Career diplomat reflects, emphasizes complexity of statecraft

Bosworth speaking LOGO

Warning against the “dangers of excessive hubris,” former U.S. Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth emphasized the intricacies and complexity of creating American foreign policy and called for the government to exercise greater restraint and better understand the countries it engages with.

The veteran diplomat and visiting lecturer at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies called for the United States to exercise greater self-restraint and better understand the history and current circumstances of countries it engages with. 

“The making of U.S. policy is inherently a very, very difficult enterprise,” said Bosworth, positioned at Stanford for winter quarter.

“The issues tend to be complex, and they frequently pose moral as well as political choices,” he said. “I found that perfection is usually the enemy of the good in the making of foreign policy and is, for the most part, unattainable.”

Foreign policy can be ambiguous and difficult at times; it is a process that can be compared to gardening because “you have to keep tending to it regularly,” Bosworth said, referencing former Secretary of State George Shultz’s well-known analogy.

Bosworth, who served for five decades in the U.S. government and for 12 years as dean of Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, delivered these thoughts in the first of three public seminars this quarter. He is the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer in residence at FSI’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC).

He cautioned against America’s tendency to revert to military power when crisis occurs. “I believe that when at all possible, we need to choose diplomacy over force,” Bosworth asserted, “although it is sometimes true that diplomacy backed by potential force can be more effective.” 

Citing Afghanistan, Iraq and Southwest Asia, Bosworth noted these among other examples as situations of excessive power projected by the American foreign policy arm. In some cases, pride may have gotten the better of policymakers who sometimes “want to be seen as doers and solvers.”

Bosworth pointed out that the nature of our actions speaks loudly – both at home and abroad – thus sensitivity and sincerity are important in any international exchange.

Since the Vietnam War, American values and the push for democracy are not always well received by other countries. And there’s often good reason for that, he said.

“It is awkward for the U.S. to campaign for more democracy elsewhere when our own model seems to have increasing difficulty in producing reasonable solutions for our own problems,” he said.

Democracy is “not a cure-all” for every nation and this is reflected in the amended model adopted by countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Burma. However, Bosworth said he remains confident that the American democratic system “will prevail and eventually work better than it seems to be working now.”

Bosworth will explore the challenges of maturing democracies in Japan and South Korea and negotiations and management of relations with North Korea in his two other Payne lectures. The Payne Lectureship brings prominent speakers to campus for their global reputation as visionary leaders, a practical grasp of a given field, and the capacity to articulate important perspectives on today’s global challenges.

Bosworth entered the Foreign Service in 1961, a difficult yet “exciting time to join the government,” he said.

“At the age of 21, I was the youngest person entering my class,” he said, “and of the 38 people, there were only two women…and were zero persons of color and only a handful who were not products of an Ivy League education.” The State Department of then is very different compared to the one that exists today; this signals positive, necessary change in the diplomatic corps.

Bosworth, having served three tours as a U.S. ambassador in South Korea (from 1997 to 2001); the Philippines (from 1984 to 1987); and Tunisia (from 1979 to 1981) and twice received the State Department’s Distinguished Service Award (in 1976 and 1986), has a long established career.

He brings great wisdom on foreign affairs given his extensive engagement as a practitioner and a writer, said former colleague and Shorenstein APARC distinguished fellow Michael H. Armacost.

“To say that Steve has had an extraordinarily distinguished career in the Foreign Service doesn't quite capture the range of his accomplishments, I can’t think of very many Foreign Service officers in this or any other generation that have left a footprint on big issues in three consecutive decades,” Armacost acknowledged. 

During his time at Stanford, Bosworth will hold seminars and mentor students who may be interested in pursuing a career in the Foreign Service, in addition to the two upcoming public talks.

A student seeking this very advice posed a question in the discussion portion following Bosworth’s talk.

Speaking to anyone considering a Foreign Service career, Bosworth said one must “think about it hard, and think again.” He said public service is a privilege, not so much a sacrifice as the typical notion holds. “It can be a great career as long as you have the right perspective on it,” he ended.