In the early years of the young republic, the United States struggled to gain the respect of the great powers; the ones who dictated and dominated the western world. Men like John Adams and Ben Franklin worked tirelessly to carve out a place on the world stage for the fledgling nation. Early diplomats struggled to gain the respect of their foreign counterparts, partly due to their dislike of the pomp and protocol that was part of a system they had revolted against in 1776. A greater hindrance was due to the perception that the young nation was unskilled, uncultured, and unprepared for the world stage. It would take skilled craftsmen in the art of diplomacy to change this perception.
An early diplomat for the United States was the savvy Benjamin Franklin. He understood what was needed in order to gain his objectives, but he also contributed to the perception of a nation less sophisticated than the great nations of Europe. He was hugely popular in Europe and was the life of the social scene. The more he portrayed the backwoodsman in the coonskin hat, the more he garnered favor, and in doing so gained access to the powerful people who dominated the political world. His flamboyance and charismatic appeal were offset and balanced by his diplomatic counterpart, the puritanical, John Adams. Both men were vital to the early diplomatic efforts of the United States, but Franklin was the one who would stand out due to his charisma. His high intellect, vast accumulation of knowledge, savvy people skills served the United States well in those early days.
Savvy statesmen and skilled diplomats were vital to the survival and growth of the United States, especially during the first hundred years when the position of US ambassador did not exist. Rank, especially when dealing with European powers, eased diplomatic efforts, and the rank of minister did not guarantee the audiences desired by US diplomats. In short, the United States needed to earn its place in world politics, and it need to earn its place as great power. While the wars of the nineteenth century aided in shifting global power, the efforts of diplomats, working often behind the scenes, did much more to change the role of the United States in world affairs. Even as the wars of twentieth century dramatically shifted power, diplomacy was what made the United States stand out. Military strength alone would only have made the world stand in fear of the young nation. Diplomacy showed that while young, the nation had wisdom beyond its years. Strong and wise, the United States would celebrate its 200th birthday as one of the greatest nations of modern history.
Like all nations, the United States has a spotted history. No nation, regardless of its origin, can ever achieve virtuous standing, but a nation can seek virtuous goals. The founders of the United States sought a better system, a fairer system, a more virtuous system. They sought political and social equality, even as they were bound by social and economic constraints of their age. Diplomacy, foreign and domestic, was central to the formation and the growth of the nation. Discourse, dialog, debate – this is how a nation formed, a nation dedicated to the goal of making their corner of the world a better place. The bullets and battlefields cleared the path for the diplomats to do their work.
History tends to give the credit and the blame to the leaders of nations. However, a thorough study of history shows that the success and failure of any leader rests on their chosen advisors and subordinates the leader. Charisma only goes so far. Successful leaders are ones who utilize others wisely, seek knowledgeable advisors, and value opposing opinions. When such wisdom of leadership is coupled with charisma, then the world takes note. When this wisdom is lacking, chaos is feared.
When the United States was young, it worked hard to gain a place on the world stage. Like any youth, it made mistakes, but it also worked with the goal of becoming as good, if not better than the rest. Did it achieve its goal, and then like so many, lose sight of what it had originally sought? Did it reach its goal and then decide it no longer needed the tools that had helped it achieve the goal? Or is it an ongoing journey – one that is fraught with obstacles and lessons?
There are many lessons the study of history can teach. The wise will study the history of great nations and see that diplomacy has always been as vital for success as military and economic might has been. Without it, there is only fear and contempt rather than respect and deference.
The American Century: A History of the United States Since the 1890s by Walter LaFeber, Richard Polenberg, Nancy Woloch
From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776 by George C Herring, Robert Fass, et al.