Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Remembering Ben Franklin and the example of 1783

President Reagan has signed the joint resolution officially proclaiming Sept. 3, 1983, the bicentennial of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution.

Unfortunately, even those who take note of the anniversary may see in it only antiquarian interest. Instead, this latest of bicentennial celebrations should remind us of the triumphs available to those who practice diplomacy rather than wage war.

About these ads

Many Americans identify war and force with strength and masculinity, peace and negotiation with weakness and effeminacy. They should have told that to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, whose patient and adroit diplomacy 200 years ago confound the myth that Americans are always taken to the cleaners by foreign diplomats. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger still cries foul at the North Vietnamese strategy of winning in peace talks what could not be won on the battlefield; yet this is precisely what Franklin and his associates managed, gaining territory from the Appalachians to the Mississippi that Americans had never won in war. They also demanded and received recognition of de jure equality among nations for the United States, formal recognition by Britain, and the grudging respect of Old World chancelleries.

During the bicentennial, Americans can take pride in their nation's diplomatic accomplishments. Through the talk, talk, talk of diplomacy, the United States purchased Louisiana and peacefully drew all the other boundaries with Canada. Treaties and other agreements, not wars, brought Alaska and Florida into the Union, ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and launched the Camp David peace process in the Middle East. Not cannoneers but diplomats - scorned by tough guys as ''cookie-cutters'' - induced French troops to end their intervention in Mexico in the 1860s; reintegrated two-thirds of Germany into the Western alliance; redesigned the future of the Panama Canal; and normalized relations with China. And this is a bare start at what a complete list would look like.

Some of those accords are imperfect - such is the nature of compromise and human affairs generally. Some were lucky rather than skillful achievements - such are among the happy contingencies of diplomacy. And some happened because the US was ready to use force otherwise - such is force's most admirable potential.

But all these achievements were the products of diplomacy. Franklin wrote that peace was ''the best of all works,'' but he was under no illusions that it came easily. Peace is not a gift to the pure of heart. The diplomacy that achieves and keeps the peace is hard work, yet we rarely lavish on unsung diplomatists the honors we bestow on military men.

Diplomats who achieve long-term gains for peace usually do not point a gun at their counterparts and demand everything they have. The diplomatists whom historians remember (whether president, secretary of state, or ambassador) are not those famed for cunning but honesty, those who were good for their word. At their best, diplomats are calm when provoked, patient when obstructed. They have the imagination to detect solutions in the straw piles of deadlock; the empathy to understand their counterparts' goals and constraints; and a sense of priorities that tell them when giving way on small points will achieve a larger goal. Men and women with such qualities are invaluable instruments of the national interest.

Diplomacy itself - the process of eliminating or reducing conflict through reflection, talk, and bargaining - is more valuable than ever in our age of thermonuclear weapons, economic instability, and global social disorder. Diplomacy permits - demands, if one is serious - genuine exchanges of views. Diplomacy allows one to find out the other fellow's needs, which may turn out to be compatible with one's own. Diplomacy's give and take tests the importance of one's own ''needs.'' Diplomacy saves lives. And successful diplomacy leaves in its wake good relations, mutual trust, and hopes for better times: the drinking glass a little more full rather than a little more empty. War, on the other hand , is the failure of diplomacy.

War, but not diplomacy, might permit total victory for one side. We are often told that Americans have always been unable to tolerate less than total victory. This is a dubious proposition as applied to any part of our history. It is certainly untrue of a people who experienced - and survived - Korea and Vietnam, a society constantly engaged in negotiation and compromise in its own affairs.

About these ads

It is not a failure of will, or insult to manhood, to listen to those who are weaker than ourselves, or even hostile. We usually honor that quality when we see it in private life. The Reagan administration should look to the example of 1783 for guidance, lower its gun sights, engage diplomacy's traffic of reason, and see what happens. It will probably be surprised - both at what it can achieve and the applause it receives.

Besides, it can always keep the powder dry, which is another old American custom.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.