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The Pen and The Dagger: Tilling the Soil of Collaboration between Diplomats and Spies

The US diplomatic corps one the one hand, and Intelligence agencies such as CIA on the other, retain a persistent independent presence. However, these two services often come into conflict. Innovations are necessary to combine the complementary capabilities of diplomacy and espionage - strengthening diplomatic ties through innovative approaches and using American force more judiciously than conventional warfare.

Cover Image for The Pen and The Dagger: Tilling the Soil of Collaboration between Diplomats and Spies
William Burns, Career diplomat and Director of the CIAPhoto Credits: Foreign Policy
Article byRule Johnstone
July 27, 2022

The State Department is the primary lever of US diplomatic engagement with both partners and adversaries. Intelligence agencies such as the CIA likewise retain a persistent presence, but these two services often come into conflict. Innovations are necessary to combine the complementary capabilities of diplomacy and espionage; strengthening diplomatic ties through innovative approaches and using American force more judiciously than conventional warfare could allow such a “lighter touch” to yield considerable benefits to the United States’ reputation and trust internationally. Even with a more finessed approach, the United States’ leviathan power is far from weakened, on the contrary, it is more agile. American Citizens must ask “what are the US objectives at home and abroad? What instruments should the United States use (and not use) to achieve its main objectives?...[to be successful] US policy should leverage all the instruments of power, such as military, diplomatic, financial, development, intelligence, and ideological.[1]” Fortunately for the United States, the seeds of cooperation already exist. The argument here is how to strengthen those budding roots.

The leadership of Bill Burns as head of CIA is likely an essential cog in catalyzing this strategic evolution. A career diplomat, Burns understands the necessary cooperation and interaction between diplomacy and espionage. This nexus is critical, as one of America’s great strategic advantages is that “nobody wants to be like Russia or China.[2]” In other words, America’s cultural capital is significant. Leveraging this cultural advantage is key to shaping a softer touch in America’s future foreign policy: it will take multifaceted leaders like Burns to implement it.

To generate the required momentum for these innovations, it may be important to draw on a concept independently generated by professionals from two very different crafts. US Army General Staney McChrystal conceived an apt metaphor describing the change in his command style which led to the dismantling of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). He said that while the Army had trained him and other commanders to be micromanaging chess-masters, his success against AQI occurred because he “adopted a different leadership style, that of ‘a gardener, enabling rather than directing.[3]’” Paradoxically, the master diplomat Burns came up with the exact same metaphorical concept, but the wisdom stemmed from his predecessors, George Kennan and George Shultz, who “both described diplomats as ‘gardeners,’ painstakingly nurturing plants and partners and possibilities, always alert to the need to prune, weed, and preempt problems.[4]” The shared vision of cultivation of their organizations is key to understanding how the CIA and other intelligence agencies’ clandestine capabilities can take the place of high-impact military force in partnering with America’s diplomatic corps to provide teeth to the tiger’s eyes and ears in pursuit of a lighter international touch for America’s future. Their writings emphasize the need for increased cooperation between America’s various levers of policy.

As he emphasizes, the first process in Burns' Herculean overhaul demands a reinvigoration of diplomatic core skills. In previous decades, with the backdrop of presumed post-Cold War American hegemony, the State Department “tended to oversell the merits of diplomats as social workers and undersell the core roles of diplomats in hammering out the best relations we could.[5]” First and foremost, diplomats “have to be endlessly adaptable - quick to adjust to the unexpected, massage the anxieties of allies and partners, maneuver past adversaries, and manage change rather than be paralyzed by it.[6]” Burns emphasizes the need for innovation: “updating our knowledge and skills is a critical factor in molding a new diplomatic doctrine…[which] also means making State a more dextrous institution…the State Department is rarely accused of being too agile.[7]” Burns rightly emphasizes the balancing act between going back to reinforce core skills, and going forward with innovation.

American spies work out of embassies. This fact alone necessitates close understanding between the worlds of diplomacy and espionage. Just as diplomacy is “a business of human relationships,[8]” so too is espionage,[9] since “sources are the lifeblood of an intelligence service.[10]” Diplomacy is likewise useful in espionage itself, in order to avoid “lack of access” problems, such as the refusal of a CIA director to meet with their Colombian counterpart during the 1990s.[11] In order to avoid problems of strategic inflexibility such as this example, Burns’ core tenet of effectiveness requires “defining a strategy for a changing international landscape, and America's pivotal role… that strategy will require a new compact on diplomacy, one that reinvests in diplomacy's core functions and roles, [and] adapts smartly to new challenges and realities.[12]” Burns consistently underscores that this new paradigm involves both innovation and cooperation with other American assets, not only changes within the State Department.

Former CIA clandestine chief Jack Devine has outlined some of the frictions between diplomats and spies: “there are many reasons that CIA officers have rocky relationships with ambassadors. Most have to do with the conflicting cultures and power struggles between the CIA and the State Department…being plugged into a host nation's intelligence service gave us special access to the country's governmental system, access the State Department did not always have.[13]” Devine emphasizes here how rivalry developed from inhabiting the same world could be flipped into a natural cooperation, if egos and power struggles are put aside in favor of working together as one team.

Despite these differences, diplomatic and espionage principles remain quite similar, as both work through allies: “our liaison partners as a genuine force multiplier. Combining their on-the-ground knowledge, language abilities, and existing networks with our skills training and equipment, we went from minimal bilateral liaison to enhanced multilateral liaison.[14]” The work of relationships with foreign allies is the common ground to be tilled by both State and CIA.

David Kilcullen advocates an important example of how such a synthesized employment of varied US government assets could succeed: “civil-military officials - whom we might call envoys - appropriately trained and prepared, able to meld intelligence, diplomatic, economic, informational, and military tools into a single local strategy, empowered and supported from home capitals, and able to draw on specialized funds and niche capabilities, would be essential in this strategic system. Developing them would require a mindset shift…but if correctly constructed, such a system could generate integrated teams able to shift seamlessly [between strategic objectives].[15]” These envoys are only one concept demonstrating how the utility of American foreign policy could be hybridized through interagency cooperation.

A useful set of philosophical guidelines for this synthesis can be borrowed from the Army Green Beret’s informal motto: “by, with, and through;” referring to a method requiring more finesse than force in channeling US government resources through international partners, who understand the cultural complexities of their own region better than the US does.[16] A prime example of this principle in action is US partnership with a special section of Iraq’s spy service, the “Falcons,” who worked closely and successfully with American allies to combat ISIS. The advantages of working with a trusted partner intelligence service - such as the Jordanian GID throughout the Global War on Terror - are considerable when relationships are cultivated skilfully: “with the Americans’ virtually unlimited resources and the Falcons local knowledge, together they could actually make a difference.[17]

This analysis is not meant to serve as a comprehensive guide to the numerous challenges facing American foreign policy. Rather, the purpose is to outline a sampling of potential strategic innovations which experts from diverse backgrounds within America’s security apparatus have conceived independently through their own experiences. Much deeper analysis is required, but the mere fact of synchronicity between diplomats and warriors advocating a new “gardener” approach to foreign policy speaks to the efficacy of this modus operandi. The common metaphor of tilling soil suggests the importance of pooling America’s strategic resources to evolve for challenges which lie ahead.

[1] Jones, Seth G. Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, and The Future of Irregular Warfare. New York: Norton, 2021. Pg. 182.

[2] Ibid., 184.

[3] Shultz, Richard H. Transforming US Intelligence for Irregular War: Task Force 714 in Iraq. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020. Pg. 191.

[4] Burns, William J. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal. New York: Random House, 2020. Pg. 407.

[5] Burns, 407.

[6] Ibid., 296.

[7] Ibid., 415.

[8] Ibid., 414.

[9] London, Douglas. The Recruiter: Spying and The Lost Art of American Intelligence. New York: Hatchette, 2021. Pg. 22.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Rempel, William C. At The Devil’s Table: The Man Who Took Down the World’s Biggest Crime Syndicate. New York: Arrow Books, 2012, Pg. 175.

[12] Burns, 390.

[13] Devine, Jack. Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014. Pgs. 46-47.

[14] Devine., Pgs. 130-131.

[15] Kilcullen, David. The Dragons and The Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pg. 246.

[16] Collins, N.W. Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021. Pg. 95.

[17] Coker, Margaret. The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle Against ISIS. New York: Dey Street Books, 2020. Pg. 114.

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