How to do statecraft

  • Themes: Geopolitics, History, Leadership

The study of statecraft would profit by spending less time on ‘should’ and more time on ‘how’.

Woodrow Wilson delivering a Christmas address to soldiers of the A.E.F. Langres, Haute Marne, France, December 1918.
Woodrow Wilson delivering a Christmas address to soldiers of the A.E.F. Langres, Haute Marne, France, December 1918. Credit: Hum Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Practical leadership has two dimensions. The first dimension is one we know well: choosing what to do. The second dimension is less well known. How to do it? If leaders provide guidance about what is to be done, and how to do it, the rest is management and execution.

The first part, the ‘what to do’ part, is an easy debate to follow. It is mostly about goals. People discuss problems and their values. Debating problems, they discuss what they read or hear about, since news is naturally devoted to spotlighting problems, and make a claim for attention. Debating values, they discuss which problems they care about, or their attitudes about the proper role of government.

The second part, the ‘how to do it’ part, is a good deal harder to understand, and the debates are far more obscure. People have to make judgments about practical action. That requires more specialised knowledge about the available instruments and relevant circumstances. The ‘how’ knowledge is the high card in the deck. When it is played, high-sounding goals often turn to dust. As the former US secretary of state Dean Rusk once put it, ‘Ideas are not policies. Besides, ideas have a high infant mortality rate.’

The ‘how’ is the ‘craft’ in statecraft. It is the true source of practical leadership. Yet this dimension is not well understood, infrequently studied and rarely taught.

At the turning point of the First World War, in the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917, the great secret was that the war was likely to wind down and come to an end. Leaders in Britain and France confided that they saw no plausible path to victory. Russia was tottering toward revolution. As I have detailed in my book, The Road Less Traveled, revealing the full details of this episode, the British and French leaders expected the American president, Woodrow Wilson, to convene a peace conference to end the war. Even those who wanted to fight to the finish knew – and this was an even greater secret – that the Allied side was running out of dollars to be able to purchase the food and munitions that sustained nearly half their war effort. The Americans cut off unsecured loans and the money would run out by the spring of 1917.

On the other side, not only had the Germans and their allies decided they had to end the war, the German leadership had made the first move. With his kaiser’s approval, in August 1916 Germany’s chancellor had reached out to Wilson and urged him to proceed with the peace conference. The Austro-Hungarian leaders secretly approved of this, and the large concessions the German chancellor confided he was prepared to make.

For Wilson, the ‘what to do’ part was clear. He was anxious to help end this awful war. He was ready and eager to move. The German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff, rightly judged that, at least from May 1916 until 31 January 1917, Wilson was genuinely neutral and passionate about making peace.

Wilson was realistic. Informed by American military attachés and others watching the war, he was realistic about the prospects of either side in gaining a decisive victory. He was realistic in not trying to decide who was at fault for the war. One reason he was so eager to make peace as soon as possible was because he judged, realistically, that failure meant America might be forced into a war which he and the country fervently did not want.

Wilson was realistic in his modesty about trying to reorganise Europe. At that time, in 1916 and early 1917, one of the reasons he did not wish to engage on questions of territorial peace terms, one of the reasons he sought a ‘peace without victory’, was to encourage a reasonably conservative settlement, to avoid a series of annexations and humiliations that would only plant the seeds of future conflicts. In this respect, his fundamental outlook on Europe’s evolution was similar to that of statesmen in both Britain and Germany.

Wilson was realistic when he accepted the British argument that the US had to take part in a postwar league of nations to reassure the Allies that a compromise peace could last. Wilson was not only realistic, he was also deeply perceptive when he explained – in his December 1916 peace note and his January 1917 speech – that a peace without victory was the best, and perhaps the only, way to secure a peace that might endure.

Having predicted, correctly, that a peace accompanying bloody victories and humiliating defeats would not last, Wilson was condemned, like some figure in mythology, to suffer the prolonged and painful validation of his own dark prophecy. Because America ended up entering the war, rather than ending it, the war widened and deepened. Thus, in 1919, Wilson found himself orating fruitlessly against the doom he had himself once predicted. Then, after his physical breakdown in September 1919, Wilson had to watch the ruin continue until death took him early in 1924.

In 1916-17, Wilson failed to make peace not because he was too encumbered by ideals. He failed because he simply did not know how to do it. He was the man who sits down at the poker game and, dealt a hand with three kings, throws back two of them in the hope of getting better cards.

By September 1916, all the stars were in alignment for Wilson’s peace move. Leaders on both sides were pessimistic about their prospects in the war and worried about their ability to continue. The Germans had formally asked Wilson to act and had secretly volunteered the restoration of Belgium to show their readiness to reach a compromise peace.

The British and French were reluctant to make a peace based only on the mid-war status quo. It was a measure of their desperation that a significant faction was willing to contemplate even that. Others open to peace needed more.

They could have had more. Wilson could have brokered a peace conference conditioned on a plain German commitment to restore Belgium and withdraw from at least most of occupied France. He could have gone further and attempted to arrange armistice lines, while talks were underway, that accomplished much of those withdrawals in a civilised manner, perhaps accompanied by the relaxation of the sea blockades on both sides. The Belgium condition alone would have utterly transformed the politics surrounding peace, in Britain at least.

Instead, for two months, between September and November 1916, Wilson did nothing because of the happenstance that 1916 was a presidential election year and he could not move until he was re-elected. Then, for another month, a vital month from mid-November to mid-December, Wilson did nothing – even though he felt the urgency to act – because he was effectively delayed and deflected by his two relevant subordinates, and because his government had made no plans and offered no advice for what he should do.

After setting the stage with powerful added pressure on Britain at the end of November – he orchestrated the cut-off of unsecured loans and dictated a harsh letter to the British – Wilson then issued a peace note late in December that was a misfire. The note, apparently inspired by newspaper editorials, took no practical action.

What followed was about six weeks of confused efforts to get a better peace move going. Bernstorff (and an influential British officer acting as the Washington representative of Britain’s secret service) attempted to guide Wilson’s key advisor, Edward House. Wilson, meanwhile, came up with another plan inspired by essays in the New Republic. Bernstorff followed through on the peace plan he thought he had. Wilson and House – startled, encouraged and further instructed, including by British parliamentarians and the American humanitarian envoy Herbert Hoover – then reset that plan so that finally, by the last week of January, Wilson was at last starting to construct the plan to set up peace talks that had actually been available to him for at least the previous five months.

When, on 31 January 1917, he discovered that his efforts had failed to ward off the expanded U-boat war, Wilson was stunned. Shocked and reeling, he then angrily brushed past the German chancellor’s effort to keep the peace option alive.

Wilson still did not want to bring America into the war. Yet, having sent the German ambassador home, Wilson found that war was the only option he had left, his only remaining card.

Flash forward a hundred years. Pick a very different subject: the statecraft to cope with the global Covid pandemic. In the later stages of that crisis, a group of foundations asked me to lead a group of 34 experts to analyse what happened, from origins to vaccines, and what went wrong. Our report, ‘Lessons from the Covid War’, was published in 2023.

The most difficult issues in the crisis were not about ‘what to do’. There was broad agreement on the need to warn of outbreaks, find out who was sick and develop effective medicines and vaccines available on a global scale. The hard problems arose in the ‘how’.

Real strategy is not about what ‘should’ be done. It is about the ‘how’. Many people have to be organised, funded, trained and equipped to play their part in a coordinated choreography, people who sometimes must do very difficult things.

America fought its Covid war without an army or a battle plan. It’s not surprising we suffered many more casualties than any other affluent country, in a nation that also had the best access to vaccines. None of the fundamental problems have been fixed.

Americans spent more public money on the crisis than anyone. Our scientific knowledge was unsurpassed. Thousands of people and organisations made heart-rending, life-saving efforts. Yet the story of the Covid pandemic is the exact opposite of the story of the valorous but technologically feeble defence against the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. The Covid war showed how our wondrous scientific knowledge had run far, far ahead of the organised human ability to apply that knowledge in practice.

In a great emergency, as in wartime, the balance shifts away from the world of political posturing and posing, from the practice of politics as performance art to the world of producing results on the ground, through operations and action. Every big-city mayor who has to handle snowstorms knows this. When the weather forecaster predicts the blizzard, it’s too late to start putting in orders to buy snowploughs.

To fight the Covid war the US needed to unify the three main cultures in governance, which don’t necessarily talk to each other much. One is a culture of programmes and process. Programmes are created to dispense money and they do that, following the given process. Another is a culture of research and investigation, the dominant culture of high science and regulation. A third is a culture of operations, to produce results. It is a culture that can be resilient and adaptable, since the operators have to adjust to the real conditions they encounter. It is the dominant culture in most private firms, especially those that make products or deliver services.

The challenge in the Covid war, as in any great emergency, was to meld all these cultures in practice. What the Covid war exposed, what every recent crisis has exposed – even in Iraq and Afghanistan – is the erosion of operational capabilities in much of American civilian governance. Programmes, scientific knowledge and concrete operational responses were never well aligned.

A symptom of this failure was how often governments and agencies had to hire management consultancies – McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Company, and a number of others – to perform basic operational tasks. That is the point when government starts outsourcing the know-how of governance.

In an early book about the pandemic, with the uplifting title Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the historian Niall Ferguson thoughtfully observed that ‘pandemics, like world wars and global financial crises, are history’s great interruptions… they are also moments of revelation’.

One reason the American response to the pandemic was discouraging was because, at least at times and to many, our governance seemed incompetent. If citizens do not believe their government can handle the largest emergencies, the republic is in trouble.

This image of relative incompetence was particularly distressing because it was the latest stumble in a series of tragic stumbles, including the catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the performance of a country that once justifiably regarded itself, and was regarded by many non-Americans, as being best-in-world at handling large emergencies. America had been the exemplar of can-do, practically minded public accomplishment.

Fortunately, during the Covid war, a great many Americans ended up displaying that kind of will and know-how. But the positive lessons need to be noticed, studied and taught. Unfortunately, the policy agendas of both major American political parties appear almost entirely undisturbed by this pandemic. There is no momentum to recognise the failures or fix the system. Although several public health experts warned us about the usual cycle of ‘panic and neglect’, it still is astonishing to watch that cycle repeat once again.

Americans can reflect on a proud heritage, not far in the past, when they were known across the world for their skills in everything from fixing cars to designing European recovery to putting a man on the moon. Again and again, they tackled apparently insurmountable problems, public as well as private, in a relatively non-ideological get-it-done spirit. At one level the Covid crisis is another depressing story of how 21st-century Americans have fallen short.

Yet at another level, as we describe, many Americans rose to the challenge. The Covid crisis abounds with stories of desperate improvisations, in America and all over the world. Some succeeded; many failed; many were a mix of both. Any other great emergency might also exhibit all the problems of organised action manifest in the Covid crisis. We hope our country will reflect on this war to prepare, not just for another pandemic, but for the kind of global emergencies that already seem to mark the 21st century, including the changes in energy use and climate.

There are obviously several ways to explain the decline in government performance and the collapse in public trust in the US government since the high-water marks of the late 1950s and early 1960s. From the early 1960s, the government has tried to do much more – around the world and at home – and it is perceived to have usually fallen short, sometimes catastrophically so.

It is not very useful to blame the anti-Washington discourse. Such scapegoating of Washington is not new. It is an old, old theme in American history. Nor should we blame incompetent delivery of basic services, which is still reasonably good in America.

Part of the story, repeated in the Covid war, is a record of policy failures: the tendency to react to events rather than drive them, poorly specified objectives, confusing guidance, reliance on weakly evidenced suppositions, little grasp of organisational capacities, inability to adapt organisations to new problems, over-reliance on ill-managed contractors. These are all symptoms. They are symptoms of policies that are badly designed.

Weak knowledge of the history of certain issues or even of the government’s own policy record, a superficial grasp of other communities or institutions and a preoccupation with reactions to daily news: these, too, are symptoms. They are symptoms of a weakening capacity for in-depth professional assessment.

The marked tendency to militarise policy, to rely on military instruments and military policymakers, repeated again in the Covid war’s Operation Warp Speed, is no cure. It is another symptom of the breakdown, as American policymaking is dumbed down and becomes praetorian.

Some of these problems can be blamed on bad structures and on polarised, dysfunctional politics, but that’s not all of the story.

As China’s immensely powerful Qing Empire began to decay in the early 1800s, a leading scholar began calling for reform of the Confucian system that selected and trained the country’s administrative elite. He looked around and saw ‘everything was falling apart… the administration was contaminated and vile’. The scholar, Bao Shichen, ‘found himself drawn toward more practical kinds of scholarship that were not tested on the civil service exams’, as Stephen Platt noted in his book Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age.

Bao would, in time, become one of the leading figures in a field known broadly as ‘statecraft’ scholarship, an informal movement of Confucians who were deeply concerned with real-world issues of administration and policy. Tragically for Bao and many of his allies, their efforts were not enough. They could not reverse the decline of their empire.

The United States government has plenty of problems, too. Fortunately, it is not yet at the point the Qing Dynasty reached. Americans’ seemingly bygone skills for policymaking and tackling emergencies were not in their genes or in the air. They need not be consigned to wistful nostalgia. The skills were specific. They were fostered by the surrounding culture. And they can be re-learned.

Know-how relates ends and means. It guides and inspires confident performance. The study of statecraft would profit by spending less time on ‘should’ and more time on ‘how’.


Philip Zelikow