Why Back-Channel Diplomacy Does Harm.

President Donald John Trump has apparently used back-channel diplomacy on multiple occasions and not just in the case of Ukraine for which he will likely be impeached. Setting aside the issues of impeachment for the moment, the question arises why back-channel, off-book things like those perpetrated by Rudy Giuliani are so dangerous.

The watch-word here is surprise. The official channels are at risk of being blindsided by facts they aren’t prepared for. They may find out that promises were made that either cannot be kept, or that required more care to complete than is possible in the needed time frame. Members of Congress are at risk of supporting bills that are at cross purposes to those of what is the de facto policy being pursued by the administration. Businesses and individuals that trust the policy of the country and invest in foreign markets may find their positions eroded by sudden shifts they couldn’t predict.

But the easiest mistake to make with the most dangerous game that Donald John Trump has played is outright warfare erupting (or existing conflicts made worse) due to miscommunication. An ally expecting a promise to be kept and finding it unkept (this actually happened, for those keeping score), or an adversary expecting a concession that does not come, and suddenly a countermove is interpretted to be unprovoked aggression and the result is destabilization. There is nothing more foolish than a simpleton like Donald John Trump thinking it’s okay to muck about with the well-defined and necessary diplomatic processes.

War is bad enough when necessary, but when you botch your way into one, that’s a stupid and wasteful thing.

Okay, but war is not the most likely scenario. Loss of international respect and trust is much more common. That is likely both for the United States, and also between other nations uninvolved, because there’s a kind of tragedy of the commons nature of trust between nation states. If a big, proud nation like the USA is seen as lacking in trust, other countries tend to trust each other less as well.

There are also major security risks in employing folks to handle policy that are not versed in security and are not following protocols designed to limit security risks. Breaches can make matters all the worse by allowing adversaries to outmaneuver efforts or sow dissent among allies who are hearing different policies roll out simultaneously.


The Republicans should put themselves in Ukraine’s shoes and ask, if Donald John Trump had promised to fill their campaign coffers, and he called them and said, “I’d like you to do me a favor, though,” requesting some fraudulent press statement as a condition of releasing their campaign funds, would they not think it bribery? They would. But they already go along with that, because that’s the situation Republicans are in: the favor is normalizing and covering up for Donald John Trump’s many misdemeanors (and spending money at Trump Organization properties), and the payoff is their reelection prospects (particularly in primaries) are bolstered by his lack of opposition if not his support. They have had their own quid pro quo with Trump this whole time.

And the American people, if their boss at work said, “I have a bonus for you. I’d like you to do me a favor, though.” If their boss asked them to fabricate some paperwork for a bonus? Same thing. Cut the crap, Republicans. What Donald John Trump did is wrong, and the law requires acknowledging that. Who we are as Americans requires us to see it for what it was.

The Best We Can Do

The Republican voters and leaders today believe that American decline is inevitable. That we have lost what counts and that the best we can do is to embrace the likes of the president. The populist ideas espoused (if you can call them ideas) seem to boil down to one thing: take what we can get.

We aren’t smart enough to solve our problems, so we will take what we can get. On trade, we cannot be competitive enough on manufacturing, so we will oppose trade. On immigration, we can’t afford to help refugees or find a legal path for all these workers, so we will deport them all.

This is the thinking of people who have already lost. We need folks who believe that the common victory of the earth, raising living standards and increasing cooperation, is still attainable. That includes any optimistic Republicans that still believe in the America that can solve problems.

The most excellent idea of the sitting Congress was to cut taxes and roll back regulations. Their master plan, as it were. But they have not done anything to better worker conditions. They did nothing to fix immigration. They did nothing to make housing more affordable. Nothing for healthcare. They do not solve problems. They only paint those who do as being worse than doing nothing.

They did not fix infrastructure, and spending is still runaway. Their EPA is practically begging for more pollution. They largely refuse to even conduct oversight, taking a mice-will-play, cat-will-nap attitude to that role.

Now, with the rending of the Iran deal, the Republicans believe that diplomacy is dead and peace is not attainable.

They believe that doing nothing is the best we can do.


And the best we can do is a loudmouth president. Someone with a fear of facts and reading, who regularly claims to be an expert, only to say that nobody knew it was so complicated.

The best we can do is complicity from Republican members of Congress, too worried about the blue wave to bother with pushback. Never mind that the key to disarming the denuded emperor is to call it out. Hans Christian Andersen told us that a long time ago. But the best they can do is a few mealy-mouthed statements about how the president isn’t helpful.

They wouldn’t dream of pushing back. Some of them even want to see how far they can push tampering with the investigations into the administration before they get charged with obstruction. Some of them must be descendants of Guy Fawkes. Unable to wrap their head around the task at hand, they would rather blow it up. The best Nunes can do, apparently.

The rest of the country still believes in America and believes it can do a lot better than this.

Inertia: Chains You Can Believe In

President Obama recently said, in discussing the alleged leaking of marked-protected documents by Pfc. Bradley Manning:

People can have philosophical views about [these things].  But look, I can’t conduct diplomacy on an Open Source [basis].  That’s not how, you know, the world works.

He went on to discuss more directly the law with regard to such disclosures.  But I’m not writing today about the law or the allegations against Manning or his treatment while in detention.

This post is about the inertia that Barack Obama has chained himself to in the time since he took office.  It hasn’t been wholesale.  Progress has been made on some fronts.  But on major fronts, the status quo keeps on pulling us down.

The biggest areas are the following:

  1. Foreign policy
  2. Energy policy
  3. Fiscal policy
  4. Social Health policy

In these four key areas (though there are others that are less obvious, and all of these have overlap too) we haven’t seen the change that’s needed.  In these areas there are entrenched interests that preclude the change that’s needed.

Obama says, rightly, that diplomacy isn’t conducted in the light of day.  But he gets it wrong saying that he can’t change that.  He can’t change it by not changing it, but if he moves to change it, it will change.

All systems seek equilibrium, and by changing any aspect of any system you introduce further changes toward that equilibrium.  If you can’t swim, and you’re alone in deep water, you’ll drown.  But if you introduce a floatation device, like a life preserver, then the equilibrium shifts, and you won’t drown.

What should happen in this situation, if Obama does want change, is to speak up about that.  “I would like to have a higher burden of the health care system be carried by Registered Nurses, Nurse Practitioners, and the like, to lower costs and increase access, but the current system’s inertia makes that hard to enact.”  And then he would have those classes of workers (RNs and NPs) on his side to help push for the change.  He would have patients that want better care and better pricing saying, “Yes, I know a few nurses and they could handle more responsibility.”

Open Source Diplomacy would mean that everyone has the same information, and therefore, there’s no strategic advantage to lying or subterfuge.  It would mean that if a Middle East leader can’t stomach telling his people what he’s doing, he shouldn’t be doing it.  It would mean that we wouldn’t find ourselves in wars without a cause.  If the world can’t work that way, then I don’t see why the hell we’d bother at all.  But of course it can work that way.

It works that way all the time.  Just not in the circles that Presidents and Congresscritters run in.  Every day the software that powers the internet is developed in that way.  The stack that the likes of Obama and all of these other chained leaders are depending on to improve their productivity isn’t created in secret, behind closed doors.  Their own computers may be running the equivalent of a closed door, but the servers are overwhelmingly running software that anyone in the world can download, compile, and hack on.

People that go to school aren’t told, “you aren’t allowed to apply this knowledge without prior written permission,” and then forced to get their Algebra teacher to sign off when they need to do a calculation.  Learning in such an environment would be impossible.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a right and wrong way to handle the open sourcing of diplomacy, and as I’ve indicated with the nursing example, there’s a good way to mitigate inertial effects when seeking change.  Things don’t need to change overnight.  But we do need change, not chains, and if Obama wants to be that leader, he needs to start standing up for the cause and be honest about it, not just spit another can’t in the face of the world.