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Would Machiavelli Have Drawn a Red Line?

The case for subtle diplomacy.

In days of yore, diplomats were diplomatic. Or so, at least, I am led to believe by fiction and film: Fictional diplomats are erudite, conniving, and suave, treating allies and enemies alike with the same elegant courtesy, even while arranging the most sophisticated betrayals.

Consider the urbane Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a manipulative flatterer who "strove to read the very souls of those with whom he came in contact." Or take the character of Mr. Dryden in Lawrence of Arabia, who defends diplomatic duplicity by asserting, "A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he's put it." Above all, consider that most infamous of real-life diplomats, Niccolò Machiavelli. Dishonest? Certainly. Amoral? Possibly. But rude and obnoxious? Never.

Somewhere along the line, this seems to have changed. Today, many of our senior-most diplomats (and I include the president in that general category) seem to substitute shrillness for suavity, hectoring intransigence for erudition, and prissy pomposity for persuasion.

The examples are too numerous to cite, but take that peculiarly popular word "unacceptable" (as in, "That is unacceptable to the United States"). The number of things the United States finds "unacceptable" is equaled only by the number of things it "will not tolerate." And that is to say nothing of the multitude of "red lines" and "lines in the sand" that U.S. officials draw on a regular basis.

Here are some of the numerous things that have recently been asserted to be "unacceptable" and "intolerable" to the United States:

  • A nuclear-armed Iran. "Unacceptable to the United States." (Hillary Clinton) "We're not going to tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of [Iran]." (President Obama)
  • A nuclear-armed North Korea. "We will not tolerate it. We will not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program." (George W. Bush) A decade later? "The rhetoric that we're hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable." A nuclear North Korea "will not be accepted." (John Kerry)
  • Bad behavior by Pakistan. Pakistani safe havens for the Haqqani Network? "That's unacceptable." (Leon Panetta) Also, corruption in Pakistan: "We will not tolerate corruption." (Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley)
  • Eritrean meddling in Somalia. "It is unacceptable, and we will not tolerate it." (Susan Rice)
  • Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia. "Unacceptable in the 21st century." (George W. Bush)
  • Chinese unfair trade practices. "Unacceptable." (Former Commerce Secretary John Bryson)
  • The U.N. Security Council, which, due to a dispute between the United States and Russia over the wording of a resolution condemning terrorist attacks in Damascus, ended up passing nothing at all. "It is unacceptable to the United States that the U.N. Security Council not...express its outrage at the heinous, sustained attacks on innocent civilians that the Syrian regime continues to launch." (Eric Pelton, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations)
  • Aggression across borders in the Middle East. We "will not tolerate" it. (President Obama)

Uh-huh.

That's just a partial list. Believe me, we find plenty of other things "unacceptable" as well.

There are two problems with this kind of rhetoric.

First, as everyone and their cousins have been lately observing, it's not at all clear how U.S. interests are advanced by declaring behavior to be "unacceptable" when we have no intention of doing anything about it. (There are notable exceptions -- ask Muammar Qaddafi -- but in general, most activities condemned by the United States as unacceptable continue to this day, or, to the extent that they have stopped, they stopped with no credit due to us.) Iran routinely kicks sand on U.S. red lines, as does North Korea. Then, of course, there are all those "red lines" with Syria.

If we aren't willing to take decisive action to stop the Syrian government's appalling activities, what can it possibly mean to thump our chests and claim to have a red line? "Men," wrote Machiavelli, "must either be caressed or annihilated." Teddy Roosevelt proffered similar advice: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." We speak loudly, and though we undeniably carry a big stick, we mostly seem to flail about with it at random.

This isn't an argument for using military force in Syria, or Iran, or anywhere else -- maybe the use of force is justified and useful and maybe it's not. But if we in fact intend to accept the "unacceptable" and tolerate the "intolerable," we would be wise to develop a different and more nuanced vocabulary.

There's a second and less frequently noted problem with our absolutist rhetoric. It's just obnoxious -- and its sheer obnoxiousness makes it dangerous. The rhetoric of "unacceptable" and "intolerable" risks generating and reinforcing the very bad behavior we're trying to stop -- not just because each empty threat further reduces our credibility, but because our general stance toward the world has become so hectoring and schoolmarmish.

In general, U.S. diplomats treat foreign states and leaders like badly behaved toddlers. True, they often deserve it -- but as Machiavelli would surely have observed, that's not the point. The point is to advance our interests, defuse potentially dangerous conflicts, and dissuade others from engaging in brinksmanship. By using "my way or the highway" language, we frequently make things worse, by eliminating the possibility of face-saving compromise.

This is fine if we're not interested in compromise, of course: If our goal is to force our adversaries into corners and then crush them, we should hector and insult to our hearts' content. But if we're actually trying to modify the behavior of foreign states, we might consider being a little more...diplomatic.

Traditional realist theories of international relations posit that states are self-interested rational actors. But "states" are governed by human beings (even vicious dictators are human). And these individuals, like all individuals, are products of their cultures, and influenced as much by ego and the expectations of those who surround them as by strictly rational cost-benefit calculations. A state can't feel insulted or humiliated, but an individual certainly can -- and at the end of the day, it's individuals, not abstractions, who determine Iranian nuclear policy and Syrian military strategy.

Summarizing recent research on negotiations and conflict resolution, psychologists Michele Gelfand, Ashley Fulmer, and Laura Severance observe that, "not surprisingly, negative emotions have generally been shown to hinder negotiations, [generating] more critical reactions and less compliance." As they suggest, this is something most of us intuitively understand (though we may find it difficult to act on). From couples counseling to corporate negotiations, it's something every good mediator knows: Compromise is far more likely when negotiators -- even those with profound disagreements over values -- treat each other with at least surface respect.

Apparently, senior U.S. diplomats neither read Machiavelli nor study negotiation theory (although there are plenty of excellent resources available should they feel inclined to remedy this lack). If they did, they might be a little less prone to declaring the behavior of foreign states "unacceptable" and "intolerable." For once senior U.S. diplomats publicly declare something "unacceptable" or "intolerable," how can any foreign leader back down without humiliation?

In the United States -- which is about as far from an honor culture as it is possible to get -- multiple about-faces are an accepted part of politics. This is far less true in many Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern contexts, in which "loss of face" may be considered far more devastating than loss of allies, loss of economic benefits, or even loss of life. Nonetheless, we continue to use rhetoric that backs our interlocutors into corners, instead of leaving open face-saving routes to compromise.

To be fair, this failing is not unique to U.S. diplomats. The Russians, for instance, seem similarly prone to declaring everything they don't like "unacceptable." And in the United States, it's a failing that afflicts Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Almost a decade ago, Fred Kaplan penned a devastating critique of the Bush administration's North Korea policy, which was, he argued, characterized by "a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism [and] a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy." Shrill American rhetoric continued even as crossed "red lines" were ignored and multiple opportunities for real diplomatic progress were overlooked. If this sounds familiar, it should; we're currently locked into similar destructive patterns with Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

This is not an argument for pussyfooting around. "Wisdom," observed Machiavelli, "consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil." There are plenty of acts that deserve harsh condemnation and may ultimately require a coercive response. Sometimes, conflicts are too intractable to be peacefully resolved, even by the most skillful and subtle diplomatic negotiations. Syria may well be a case in point. But the fact that some conflicts are intractable is no justification for diplomatic stupidity in all the rest.

Where's Machiavelli when you need him?

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National Security

Should You Go to Law School?

The good, the bad, and the ugly about getting a J.D.

Younger readers, you may have noticed a quiet conspiracy among Foreign Policy writers to discourage you from pursuing the career of your dreams. In February, I cautioned those interested in White House jobs that the path to becoming a political appointee is opaque, arbitrary, and nepotistic, and Nicholas Kralev inveighed against the State Department, where professional development is "largely non-existent" and younger diplomats consequently "don't really know what is going on around them." Meanwhile, Tom Ricks's blog has for months been intermittently given over to the complaints of junior military officers, who assert that the military is rigid, anti-intellectual, and un-family-friendly. Then there's Dan Drezner, who on April 15 warned that most international studies Ph.D. candidates are unlikely to make it all the way through grad school, and the job market for those few who survive is "brutal" and "abysmal."

What's left?

Law school, of course! Well, how about it: Should you consider going to law school?

Maybe.

I've taught law since 1997, with various detours along the way, and I've seen almost 15 years of law students graduate and struggle to find jobs that satisfy them. So here's the good, the bad, and the ugly. And since law professors are renowned for taking perfectly simple things and turning them upside down, I'll take those in reverse order.

Here's the ugly:

You probably know this already, but I'll say it again. America has too many law schools charging too much tuition and turning out too many lawyers. This has three consequences.

First, some of those so-called "law schools" are so mediocre that they'd bring a blush to the cheeks of even to the most shameless diploma-mill operator. Don't go to an unaccredited law school -- really, don't. The sole exception to this? Every now and then, a very reputable and distinguished university that lacks a law school decides to start one, and there will inevitably be a short period before that new school can gain full accreditation. But if an unaccredited law school is a stand-alone enterprise or affiliated with an equally dubious "university," avoid it like the plague. Your degree will be close to worthless.

The same is true, unfortunately, for many accredited but crummy law schools, and here in the land of the free, crummy (but decidedly un-free) law schools abound. How do you know if a law school is worth your time? Do some research. What's the first time bar passage rate? If it's routinely under 60 percent, be afraid. How many graduates have full-time jobs 9 months out? More important, what are they doing?

If they don't have jobs as lawyers, this in itself is not a reason for concern: Lots of law students (you too, maybe) aren't interested in becoming lawyers, but instead see law school as providing the training and credentials that will pave the way for interesting business, policy, or advocacy jobs. Georgetown Law, for instance, where I teach, produces plenty of high-powered non-lawyers, including career ambassadors, senators, and media moguls. US News and World Report doesn't give law schools any credit for their graduates in such non-legal jobs, but you should -- as long as those jobs are good jobs in and of themselves. Thus, if a law school's graduates seem to go into banking or tech companies or NGO jobs as much as (or more than) legal jobs, don't panic -- this might be a neutral thing or even a very good thing. But if they're all working at McDonalds, run like the wind.

Ask law schools about average and median salaries of graduates one year and five years out. If they're low, compare them to the law school's tuition and graduates' average debt load. Ask about loan forgiveness programs. Ask about the kinds of jobs top students get -- and also ask about the job prospects for those who graduate in the bottom half of the class. Ask for names as well as numbers: The best way to understand a law school's culture is to talk to students and recent graduates. They're a lot more likely to tell you the truth than admissions office employees. And in the career field you're interested in, also speak to professionals in the city or state where you hope to work: What do local lawyers say about the reputation of the law school you're considering? Do they hire its graduates? Do they know any of its graduates? Do they snicker when you mention the school's name?

Here's the second bit of ugliness: Most law schools charge exorbitant tuitions, and tuition has risen relative to starting salaries. It's one thing to borrow or spend $80,000 if you're likely to get a job with a starting salary of $120,000. It's another thing to borrow or spend $125,000 or more if you're likely to get a job that pays $40,000. We call the first expenditure an investment. We call the second an act of near-suicidal folly.

There are only two things that might possibly justify such apparent folly: a) you're rich (or your parents are rich and will happily pay your debts for the rest of your life); or b) your school has an excellent loan forgiveness program. Most of the top-tier law schools do have such programs, and they have enabled many young lawyers to take low-paying public interest jobs. But read the fine print: Does a school guarantee the availability of the loan forgiveness program? If the program contracts, will you be grandfathered in? Does the loan forgiveness program restrict your career choices in a way that may cause problems for you later? (This should be a particular concern for those interested in policy and advocacy jobs: Some schools with generous loan forgiveness programs restrict them to graduates working in jobs that require a J.D.)

Also consider your likelihood of actually graduating. Law school is three long years, and not everyone finishes. Do you want to spend three semesters in law school and leave with three semesters of debt but no degree?

Third bit of ugliness: There are too many lawyers, and not as many legal jobs as there used to be. Worse, conditions and pay in many of the remaining jobs have deteriorated. Here again, think hard about yourself and your skills and qualifications. Do you expect to end up in the top half of your class at a decent law school? If so, you'll probably get a decent job. But if you know in your heart that you're not much of a student, think twice and then think ten more times about whether law school is right for you. At all but the top-tier schools (and even at some of them) students in the lowest quarter of the class will struggle to find work.

There are exceptions, of course. Grades aren't everything. Some students go to law school, get the specific skills they want, and start their own businesses or non-profits. If you're smart and entrepreneurial (or just rich, or just super lucky), mediocre grades won't necessarily hold you back. But this applies to a tiny minority of law school graduates, so think hard about whether you're likely to be one of them.

That was the ugly. How about the merely bad?

If the ugly news is that you might end up unable to find a job, the bad news is that you might actually end up becoming a lawyer. (Second prize: two weeks in Philadelphia!)

But wait, you say -- isn't that the point? Don't I want to become a lawyer?

I don't know. Do you?

There are happy lawyers in this world -- I know many -- but, statistically, lawyers are a pretty miserable lot. Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of them -- particularly associates in large, lucrative firms -- hate their jobs. In a 2013 survey, Forbes found that there are plenty of happy workers out there in the United States. Network engineers like their jobs. Real estate agents like their jobs. Salesmen like their jobs. But law firm associates? They were the least happy workers of all, ranking their job satisfaction only 2.89 on a scale of 1-5. And please don't imagine that this is a temporary state of affairs, a product, perhaps, of the pressures on young law firm associates during a period of economic recession. Law firm associates have been miserable since the dawn of time.

Here's what this means for you. Let's say you've been admitted to a top-50 law school. You're a strong, highly motivated student, too, with grades and test scores at or above your law school's medians, so you can reasonably expect to graduate in the top half of your class. If you're counting on a lucrative job as an associate in a big law firm to pay off those staggering tuition debts, you may well get that lucrative job. But is it worth it?

Maybe, if you are passionate about the type of law you can practice at big firms (hint: it doesn't involve a lot of time defending the downtrodden), and you don't mind working long, punishing 14- or 16-hour days as a routine matter. This description actually fits some people, so if you're one of them, have at it.

But do you want to have work that contributes to the public good consistently? Or friends? Hobbies? A pet? Or, God forbid, a spouse and children whom you actually see from time to time? If so, this probably isn't the right path for you.

Here's the other thing about law school. Like Ph.D. programs, law schools are intense socializing experiences, and you should consider the possibility that law school -- particularly a top tier law school -- will change you in some ways you won't like. In my experience, about 75 percent of students enter top law schools saying they plan to pursue public interest careers, and about 75 percent graduate from law school planning to pursue law firm careers. Maybe most of them lied about their ambitions on their admissions essays -- some of them surely did -- but I don't think that's the primary explanation for the shift. Law school changes people.

That's partly a function of that fabled process, "learning to think like a lawyer." But it's also a function of the way most law schools are structured, and the career services they offer. Law schools depend on wealthy alumni to make donations, and those wealthy alumni tend to come from big firms -- which means, you guessed it, that buildings, classrooms, and programs are a lot more apt to be named for big firms and big-firm lawyers than for public defenders. The big firms also have the money to invest in elaborate recruiting programs: They have well-funded summer associate programs, and can afford to send a team of recruiters to participate in on-campus interview programs and host cocktail parties for interested students.

There's a clear and well-trodden path from good law schools to jobs in big firms, and the career advising offices at most such law schools excel in guiding students through the process of getting law firm jobs. Meanwhile, the public defender's office of Southern Kentucky may have the funds to hire only one new lawyer every few years, and they certainly can't afford to send recruiters out to dozens of law schools. The same is true of small, local five-person firms, and of human rights NGOs, and even many federal government employers. Consequently, these jobs (which are also, of course, far less lucrative) are very hard to find: They take initiative and legwork. You may have to finance your own summer internships; you may have to finance your own trips to job interviews. Little wonder that so many graduates of top law schools end up going into firms.

Unless you are one of those rare individuals with the strength of character to avoid following the path of least resistance, you're likely to find yourself, a few years from now, doing something you never much wanted to do, and feeling pretty rotten about it. You'll enter law school full of high ideals: You're going to use law to defend the wrongly accused on death row, or become an advocate for the human rights of oppressed indigenous peoples in China. But odds are high that you'll come out of law school planning to work for Dewey, Cheatham & Howe -- or maybe for Status, Quo & Annual Bonus. "Just for a while," you'll tell yourself. "Just to pay some debts. Just to see if I like it." But eight years later, you'll have a mortgage on a big house, a fancy car, a nanny, and two kids in expensive private schools. You'll have trapped yourself nicely, and you'll be pouring out your sorrows to someone doing a survey on career satisfaction among law firm associates.

I promised some good news at the end. So here's the good news: if you're smart, tough, persistent and a little bit lucky, you can enjoy law school and end up in a meaningful, interesting, reasonably well-compensated job. You don't have to work for Big Law. In fact, you don't even have to be a lawyer at all if you don't want to -- and many law school graduates don't.

Here's what's good about law school. The classes at any decent law school will push you to sharpen your mind: to think rigorously and logically, and express yourself cogently and succinctly. These skills are less common than you might think, and skeptical as I am about law schools and the legal profession, law school does help develop them. At any decent law school, you'll also be pushed to get behind the "rules" and think about how rules are made, how they operate, what social and economic assumptions they reflect, and what behaviors they drive. At any reasonably good law school, you can -- if you're motivated enough -- find faculty and alumni with experience in a diverse range of fields, from criminal law to cyberlaw, and from defense policy to environmental policy.

And some legal jobs do make lawyers happy. Studies suggest that lawyers in government and public interest jobs are, by and large, a pretty contented lot: They make less money, but their work is interesting and meaningful, and their hours generally far less brutal than those in private firms. The small fraction of law school graduates who go into teaching are happier still. (And why not? You have job security, a more than adequate salary, and the great luxury of teaching what you want, writing what you want, and spending your days interacting with bright, curious young people.)

And here's the best news of all: Going to law school doesn't mean you have to become a lawyer. Plenty of non-legal employers also value the skills bright law school graduates bring to the table. If you're interested in foreign policy or national security-related careers, for instance, there are plenty of opportunities outside the State Department Legal Advisor's Office or the DOD General Counsel. When I worked in the Pentagon's policy shop, several of the most impressive action officers I met were young law school graduates (who seemed to regard their avoidance of legal practice as a narrow escape). A J.D. isn't needed for those jobs -- but it sure doesn't hurt. And among the Georgetown Law alumni I know, there are foreign service officers, television journalists, entrepreneurs, CIA analysts, management consultants, human rights advocates, and congressional staffers. These alumni are among the happiest law school graduates I know.

Bottom line? If you want to go to law school, go -- but only if you get into a good law school, expect to be a strong student, have a rational plan for paying all those bills, and consider yourself persistent and tough-minded enough to refrain from tripping down the path of least resistance.

Good luck!

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