Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.08.08

Tips for better diplomatic commentary

As I grow older and wiser, here are some lessons I have learned as a career diplomat

the Japan Times on Jul 7, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security

Last week, I gave a short lecture before a study group. Since the participants were all grumpy senior experts in diplomacy, domestic politics or military affairs, I was sure they would not be satisfied if I spoke about anything out of the ordinary.

So I came up with a plot. I will turn 70 this October and I talked about the tips on how to continue my diplomatic commentary after I hit that age. As you see below, it is easy to say, but difficult to do.

The first tip is to avoid wishful thinking. Avoid being swayed by the majority theory on the street and analyze and speak based on the information that you believe is most accurate, not on what you think should be the case.

For example, there is a constant stream of pundits who speak not only of Russian confusion after the Wagner mercenary mutiny or the weakening of the Vladimir Putin regime, but also of a possible collapse of the Chinese economy or a decision by Donald Trump not to run for president again, all hoping that such will be the case.

Foreign affairs pundits are in a peculiar line of business, as we are forced to act like “know-it-alls” when unexpected events happen abroad without enough time to study them. The easiest thing to do is express wishful thinking based on what other critics or foreign intellectuals have said. This is the last thing we should do. Well, it is easy to say, but it will be very difficult to execute.

The second is not to be swayed by conspiracy theories. The world has been flooded with conspiracy theories involving Jews, Freemasonry, the so-called deep state and the claim COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab, etc. Based on my own experience, I do not believe in these types of discourses unless they are actually proven. I believe that this, like wishful thinking, is another form of populism that panders to the general public.

For example, some Japanese politicians and businessmen truly believe in Jewish conspiracy theories. In such cases, I ask them who the conspirators are: Is it the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith or the Anti-Defamation League? Most of the time, no one can name them. That is because they have never met the leaders of those organizations. If they knew about the recent resurgence of antisemitism in Europe and the United States, they would not dare to talk about such conspiracy theories.

The third tip is to remain aware of your surroundings. When I was stationed at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, a respected Japanese reporter told me, “Articles from Washington always make the front page, so being here gives you an illusion that you became a big reporter which you are not!” I learned the same is true for diplomats and one should not look at the world through the lenses of Washington and Tokyo. Fortunately, I entered the world of diplomacy from the Middle East so I was never subject to such illusions.

Today, the world of diplomacy is dominated primarily by three theaters of operation: Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. Deterrence of such revisionist powers as Russia, China and Iran must be conducted simultaneously in these three theaters. The best deterrence against China in the Indo-Pacific requires a strong NATO to counter Russia and a stable Middle East to deter Iran.

The fourth tip is don’t overestimate or underestimate the problem. Perhaps because I started out in the Middle East, the basis of my understanding of diplomacy comes from cynicism. Basically, I do not trust others and directly approach the essence of the problem. Conversely, I refrain from making final judgments until I can objectively see the true nature of the problem. “Neither overestimating nor underestimating the enemy,” reportedly a favorite quote of Xi Jinping, is a quote from Mao Zedong. Ironically, how to assess China’s rise is a prime example of this fourth tip.

The fifth tip is to not rely solely on reports in your native tongue; read foreign language sources (especially non-English) as well. Information written in Japanese or English is often simplistic and biased. A typical recent example is a Japanese article that mistranslated a cover story in Time magazine as, “The Kishida administration abandons pacifism and turns Japan into a major military power.” Likewise, analyses of European affairs require proficiency in European languages, and, more importantly, proficiency in Chinese, Arabic and Russian would be essential to comment on international politics, although in reality such a thing is next to impossible.

Sixth, don’t confuse economic decision making with strategic decision making. It is often difficult for businesspersons to understand that normal economic decisions that work in times of peace do not always work in times of emergency. As a contingency approaches, politicians begin to make decisions based more on strategic rationales. The “liberation” of Taiwan by China “at any cost,” the COVID-19 lockdown in China without regard for economic efficiency, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, etc., all these political decisions are inexplicable if they are analyzed solely through an economic lens.

And finally, live abroad and accumulate your own experiences. I recommend living overseas. Actually seeing and experiencing something in person is worth a thousand words and knowing the local language, weather, customs, food, topography and history, no matter the region, adds depth to one’s comments and observations. Some 12 years ago, for example, a young Japanese scholar who came back from Egypt praised the “Arab Spring,” which I could not believe. Although I was not in Cairo, I could sense that democracy would have difficulty working there because I had experienced the country.

There are other tips, such as “the wise learn from history” or “history sometimes rhymes,” but these have been covered so I will omit them here.

I do not know how long I can continue commenting on foreign affairs. When I feel that I can no longer exercise these important tips, that will be the day when I must put down my pen and go into retirement.