New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Engagement and Storytelling in Nonproliferation Diplomacy


Below appear the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered at DACOR Bacon House in Washington, D.C., on January 10, 2020.  They may also be found on the website of the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and thanks for the chance to speak with you.  Officials in my line of work frequently speak to audiences about particular policy initiatives or agenda items, but — in my experience, at least — they seldom try to engage on the topic of how they see the basic nature of their craft.

As many of you here are fellow diplomats, therefore, I hope you’ll indulge me while I say a few words about diplomatic engagement in its most basic sense, and how I understand our own work at the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation through this prism.  So let’s pivot away, for a moment, from my usual topics of weapons of mass destruction, delivery systems, and advanced conventional weapons, to explore an important aspect of diplomacy that is sometimes not well understood as such, but which we can perhaps accomplish more effectively if we understand it in such terms.

Don’t worry; I’m not proposing to take you down some theoretical rabbit hole about the “nature” or “essence” of diplomacy – such as whether that understanding lies in more traditional, formal notions revolving around nation-states’ exchange of accredited envoys, or in more general conceptions involving (as James der Derian would have it) any “mediation between estranged individuals, groups, or entities” by means of “symbolic power and social constraints.”  But I would like to say a word, from the perspective of my own work in nonproliferation, about diplomacy as “storytelling.” As I see it, much of our work as diplomats is storytelling for a purpose – that of protecting and advancing the interests of those whom we represent – which we pursue by crafting, deploying, and conveying narratives about how the world is, how it should be, and how we or others are approaching (or should approach) its various challenges.

Stories and Storytellers

Humans, as I see it, are storytelling animals.  Stories are central to our sense of self, how we orient ourselves in the world, and how we organize and pass along knowledge to others.  Stories anchor our sense of shared identity — as a group of people, for example, who feel themselves to share a common nationhood, or who collectively partake in some other vision of what the sociologist Benedict Anderson once so memorably described as “imagined community.”  They help us define who we are and ascribe meaning to the circumstantial flow of our lives.

Indeed, I’d wager that we are in some sense “hardwired” by our evolved biology to be storytellers.  Perhaps this is a result of the benefits storytelling can provide as a vehicle for collecting and transmitting the cumulative survival value of human learning.  Or perhaps it’s simply because in human prehistory, it was safer instinctively to ascribe agency and intentionality to the world around us — that is, to tell stories about it — even where there was no real reason to do so, than it was to await more evidence.  (Is that rustle behind me merely a twig falling, or is a predator trying to sneak up on me? It’s presumably more adaptive to run needlessly a hundred times than not to run even once when you need to!)

Either way, storytelling seems to be baked into us as sentient, social animals, and indeed as politicalanimals in the Aristotelian sense.  The stories we tell each other and ourselves — stories about who we are, about what is valuable or appalling, about what our respective roles are vis-à-vis our fellow humans, and about how various salient aspects of the world work — are the constituent material of our conceptual environment and how we orient ourselves within it.

To borrow the term from Richard Dawkins, one might even say that whereas chromosomes house the genes that make us “us” in a biological sense, stories house the memes that make us ourselves socially and psychologically.  They are the vehicles of meaning — the building blocks of our socio-political environment, and scarcely less “real” for us, as Aristotelean animals, than the physical building blocks employed by engineers and architects.  Humans living in a social and political community organize this community and structure actions within it according to such stories, which lets us understand policymaking as being, in effect, a game of memetic engineering.

Diplomacy and Narrative

All of which brings us to the importance of diplomacy.  In an important sense, diplomats are professional storytellers, and perhaps the preeminent ones in modern governance.  As our capacity-building work with foreign partners on things as diverse as building new water wells or installing export control portal monitoring equipment illustrates, diplomats are no strangers to the production of concrete, “facts on the ground” change.  Nevertheless, the most basic tools of our trade are not thingsbut rather stories, which we both consume and produce in great abundance.

Human culture is a patchwork of stories, which we remember, mine for relevance, and recombine endlessly; they are our most compelling persuasive tools, both in dealing with others and in understanding ourselves.  Because the stories that participants in global affairs tell themselves and each other — stories about what is happening, why this is occurring, and what should be done about it — are, in a sense, constitutive of international politics, purposefully affecting the course of events requires being a persuasive storyteller.  That is the diplomat’s job.

If you want to change the world, in other words, it is not enough simply to be a policy wonk who knows “the right answer.”  That answer must be evangelized and explained. It must be defended against rival answers. And one’s interlocutors must be led to see its merit.  That’s what we, as diplomats, try to do — and that’s why we burn through airline tickets and hotel rooms in foreign capitals like an infantry division burns through bullets and petrol.  International persuasion is to a great extent, and inescapably, a face-to-face game.

Of course, a diplomat’s job is often to articulate and defend the policies of his employer irrespective of their merit, giving rise to the famous double-entendre wisecrack made in 1604 by the English diplomat Henry Wotten, who said that a diplomat is an honest man sent to “lie abroad” for the good of his country.  Nevertheless, in its highest form, diplomacy can and should be about getting, if not precisely to philosophical truth, then at least to international answers that are “truer” than before — in the sense that they are more soundly grounded in a realistic understanding of how the world works, more adaptive in the face of real-world circumstances, more able to produce substantively desirable outcomes, and more able to address collective threats and challenges.

Nonproliferation and Disarmament Diplomacy

All of this helps explain why those of us in the multilateral diplomacy business spend so much time worrying about the “mere words” contained in texts such as the final document of a treaty review conference, a resolution at the UN General Assembly or the IAEA Board of Governors, a joint statement by the G-7 Nonproliferation Directors Group or a U.N. Group of Governmental Experts, or any other of the many agreed documents that regularly emerge from various conferences and convocations.  On one level, it is true that such things are “just pieces of paper.” But I hope you can see by now that saying this misses a great deal.

Joint statements are joint stories about the world that help their articulators (and others) understand the world, orient themselves within it, and decide what to do in light of that understanding.  They are “mere words,” perhaps, but words can be powerful things for sentient, social animals who need them to provide such structure, meaning, and direction. Words can have consequences in either promoting or discouraging wise policy choices, and this is why we fight over them so much.

For this reason, much of the “action” in multilateral fora revolves around contestation of how to characterize common problems and voice what is desirable in their solution.  To the degree that participants have different views, each will try to nudge collective articulations in its own preferred direction, and this is where much of the diplomatic drama occurs.

Because consensus agreement upon such documents is often required, but the recurring fora which produce them give rise to iterated games in which players re-converge periodically to articulate things anew, much of the “play” consists first of persuading your counterparties to accept subtly shaded nuances of seemingly non-controversial movement in your direction, and then of locking these changes into next year’s base text as progress that is “already agreed” and thus must not thereafter be touched.  If you’re a skillful and tenacious multilateral negotiator — or if the other side is lazy or sloppy — you can turn these dynamics into a one-way ratchet that moves slowly and steadily in your preferred direction.

Needless to say, this doesn’t work all the time, because while you are trying to do this to the other side, they’re also trying to do it to you.  But the shrewd multilateral diplomat is keenly aware of these games, and is willing to spend a great deal of time and effort playing rhetorical and conceptual “whack-a-mole” with his counterparts.

Don’t mistake such jousting as “wasting time on trivialities,” however.  Contestation over how to write the collective stories that help structure future diplomatic choices is very important.  Unwise compromises or confused approaches will create precedents and partner expectations that can haunt an incautious diplomat’s country for years or decades, and make the pursuit of sound national security and foreign policies much harder than they should be.  And indeed, many a U.S. negotiator has been boxed in like this over the years in my area of diplomacy, having been seduced into accepting a seemingly modest rhetorical compromise that appears to solve his short-term negotiating problem but which creates real, long-term trouble for all who come thereafter.  (My advice to you: don’t do this! Intellectual and conceptual terrain is worth fighting for, figuratively speaking, and sometimes maybe even worth dying for.)

Even leaving aside the particular drafting games of multilateral document negotiation, a narrative-focused, “storytelling” understanding of diplomacy highlights how important it is to have a degree of engagement even — or perhaps especially — with those narratives that one finds most wrongheaded, problematic, foolish, or even dangerous.  In our work in the so-called “T” family of bureaus at the State Department, for instance, we work hard to engage with those who find U.S. nuclear weapons and disarmament policy disagreeable, and we engage with the issues such persons advance and contentions they espouse, not despite but precisely because of that disagreement.  We engage as thoughtfully as we can even with what we regard as deeply unwise and unsound disarmament narratives in order both to demonstrate why we disagree and to promote what we understand to be truer and sounder accounts of how to deal with common problems.

This is not because we necessarily expect that our interlocutors in the disarmament community will suddenly see the light and join us in developing and implementing the measures we understand will be most useful in solving or at least helping manage the world’s weapons of mass destruction problems — though you never know!  More realistically, even short of such a happy conversion, thoughtful engagement is valuable for several reasons.

It can, for instance, help define and bound the collective problem set by making clear which points of apparent disagreement are truly irreconcilable and which stem merely from some kind of misunderstanding.  It is also sometimes — though certainly not always — possible to find constructive compromise positions that do not betray the fundamental values of either side. Additionally, the Darwinian environment of policy engagement often helps us understand and advance our ownnarratives more effectively, honing their persuasiveness in the fire of contestation against the most persuasive narratives our counterparts can offer.

Engagement is also valuable because third parties are sometimes open to persuasion even when zealous “true believers” are not, and, frankly, because we want history to judge us well for having tried to advance sound and sensible approaches even when no one else was listening.  Finally, engagement is often preferable to non-engagement simply because implacable dismissiveness on one issue can sometimes impede finding constructive common ground in other areas, as well as because failing to engage with a wrongheaded narrative — even if out of an understandable and high-minded desire not to dignify foolishness by seeming to take it seriously — can sometimes have the result of allowing it to occupy uncontested intellectual terrain and ossify into a pernicious conventional wisdom that will later be very hard to dislodge.

Many of these reasons apply equally strongly in private diplomacy as they do in outward-facing public diplomacy.  And although the quiet engagements of bilateral diplomacy can be incredibly valuable — since many problems can be more constructively resolved in private, without the added political valences that can accompany open discourse — it is also important to do a good deal of our diplomatic “memetic engineering” work in public and on the record.  As we diplomats work to sculpt and nudge collective public narratives into more constructive and rewarding directions, our audience most definitely must not be limited simply to accredited foreign counterparts.  We must also engage with competing storylines “in the open,” in the hurly-burly of narrative contestation among non-governmental organizations, civil society, political institutions, the academy, and the media.  If you can’t explain and defend your views openly and clearly, others will assume you cannot do so at all — and you’ll have failed.


So that’s a broad outline of how I see the craft of diplomacy as it applies through the lens of nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy.  You can see practical applications of this philosophy, I would argue, throughout ISN’s work.

Perhaps nowhere is this emphasis more obvious than in our new, multilateral “Creating and Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) initiative — and its associated working group, which held two meetings last year, in July and November.  This initiative is animated by our strong belief in the value of thoughtful diplomatic engagement in search of realistic answers to problems that defy easy solution and have traditionally called forth all too many unreflective responses. In our first meeting we asked everyone to set aside their well-worn stories — the canned talking points that diplomats rely on — and explore the problem together.  By all accounts, participants welcomed the opportunity for a deeper and more honest conversation, and I am hopeful that together we will begin to write a new story of how we began to tackle these problems together. But these ideas are broader ones, with applicability across the nonproliferation and disarmament arena and beyond.

Anyway, I hope these musings have provided you with some useful food for thought in your own work, whether that be as diplomats or otherwise.  I look forward to hearing your own thoughts and discussing all this further with you.

Thank you!

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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