Sabermetrics for diplomacy

State Department Photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks on as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani shake hands after their trilateral meeting in Brussels, Belgium, on April 24, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The diplomats’ dialogue dependency trap leads them to see possibilities where there may be none.

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  • To paraphrase Woody Allen, showing up isn’t 90 percent of diplomacy.

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James Traub has a piece at Foreign Policy on John Kerry’s frenetic first two months as secretary of state: 18 countries in 31 days abroad. This “one-man show,” as Traub labels it, is commendable for being the only sustained diplomatic engagement being pursued by the Obama administration, especially given that there are a number of vacancies in assistant-secretary positions, the ones that usually carry out regular negotiations. Traub quotes former undersecretary Nicholas Burns as approving of Kerry’s hands-on approach, and says that “you can’t hit if you don’t swing.”

Traub, and maybe Kerry, need to read Moneyball (or at least watch the movie on one of those endless flights to foreign destinations). If we treat diplomacy like baseball, then let’s apply some sabermetrics, too. Value to the team (in this case, America) doesn’t lie in the number of swings you take, but how often you get on base and score (or prevent others from doing so).

Measured by that metric, Hillary Clinton was wildly overpaid as secretary of state. She visited 112 countries and traveled nearly 1 million miles. But how many times did she get on base or prevent runs by the other team? The Russia reset collapsed, Syria consumed itself, the Arab Spring turned sour, Iran marched towards a nuke, China provided no help on anything, North Korea went ballistic and nuclear again, etc. Clinton made plenty of plate appearances and took plenty of swings, but as far as her OBP or Total Player Rating goes, Clinton looks less impressive. 

The same will happen to Kerry, if all he cares about is swinging. Taking a walk, remember, is often a better way to get in scoring position than swinging for the fences. That particularly applies to opposing teams like the Pyongyang Predators and the Tehran Terrors, well known for their spitballs. The Beijing Brawlers have perfected their brushback pitch, and the Moscow Maulers throw curveballs and then protest the umpire’s call. If Kerry really knew the opposing pitchers, he might be content to sit back and watch from the dugout for a few innings, instead of wildly swinging at every pitch, as he did in calling for Beijing to step up and put real pressure on North Korea, or in brokering the “rapprochement” (as Traub calls it) between the Istanbul Instigators and the Jerusalem Jetsetters.

All joshing aside, the diplomats’ dialogue dependency trap leads them to see possibilities where there may be none. Insiders whose job it is to negotiate obviously see that as the only metric that matters, so those on the outside have to be the scorekeepers and hold them accountable for the end results of their efforts. To paraphrase Woody Allen, showing up isn’t 90 percent of diplomacy. Knowing when to hold back may be a better strategy. 

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