Worth Reading: Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft

Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft comes close to fulfilling the premise of its title. Written by Angelo M. Codevilla, it may be the clearest discussion of statecraft you’re likely to get from an American.

Codevilla puts a great deal of emphasis on two themes throughout the book:

  1. Seriousness.
  2. Proper naming.

He argues that American statecraft has been haunted by three spirits of obfuscation and unseriousness since around 1900: Liberal Internationalism, Realism, and Neoconservatism. Codevilla sums up the three: “As Liberals think that all well-administered peoples are alike and Neoconservatives that all democrats are alike, Realists think that all “moderates” are alike.” The fundamental problem Codevilla finds with all three strains of American foreign policy thinking is that they:

  1. Assume everyone in the world is an American under their skin.
  2. Assume foreign policy consists of scratching foreigners until the true inner American is revealed.
  3. Are ignorant or deliberately paper over the essential proposition that foreign policy deals with foreigners.
  4. Obfuscate the meaning of words such as diplomacy and war away from their basic dictionary meanings.

Codevilla is not kind to what he sees as the wanton unseriousness and obfuscation of America’s twentieth and twenty-first century elites:

Twentieth-century American elites, however, have committed our country to the grandest of ends but have not measured them against the means necessary to achieve them—ends hazily imagined, and means they might not have used even if they had them. Instead of scaling up means or scaling down ends, they invented vocabularies to describe a fantasy in which the means with which they felt comfortable would suffice to remake the world. This meant abandoning the wisdom concerning peace, war, diplomacy, intelligence, prestige, and economics accumulated in our civilization over millennia. In the new, unprecedented world they imagined, any given instance of peace was not the product of a particular peace victory and arrangement of power but rather the absence of conflict. Diplomacy was not a set of tools but a substitute for force. Intelligence was not a matter of a few hidden details but a magic wand to uncover the secret to effortless success. Prestige was a reputation, not for being effective but for being pleasant. Wealth was not one of many elements of power but everyone’s overriding purpose.
To be other than sorcerers’ apprentices, American statesmen had better deal with reality as described in dictionaries. This book does not impose its own categories. It looks at international affairs as the interactions of individuals and groups who are what they are, want what they want, and do what they do. It is about the consequences of forgetting common-sense definitions: that diplomacy is mere communication, that international intercourse requires a positive imbalance of means over ends, that allies are available in inverse proportion to the need for them, and that war is the avenue to peace via the gateway of the enemy’s death or submission.

Codevilla covers each major element of statecraft in its own chapter: diplomacy, economic power (money—money—money), war, intelligence, and civil defense (also known by the heavily Teutonic name of “homeland security”).

Codevilla, a one time Foreign Service officer, defines diplomacy as “the verbal representation of a persuasive reality”. Codevilla argues that “competent diplomats do not threaten. They warn.”:

Diplomacy worthy of the name refers to indubitable realities. When it evokes consequences that affect a foreign government’s actions, the consequences must follow naturally from the natural relationship between those actions and the realities of which that government is aware. For you do not have to go out of your way to make these things happen, that you would not wish to prevent them, or perhaps that you cannot prevent them. Such diplomatic representations are warnings. Like yellow road signs that indicate curves, they command respect irrespective of any arbitrary speed limits or threats that might accompany them…
By contrast, threats are more akin to white speed-limit signs. Since there are no natural consequences of going sixty-five instead of fifty-five, and the highway patrol imposes fines sporadically, drivers naturally take the signs’ threats with grains of salt. Perhaps the quintessential example of a threat was the United States’ “declaratory policy” during the Cold War to destroy the Soviet Union, but in a manner that would not have mitigated damage to the United States. Few took this threat seriously because carrying it out would have done America no good and caused America’s own destruction. Almost by definition, threats are at least partially empty. That is why the very notion of “declaratory policy” (perforce different from the real thing) advertises unseriousness.

Codevilla argues that true diplomacy focuses on “frankness and truth”, not lies, flowery words, or vague language in order to keep options open. Real diplomacy is based on Dr. Fred Charles Ikle’s “threefold choice” between agreement, disengagement, and diplomacy for “side-effects” (from Ikle’s How Nations Negotiate, a neglected and out of print classic of diplomacy.). Agreement is based on knowing what you want, what you’re willing to give for it, discovering if the other side is inclined to give it, and what they might be willing to take in exchange for it. If there is a basis for a mutually acceptable agreement, then you come to an agreement. If not, you walk away, what Ikle called “disengagement”. The third choice is “negotiating for side-effects”: in this case “if either or both sides realize that the two sets of demands and prices are incompatible, that neither can get what it wants without the other accepting that it refuses to accept, and if nevertheless both sides continue diplomatic contact, then you had better realize that although the contacts may look like diplomacy, they are really something else: instruments among others (likely including violent ones) of coercion”. Of negotiating for side effects, Codevilla says, “The success of any side using diplomacy as an instrument of conflict depends substantially on the other side mistaking the situation, and abiding by the rules for accommodating interests with a partner, while the first regards the other as an adversary to be maneuvered into ever weaker positions. In short, a big advantage goes to the side with the fewest illusions about the other and about diplomacy.” Warren Buffet once said that if you don’t know who the patsy in a poker game is after five minutes, you’re the patsy. Similarly, in diplomacy, if you don’t know who the patsy in a diplomatic negotiation is after five minutes, you must be an American.

Codevilla’s next chapter is on economic force. Americans often base their strategy for peace on encouraging economic development, arguing that a certain level of economic progress will encourage foreigners to be more amenable to American interests. A similar fixation on homo economicus leads to the U.S. government imposing sanctions on foreign entities in order to bring them to heel. Codevilla argues that economic measures can be effective: true blockades and sieges can strangle a foreign economy if ruthlessly applied. However, since wealth is fungible and can easily be transformed into other forms, it’s hard to selectively block wealth transfers, especially by dictators. Concentrating sanctions on dictators and their ruling clique is almost impossible. Codevilla points out that this economic fixation of modern American elites confuses means (wealth) with ends (happiness). One can be the path to the other, but the trip is rarely from happiness to wealth. Foreigners will often choose political power over wealth because political power is more likely to command wealth than wealth is to command political power. Codevilla then reviews the tools of economic power: boycott (we will not buy from you), embargo (we will not sell to you), and legal and financial measures (we will sick our lawyers and accountants on you). Codevilla argues that economic measures are only effective if used in combination with other tools of statecraft: economic measures alone usually only signal a fundamental lack of seriousness.

Codevilla’s next chapter is entitled “Wars Are For Winning” and the lead quote is MacArthur’s: “In war there is no substitute for victory”. The second quote is from Charles De Gaulle: “Ils ne sont pas serieux” (“They are not serious”). Echoing Sun-tzu (“Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Tao to survival or extinction”), Codevilla emphasizes the seriousness of war: “Commingling all of statesmanship’s tools, the art of war deals life and death to nations as well as individuals. As men are born and die in pain, so nations are born and die in war.”. Seriousness is the primary measure Codevilla accuses American leaders of ignoring:

[O]ur twentieth century statesmen redefined international affairs in terms of words and concepts that avert the mind’s eye from war. They did so wrongly assuming that peace is mankind’s natural, default state. In fact, there is no such thing as peace simply. Rather there have been, are, and will be as many kinds of peace as willful men establish and keep for themselves—usually over others’ dead bodies. Most instances of peace exist as the result of wars, and only so long as they can be defended by war. So, whenever we come across a state of peace, we should ask, Whose peace is it? Against whose will was it achieved? By what force? Whose force maintains it against contrary versions of peace?
In short, war’s ugliness must not blind us to its function—establishing peace. But whose peace? That’s what wars decide. Because human purposes are usually incompatible, some people get bent whole others to the bending. Hence war is essentially a clash of purposes. Only derivatively is it a clash of arms. Peace and war are two sides of the same human coin. Failing to grasp that makes it impossible to understand the event that ends war and ushers in peace, namely, victory: somebody eliminating the obstacles to his peace. Hence war’s essential discipline is figuring out what peace you want, as well as pointing out the mortal obstacles to that peace. Only in light of that does killing make sense.

In another work, War: Ends and Means, co-written with Paul Seabury, Codevilla put this more bluntly: who do you have to kill to win the peace you want? Codevilla argues that most wars start for reasons in this order: honor, fear, and interest. Most wars don’t break out through the cold calculation of interests:

[M]ore people bet their lives on immaterial considerations than on material ones. Human beings—especially the livelier ones—value primacy, integrity, self-regard, deference, glory, above life itself. Sacrifices for God and country fall into this category. So does revenge. Matters of honor are naturally incommensurable with material interest and can be dealt with only in their own terms.

Codevilla’s next chapter is titled “Use Intelligence, Not Intelligence”, echoing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quip that “Intelligence is not to be confused with intelligence”. Codevilla, who was a Senate staffer dealing with intelligence oversight as one time, doesn’t put a lot of faith in intelligence and intelligence agencies, especially the CIA:

The black arts of intelligence and subversion are so attractive—especially to those who know little about them—because of the truism that knowledge of foreigners’ secrets may let us avoid fights or win them cheaply, and whereas economic force is blunt, diplomacy amounts to asking, and war is hazardous, it can be cheap and effective to put words in the right ears, coins in the right pockets, or bullets in the right heads. But information is useful only insofar as you make intelligent use of it, and even inherently useful knowledge does not craft plans reasonably to succeed, or square your ends with your means. You should think of intelligence as of any other tool of statecraft, from infantry companies to diplomatic demarches: How does this help me to focus America’s power on someone or something that, if overcome, will give us what we need? Above all, no lack of intelligence absolves you from the duty to act on whatever information you may have. As for the stratagems of subversion, the US government is the only one that ever mystified them by assigning them exclusively to an intelligence agency, the CIA.

Codevilla covers the basics of intelligence and subversion. First is collection, whether it be by machine or man. The important thing is to know what you want and what you want to do to get it; this is the guide to what intelligence you want to collect as opposed to waiting for information to come in and shaping what you want and what you want to do. Codevilla puts great emphasis on counter-intelligence:

[D]efending your intelligence consists of pitiless quality control of everything your intelligence service does and thinks, watching for what hostile services know and how they are using that knowledge to affect you. If your intelligence service does quality control well, it may gain the chance offensively to manipulate what the other side thinks its knows. But to the extent quality control fails, your intelligence service will end up hurting your country while making a fool of you.

Codevilla damns the CIA: In the real world, professionals manipulate amateurs—not the other way around. He recognizes the need for analysts but only if they support the policy they’re supporting. Analysts with a contrary agenda will work to undermine instead of support the political leadership selected by the electorate. Codevilla remarks that, “Endowing bureaucrats with power over truth transforms them into mandarins, neuters Presidents, Congresses, and citizens regardless of political leanings, and subverts democracy”. On subversion, Codevilla says:

All operations of politics and war involve mixtures of forthrightness and deception. Subversion means turning parts of foreign bodies politic to your use. But implying that hiding your hand is the key to it hides the essence of subversion: appealing to their hopes, fears, pride, resentments. Thus to co-opt another’s will is also called seduction. Note that nobody has ever been co-opted, seduced, or subverted without his knowledge. Mighty powers that cannot and will not be denied draw others to themselves through hope and fear. Convincing your target that resistance is futile is very subversive. Moreover, though subversive operations themselves may require hiding your relationships for a while, subversion itself results is actions that cannot be secret.

On civil affairs and internal defense, Codevilla’s message is simple: clearly define who your enemies are and crush them. He suggests that torture doesn’t work. He also points out that under earlier versions of the Geneva Conventions that terrorists captured on the battlefield can be summarily executed on the field of battle as francs-tireurs. The Third Geneva Convention of 1949 made the issue more ambiguous:

With the Geneva Conventions, namely Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, francs-tireurs were entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

I recommend Codevilla’s book. It has a certain honesty and absence of illusion about the instruments of statecraft that most modern and American works within the genre lack. Codevilla has a distinct political point of view and he has forty years of axes in past Washington policy battles to grind. These sometimes weigh down the book. A version that focused more intensively on the eternal verities of statecraft might be more useful but the people it might be most useful to are not the sort that would read it anyway. The same might be said of Machiavelli’s Prince (which Codevilla has translated) and his Discourses on Livy. Given 500 years, if Codevilla’s work somehow lasted that long, the machinations of American foreign policy might seem as quaint as the machinations of early sixteenth century Italy international affairs.

Codevilla may underestimate the power of one culture to influence another, even unintentionally and the tendency of cultures to change. This doesn’t mean that Codevilla’s criticism of “soft power”, as described by Joseph Nye, is wrong. It just means that those that believe that broadcasting American rap and R&B into the Middle East may produce results they don’t anticipate. Culture is more fluid than Codevilla allows but its fluidity is more unpredictable than America’s cultural mandarins realize. American ruling elites are especially oblivious to the role of religion in American life and overseas, something which produces even more unpredictable results.


An excellent book to read before Advice to War Presidents is Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 by historian Walter McDougall, published in 1997. Its influence on Codevilla is multi-faceted and subtle but profound. This article that McDougall wrote for Foreign Affairs is a good start.

War and Peace: Ends and Means is also an excellent read. Originally written in 1988, Codevilla revised it and reissued it in 2002. An excellent review of War and Peace: Ends and Means, written by the mighty NerveAgent, can be found here.

Cross-posted on the Committee of Public Safety.

6 thoughts on “Worth Reading: Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft”

  1. Perhaps he’s put his finger on the essence of American exceptionalism. Is the USA the only power in history that has assumed that everyone in the world is a compatriot under their skin?

  2. Very good review. Codevilla also wrote “The Character of Nations” which is an interesting read.Actually anything of his is worthwhile.
    Fred Ikle also wrote “Every War Must End”;either of the two editions is worth reading.

  3. I don’t know why, but this post made me think of our treatment of Britain, an ally with troops in Afghanistan, and the amount of aid to Pakistan (a “key” ally in the war on Terror).

    I said the same on Joshua Foust’s blog (Registan) some time ago, but our foreign policy elites seem to have trouble seeing the world as it is, but to be fair, so do I (and I ain’t no elite), and so do most people, I’d argue. Typical human failing? Ah, dreaded human nature… .

    – Madhu

  4. I think we are prone to think that everyone is an American because, well, anyone could be an American.

    Americans have the weakest since of collective identity of any country on earth. We completely lack any “blood and soil” concept or the idea that all Americans somehow descend from the same bloodline. Instead, our collective identity is purely ideological. People from every culture on earth come here and become full “blooded” (heh, even that term reveals the traditional non-American concept of national identity) Americans. It is often noted that first generation Americans are the most dedicated and patriotic Americans of all.

    It’s a short leap from our reality of universal integration to the assumption that everyone can assimilate and from there to the assumption that just because they don’t actually live in America it doesn’t mean they cannot think like Americans.

    However, diplomacy is usually a matter of dealing with foreign elites and even if a countries cab drivers and farmers might fit into America just fine, it doesn’t follow that the elites will. After all, elites very seldom emigrate. Elites are more interested in maximizing their own power and status within their own societies. They often have radically different outlooks than the man in the street and radically different motivations.

  5. The notion that foreign affairs should be conducted only by professionals is attractive on the surface but leads only to catastrophe. The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” (which is totally inaccurate with respect to the minutiae of diplomatic ceremony, hopelessly bungles the nuances of diplomacy with Islamic powers, defames the bureaucratic brilliance of the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Agricultural Department, the Defense Department, the Homeland Security Department, and many other secret heroes), shows how totally unresponsive foreign policy is to the democratic process.

    When professional diplomats run things, countries usually end up at war with neighboring countries. The US used to be the only country with all its borders being unarmed and unattended. Then we got professionals involved. Now we are antangonizing our neighbors because the professionals tell us our neighbors are antagonizing us. It used to be easy to visit these countries. One could do it by accident. One could have friends across the border and treat them as neighbors. Now professional tell us they are aliens.

  6. Sol Vason,

    When professional diplomats run things, countries usually end up at war with neighboring countries.

    This is because you only need diplomats when there is conflict. All diplomatic institutions have a built-in incentive to generate conflict just short of war. At no time is the power and prestige of diplomats and their institution greater than in the run up to a war. Diplomats therefore gravitate towards provoking conflict so that they can be needed and important.

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