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Beyond Personalities in Foreign Policy

By Noah I. Dauber

United States foreign policy these days seems to have as much to do with personality as ideas. On Friday, for instance, newly appointed ambassador to Japan Tom Foley stressed that it is important to be yourself while on the job. Moreover, for the past couple of weeks we have watched President Clinton try to win over Jiang Zemin with charisma.

William Pfaff, writing in the Arizona Republic, suggests an elaborate explanation for all this "personal chemistry" in American individualistic religion: "American Protestantism is missionary and evangelical, and holds that salvation occurs by a direct relation between God and man. The individual 'finds Jesus' in his heart, and is saved."

Personality is important, the argument runs, because it is only through a personal relationship that we can come to share beliefs. Thus, through our experience with the personality of God, whether it be with His goodness or His justice, we begin to learn the truth about the world and the way to salvation. We learn that we ought to be good and just if we hope to get closer to God.

The United States hopes that by exposing foreign leaders to the American personality, we can assure them of the virtues of democratic liberalism. That is, if we can only show them the wacky good humor, ease and open-mindedness of the American personality, they will be convinced of the greatness of freedom.

Pfaff objects that this sort of convincing is unnecessary. We can imagine other sorts of relationships between nations, Pfaff urges. The United States could act like a business partner, coolly professional, with no regard for "personal chemistry." The problem with our foreign policy, Pfaff concludes, is that we insist on the more personal form of relationship, regardless of the realities.

While Pfaff is right to point out that there are more distant yet peaceful kinds of relationships in the world, he is wrong to declare that nations need not share ideas. Real peace between nations requires a mutual recognition, if not a mutual appreciation, of ideas. Rousseau expressed this sentiment in his conclusion that we cannot live in peace with those we believe to be damned.

The problem with the American personal approach to foreign policy is not its focus on ideas, but its assimilation of ideas to personality. Unlike God, we cannot trust diplomats to interact with every individual in the same way. We cannot know that they will be steady over time or that they will not be moody. In other words, we cannot trust that they will be ideal representatives of the ideals of our state.

Real peace must be built on a solid understanding of another nation's ideas, not on an appreciation of the diplomatic personalities of that nation. The fear is that at any one time, certain personalities may clash or get along.

On a practical level, this means that the individual personalities of diplomats should be downplayed. We should begin to worry when ambassadors like Foley stress the personal nature of their jobs: "Every person is different, every approach. It depends, to some degree, on the personality of the individual...I am going to do my best under my circumstances with my particular background."

Naturally, Foley can only be expected to do as much as is humanly possible. However, we should expect him to stress not his personal condition, but the mandates of the State Department and the United States in general. Ideally, our diplomats would be experts in explaining the reasons behind American policy and the American way of life.

It may be necessary to take personality into account at an early stage of foreign policy. We may have to get another nation to like us in order to get them to listen to our ideas. However, we must not mistake this sort of friendship for enduring respect or peace. Real peace requires the careful articulation, understanding, and appreciation of one another's ideas, regardless of personalities.

Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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