Michael KreponJames Baker’s Politics of Diplomacy

Quote of the week:

“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” – Leon Trotsky

In the world of high-wire, high stakes diplomacy, you have to be good to succeed. It’s better to be good and lucky. The stars were aligned just right for James Baker, the ace political consigliere and master of bureaucratic politics who was appointed by George H.W. Bush to become his Secretary of State.

Baker was operating in a world where American power would be paramount after the Soviet Union’s collapse. He was in the saddle of events, not just holding on for the ride. Great accomplishments were within reach, but they weren’t easy to achieve; they required as much sure-footedness abroad as Baker had demonstrated domestically.

Baker enjoyed highly favorable international conditions and bipartisan backing. He put both to good use. It also helped that Baker was preceded by George Shultz.

Shultz and James Baker were the two most successful Secretaries of State in the field of arms control. Their memoirs, Triumph and Turmoil and The Politics of Diplomacy, are accounts of stunning achievement under very different circumstances. I’ve already paid tribute to Shultz who, with help from Paul Nitze and others — and with leverage provided by those who were dead set against arms control in the Reagan administration — accomplished the previously inconceivable, a treaty zeroing out ground-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Shultz helped Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to create conditions for massive accomplishments in conventional and strategic nuclear arms control. They paved the way for Baker, George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Cheney (not a misprint) to accomplish more in the field of arms control than any other administration has before or since.

The title of Baker’s memoir clarifies his foremost key to success. The master of bureaucratic and domestic politics was no stranger to the world of diplomacy, having served as Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan. Still, it wasn’t clear that Baker’s skills would translate to the politics of international diplomacy. Moreover, no Secretary of State could possibly be prepared for the challenges and opportunities associated with the demise of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.

Baker was up to these challenges. He engineered the peaceful unification of East and West Germany, as well as the peaceful dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War. After building a powerful coalition to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Baker turned his attention to ambitious peacemaking in the Middle East. At the Madrid Conference, he brought Israeli representatives together with Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrian diplomats. Baker drove negotiations on the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Plus, the Conventional Arms Reduction Treaty. The Lisbon Protocol linked the non-nuclear-weapon status of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to START I. Plus, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Open Skies Treaty. Plus, what I’ve forgotten.

When the United States needed to have its act together to secure previously unobtainable gains when the Cold War ended, George H.W Bush could rely on bipartisan support and the deftness of his foreign policy and national security team. What was George H.W. Bush’s secret sauce? Was it James Baker? Or was it Brent Scowcroft? Their instincts and talents blended so well that the question seems irrelevant. The correct answer is none of the above. The secret sauce was and always is bipartisanship.