conviction does, they make great peace.  Sometimes a rational, pragmatic approach to diplomacy in a Franklinesque manner is just the solution to stabilize a region teetering on the brink of war.

The concept of compromise has not only become a dirty, four letter idea in Washington, D.C., but in 21st century foreign policy as well.  Sure, the Obama Administration has not had a cake-walk in dealing with the likes of Al-Assad and Putin in the past few years, but neither did a young America in the late 18th century with the monarchal regimes of Britain and France.

As rebels continue to occupy towns in eastern Ukraine, it may be wise for America to forgo the hawkish rhetoric backed by nothing more than veiled threats, and instead opt for a more Franklin-like approach to reaching a pragmatic solution.  Similar to past Administrations, Obama has made clear ultimatums, but unlike the past, he has also promised the American public that he would not commit U.S. troops to another distant and foreign locale.  We have witnessed throughout history the effects on leaders acting like wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  It never ends well.  Instead, a patient, yet practical and cautious approach to distilling the conflict may yield a better solution for the region and the world.  It will require compromise, which some may view as America sacrificing its own values or those of the Ukrainian people, but the potential for peace is far greater than its alternative.

Obama has failed to define and secure America’s position on the international stage.  The country appears indecisive, weak, and incapable of walking in tow with the rhetoric it uses against foreign powers.  With a pragmatic dose of compromise, patience, and decisive action when strategic advantages call for them, Obama may too be described as Franklin once was by the French statesman Turgot: “He snatched lightening from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”  Well, maybe Obama should achieve the latter before striving for the former.  Very few can reach the level industriousness achieved by the famous, yet humble printer of Philadelphia.

One thought on “Lessons for the Obama Administration from America’s First Diplomat

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