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Prologue: Diplomatic Mission

“Now, I wonder what he meant by that.”—Metternich, on being informed of the death of a rival diplomat on the eve of the Congress of Vienna

I’ve been searching the Web for an institution that honors diplomats—a diplomat’s hall of fame, if you will—and it’s been tough going. I’ve turned up halls of fame for dentists and chambers of commerce that count diplomacy among the characteristics required of inductees. I’ve found college sports halls of fame that recount exploits accomplished against the “Diplomats” of Franklin & Marshall. And I’ve turned up rival halls of fame for players of a board game called “Diplomacy.” But it appears that no set of town or city fathers has yet determined to build The Diplomacy Hall of Fame (“And unwind at the end of your tour with an aperitif in the Richelieu Cafe!”) as a way to return traffic to Main Street.

It’s probably just as well. However essential diplomats are to the proper management of the world, their credit card receipts, boiled shirtfronts, nibbled pencils, top hats, liver pills, and other memorabilia of suasion, cunning, resolution, and patience are hardly likely to draw the kind of crowds that the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame regularly brings to Hayward, Wisconsin, for example.

This is not to say that diplomatic lives are necessarily dull and unheroic, but that they are necessarily hidden. Successful diplomacy—whether it’s being practiced by Raul Wallenberg or von Ribbentrop—depends precisely on avoiding the transparent celebrity that is the natural right of pioneering oral surgeons, businessmen of the year, and the man who pickled a muskie in a Jim Beam bottle.

Machiavelli, who is said to have invented modern diplomacy in his “Advice to Raffaello Girolami When He Went As Ambassador To the Emperor,” there instructs his protégé to study the local prince well, to listen to gossip, to keep his own counsel, to send frequent reports, to host “banquets and entertainments,” to find ways to make repeated information in those frequent reports seem fresh, and should the need arise “to conceal a fact with words, [to] do it in such a way that it does not become known or, if it does become known, that you have a ready and quick defense.”

This is not a role to be played by Clint Eastwood, but Henry Kissinger; not Russell Crowe, but George Kennan, the real-life exemplary diplomat who conceived the West’s containment policy toward the Soviet Union in a celebrated 1947 Foreign Affairs article under the nom de plume “X,” a renaming so self-effacing that it may constitute the consummate diplomatic act.

Kennan would certainly be in my Diplomacy Hall of Fame, and not simply because containment worked, but because he wrote only one memoir and it’s well done— striking oddities in diplomatic self-account. George Marshall would be there, too, for saving Europe; and Raul Wallenberg, Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, and Chiune Sugihara, for saving lives. And I’d find a place for Talleyrand, because whatever his (many) faults, attention must be paid to a man who survived diplomatic service under six successive French tyrannies, including the revolution, Napoleon, and the Bourbon restoration. (Once asked who was winning a battle in the streets of Paris, Talleyrand replied, “We are.” “But who are ‘we’?” an aide countered. “That I shall tell you tomorrow,” said the ever-discreet Talleyrand.)

And finally Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. secretary general who is less well known today for his distinguished diplomatic career than for his diary—“a sort of white book concerning my negotiations with myself—and with God,” was the way Hammarskjold referred to it. Posthumously published (Hammarskjold died in a plane crash in the war-torn Congo in 1961), Markings earned its late author comparisons with Pascal and Kierkegaard, sold 450,000 copies in 18 months, and has been reprinted so many times that Knopf no longer keeps count of editions.

A slim, even anorexic, volume, Markings is the kind of work—tense, puzzling, pained, overwrought—that you’d expect from a lonely, driven, and often exhausted admirer of early Christian mystics, a man who made a moral point of apologizing if eloquence inadvertently crept into his expressions of diplomacy by day, and who wrote to God at night if he had the strength. Markings was a slog when I picked it up in 1964, and it’s a slog today, maybe one of those best-sellers that are bought not to be read but because the purchase of them brings the soul some comfort.

Whether this is so doesn’t matter. Nor does it seem to matter at this date whether Hammarskjold was the martyr to peace that he was made out to be after his death shocked the world. (He received a posthumous Nobel.) What gets him into my Hall in any event is that he carried two books to the Congo, and they were Martin Buber’s I and Thou and Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. In Leopoldville, he had them at his bedside, where any chambermaid could have seen them and seen who he really was. Talk about indiscreet.

Our story on NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

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