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22 Dec

Easy methods to Get Ahead in Washington: Lessons from

Editor’s Note: That is the second a part of a two-part series. The primary was published yesterday.

This scenario may sound immediately familiar to War on the Rocks readers: within the midst of an animated discussion at a piece function, your interlocutor’s gaze suddenly begins to wander, slowly sweeping across the room, logging faces and names, scanning for somebody potentially more useful to seek advice from. Subtle changes begin to slowly unfold. Your colleague’s expression regularly grows more vacant, their conversational fillers increasingly robotic. After which, within the blink of a watch, they’ve swept with unsuspected grace and celerity across the windowless conference room to greet the tardy assistant secretary. Hovering across the visiting potentiary with a nervous grin, they nod profusely, laugh loudly, and strategically position their body in between the goal of their solicitations and the closest exit. Slowly but surely, a bunch of fellow fawners begin to clot across the hapless guest, who glumly abandons certainly one of the important objects of their visit — the complimentary stale cookies placed near the registration table.

The methods deployed in such an instance could seem hopelessly transparent, but also they are splendidly timeless. In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, the diplomat Federico Fregoso describes such oleaginous displays of naked careerism with bemusement, relating how, in his more sartorially-fixated era, grasping courtiers would immediately latch on to those that seemed more visibly wealthy and powerful,

There are some fools who, even in the event that they are in the corporate of the most effective friend on the planet, upon meeting with someone higher dressed, attach themselves directly to him; after which, in the event that they occur on someone higher dressed, they do the identical again. And if the prince should go through the square, church or another public place, then they elbow their well beyond everyone until they stand beside him; and even in the event that they don’t have anything to say to him, they insist on talking, and pontificate at great length, laughing and clapping their hands to make a show of getting vital business, in order that the group might see they’re in favor.



Equally, there have at all times been compulsive name-droppers, those that pepper every other sentence with a reference to some bigwig they’re supposedly on close — nay — friendly terms with. In these instances, the person in query needs to be simply mentioned by his or her first name — thus reinforcing the sense of casual familiarity and forcing dazed conversation partners to meekly seek confirmation of the illustrious contact’s identity. If just a little little bit of mansplaining and/or general pontificating will be sprinkled into the conversational stew, a lot the higher.

La Bruyère, certainly one of the seventeenth century’s most sensible satirists, famously portrayed such a pedant — whom he called Arrias — in his wildly popular and controversial Caractères — with a biting vignette that’s price quoting here in full:

Arrias has read and seen every part, no less than he would lead you to think so; he’s a person of universal knowledge, or pretends to be, and would fairly tell a falsehood than be silent or appear to disregard anything. Some person is talking at meal-time, in the home of a person of rank, of a northern country; he interrupts and prevents him telling what he knows; he goes hither and thither in that distant state as if he were a native of it; he discourses in regards to the habits of its court, the native women, the laws and customs of the land; he tells many little stories which happened there, thinks them very entertaining and is the primary to laugh loudly at them. Someone presumes to contradict him, and clearly proves to him that what he says is unfaithful. Arrias just isn’t disconcerted; quite the opposite, he grows indignant on the interruption, and exclaims: “I aver and relate nothing but what I do know on excellent authority; I had it from Sethon, the French ambassador at that court, who only a number of days ago got here back to Paris, and is a selected friend of mine; I asked him several questions, and he replied to all of them without concealing anything.” He continues his story with greater confidence than he began it, till certainly one of the corporate informs him that the gentleman whom he has been contradicting was Sethon himself, but currently arrived from his embassy.

We’ve all met Arrias, that fellow who has more of a comment than a matter, or who derives his authoritative insights on complex foreign societies and their atavistic “ancestral hatreds” from deep discussions with local cab drivers. The eerie familiarity of La Bruyère’s character is a invaluable reminder that, whether in17th century Paris or twenty first century Washington, foreign policy establishments are smaller than they appear, and what goes around often comes around.

Indeed, some of the vital character traits for any secretary, innumerable Renaissance and early modern texts argued, was that of discretion. In spite of everything — the very etymology of the word — derived from the Latin secretum (meaning a secluded, hidden place), implied that the secretary’s role, at the beginning, was to be a tight-lipped custodian of state secrets. This natural predilection for discretion, it was emphasized, should ideally extend to each aspect of a high-ranking public servant’s social interactions. Thus, noted Gracián, one should always strive to hide one’s ambitions and control one’s outward display of emotions:

Passions are breaches within the mind. Probably the most practical kind of data is dissimulation; whoever plays their hand openly runs the chance of losing. Let the reserve of caution compete against the scrutiny of the perceptive; against the sharp eyes of the lynx, the ink of the cuttlefish. Don’t let your desires be known in order that they won’t be anticipated, either by opposition or flattery.

Furthermore, he suggested, familiarity often bred contempt. One should avoid confiding in someone one doesn’t fully trust; it was often more judicious to cover the complete measure of 1’s capabilities and bide one’s time, “The circumspect man,” he ventured,

If he desires to be venerated by everyone, should prevent the true depths of his knowledge or his courage being plumbed. He should allow himself to be known, but not fully understood. Nobody should establish the bounds of their abilities, due to the risks of getting their illusions shattered. He should never allow anyone to grab every part about him. Greater veneration is created by conjecture and uncertainty over the extent of our ability than by firm evidence of this, nevertheless vast this will be.

Guicciardini was less bleakly misanthropic in his outlook, but nevertheless stressed the importance of learning easy methods to keep one’s mouth shut, especially when tempted to speak ailing of other people inside one’s skilled network:

It is best to protect yourself against doing anything that may bring you harm but no profit. And so you must never speak ailing of any man, absent or present, unless or not it’s advantageous or vital. For it’s madness to make enemies without reason.

“I remind you of this,” Guicciardini hectors his reader, “because nearly everyone seems to be guilty of this form of levity.” The Florentine fully recognized that making enemies was sometimes simply unavoidable, especially if one was an individual of principle, and that on this world, unless you might be dead, you can not avoid doing things occasionally that may offend someone.” Nevertheless:

If either necessity or contempt induces you to talk ailing of one other, no less than watch out to say things that may offend only him. As an example, if you ought to insult a selected person, don’t speak ailing of his country, his family or his relatives.

On Managing Up and Working for Difficult Individuals 

We’re all fated, all through our careers, to work under a difficult supervisor. She or he could also be erratic, temperamental, or display an inclination to micromanage. They might be emotionally abusive, absent-minded, or overly vulnerable to flattery. Or perhaps they’ve succeeded, in the end, in rising to their level of incompetence. From the tales of baroque dysfunction leaked by disenchanted congressional interns on Dear White Staffers, to the anecdotes furtively shared by wide-eyed young think tank employees nervously clutching at their blissful hour pints, DC’s foreign policy trenches overflow with tales of mercurial senators, eccentric appointees, and megalomaniacal pundits. More grizzled Washingtonians have long learned the importance of “managing up,” and of working to instantly establish a stable and productive working relationship with their hierarchical superior. This issue was also at the guts of many early modern manuals of statecraft, with long-suffering advisors and secretaries readily sharing their insights on the art of providing good counsel under imperfect leadership. After all, the stakes for them were often far higher — thankfully we not should worry about banishment, destitution, summary execution, or posthumous dismemberment.

Gracián characteristically took a somewhat fatalistic approach to the difficulty of managing up, with the sardonic Spaniard advising that one “should get used to the bad temperaments of those you take care of, like getting used to ugly faces.” He then goes on to suggest that that is “particularly advisable in situations of dependency,” before adding,

There are horrible people you may neither live with nor live without. It’s a vital skill, subsequently, to get used to them, as to ugliness, in order you’re not surprised every time their harshness manifests itself. At first they’ll frighten you, but regularly your initial horror will disappear and caution will anticipate or tolerate the unpleasantness.

Signor Ottaviano Fregoso, a former Genoese Doge and a lead interlocutor within the fictionalized dialogue of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, is altogether less blasé. Stressing the moral responsibility of the advisor to steer their wayward or inattentive prince in the suitable direction, Fregoso emphasizes the necessity for tact and finesse — or what he somewhat patronizingly terms “salutary deception,” 

The courtier will give you the chance to guide his prince by the austere path of virtue, adorning it with shady fronds and strewing it with pretty flowers to reduce the tedium of the toilsome journey for one whose strength is slight… beguiling him with salutary deception; like shrewd doctors who often spread the sting of the cup with some sweet cordial once they wish to offer a bitter-tasting medicine to sick and over-delicate children.

Briefly, the patriotic public servant mustn’t hesitate to interact in a certain measure of careful edulcoration if not outright manipulation — particularly if the leader she or he serves is inattentive, inexperienced, or inadequate to the duty at hand. Think, for instance, of the frilly and by now well-documented methods concocted by despondent National Security Council staff of their bids to get former President Trump to listen during his Presidential Day by day Briefs. 

Other writers, nevertheless, were less comfortable with such finespun and gently insinuating efforts. On the contrary, argues Francis Bacon in his Essays, one must avoid sterile sycophancy, and labor to always provide probably the most honest type of counsel — even when meaning voicing unwelcome truths, irritating one’s superior, or momentarily forestalling a well-liked plan of action. “The best truth between man and man,” he solemnly avers, “is the trust of giving counsel,” before noting that,

Things can have their first, or second agitation: in the event that they be not tossed upon the arguments of counsel, they can be tossed upon the waves of fortune; and be stuffed with inconstancy, doings and undoings, just like the reelings of a drunken man.

The important thing, he adds, just isn’t to overthink things — and mentally exhaust oneself by always in search of to place oneself within the advisee’s headspace. “Counselors mustn’t be too speculative into their sovereign’s person,” he thus cautions, “The true composition of a counselor is fairly to be skillful on this master’s business than in his nature; for then he’s wish to advise him, and never feed his humor.” Conversely, he later observes, good decision-makers should remain mindful of the undeniable fact that a lot of their advisors can be overeager to please them, with skilled obsequiousness warping their policy prescriptions. Thus, a very good king, when presiding over a council meeting, should initially hold his cards near his chest, and let conversations between his lead advisors flow freely, taking care to not “open his inclination an excessive amount of, in that which he propoundeth; for else counselors will but take the wind of him, and as a substitute of giving him free counsel, sing him a song of placebo.”

On Knowing When to Retire

And what happens when counselors and ministers get too comfortably entrenched in government? Once they begin to bloviate on issues on which they’ve little to no expertise, or gluttonously accumulate too many portfolios that mix great prestige with frustratingly nebulous boundaries? As world-weary operatives have long acknowledged, we’re all susceptible to skilled hubris, of overstaying our welcome and never knowing when to retire, and of thereby tarnishing our own legacy. Gracián thus bluntly warns his readers,

Don’t loaf around to be a setting sun. The sensible person’s maxim: abandon things before they abandon you. Know easy methods to turn an ending right into a triumph…  Someone sharp retires a racehorse at the suitable time, not waiting until everyone laughs when it falls in mid-race.

Unfortunately, nevertheless, our own susceptibility to blandishments and lack of self-awareness tends to work against us. Over the course of an extended and distinguished profession, vernal confidence slowly calcifies into senescent self-satisfaction. And under the moist, palliative warmth of public approbation the accuracy of 1’s perceptions of 1’s own capabilities can easily begin to molder and crumble. As La Rochefoucauld noted, all too ceaselessly,

We’re elevated to a rank and dignity above ourselves. We are sometimes engaged in a latest career for which nature has not adapted us. All these conditions have each an air which belong to them, but which doesn’t at all times agree with our natural manner. This alteration of fortune often changes our air and our manner, and augments the air of dignity, which is at all times false when it is just too marked, and when it just isn’t united and amalgamated with that which nature has given us.

Some writers, corresponding to the supremely capable Philippe de Béthune, who enjoyed an unusually long and distinguished profession as a diplomat under three successive French rulers  — Henri IV, Marie de Medici, and Louis XIII  — suggested that as a matter of national policy, higher levels of administration needs to be age diverse. Older, more experienced ministers would thus help temper the ardor and callowness of younger royal council members, while the latter would keep their “colder and slower” older colleagues on their toes and stop them from slipping into sleepy self-satisfaction. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Youth and Age” largely got here to the identical conclusion, observing that ideally one should “compound employments of each(younger and more senior officials), “since the virtues of either age may correct the defects of each.” In a characteristically eloquent passage, the Jacobean statesman observed that,

Young men, within the conduct and management of actions, embrace greater than they will hold; stir greater than they will quiet; fly to the tip, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they’ve chanced upon absurdly; care to not innovate, which attracts unknown conveniences; use extreme remedies at first, and, that which doubleth all error, won’t acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that may neither stop nor turn. Men of age object an excessive amount of, seek the advice of too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and rarely drive business home to the complete period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.

These observations and staffing proposals failed to deal with, nevertheless, the more fundamental underlying issue La Rochefoucauld alluded to — the ubiquity of what we now term the Peter Principle — i.e. the undeniable fact that individuals are inclined to get promoted to a level of “respective incompetence.” Furthermore, as revered Roman historians corresponding to Tacitus had long contended, power and prominence not only corrupts, it also liberates and exposes — unveiling and unleashing previously recessed character traits. Thus, lamented Ottaviano Fregoso,

The office shows the person: for just as vases which are cracked cannot readily be detected as long as they’re empty, yet if liquid be put into them, show directly just where the defect lies — in like manner corrupt and depraved minds rarely disclose their defects save once they are crammed with authority; because they’re unable to bear the heavy weight of power, and so crumple and pour out on every side greed, pride, wrath, insolence, and people tyrannical practices which they’ve inside them.

On Not Losing One’s Sense of Self

How, then, could one be certain that one rose within the service of 1’s country without succumbing to hubris, vanity, or one’s own rank ineptitude? Primarily, argued Montaigne, by engaging in an effort of continuous introspection and ruthless self-assessment. All too often, he observed, he had witnessed talented, idealistic individuals be irredeemably transformed over the course of their ascension, unable to recall the “distinction between the symbols and the office, and the unusual man who fills it.” The earthy essayist and politician quipped that he had thus seen,

Some who transform and transubstantiate themselves into as many shapes and latest beings as they undertake jobs, who carry their honored condition with them to the very privy… and who swell and puff up their souls, together with their natural way of speaking.

One should remind oneself of 1’s humbler beginnings, he advised, avoid completely losing oneself in a single’s work, and proceed to cultivate many sources of ethical and mental influence. Attempt to be more like Brutus, he offered, who, Plutarch tells us, took time to work on a study of Polybius on the eve of the battle of Philippi. This bout of intense inner reflection may not have helped him avert his tragic fate, nevertheless it did showcase his mental and moral price for posterity. For less than little souls, buried under the burden of affairs,” didn’t know easy methods to occasionally detach themselves from the current to look beyond the pinched horizons of their very own each day existence. Engaging with the timeless great thing about art and literature helped nurture empathy and nourished the soul, while studying the teachings of history helped foster humility, put the mundane humdrum of the current into perspective, and honed political judgment. In the course of the difficult period of his exile from Florence, a disgraced Machiavelli — who was himself eager to reenter public life — had famously described how he found a measure of comfort in the corporate of great poets, authors, and historians from bygone eras,

On the approaching of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and on the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dirt, and placed on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the traditional courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I used to be born for, where I’m not ashamed to talk with them and to ask them the explanation for his or her actions; and so they of their kindness answer me; and for 4 hours of time I don’t feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I don’t dread poverty, I’m not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

Writing a half-century later, Montaigne could only approve of this ritualistic act of silent communion. Indeed, in some of the famous and stirring passages of the Essays, he remarks that each human being, no matter his or her responsibilities and/or station in life, should seek to preserve for themselves “a backshop” of the soul, “wholly our own and completely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.” Self-reflection, he was convinced, could exert a welcome restraining effect on one’s petty ambitions, allowing one to slowly reacquaint oneself with what made a life spent in government genuinely meaningful and worthwhile: the quiet dignity of public service, the uplifting grandeur of civic patriotism, the healthful pride tied to enacting positive change. In spite of everything, he added, greatness of the soul is “not a lot in pressing upward and forward as knowing easy methods to govern and circumscribe oneself.” 

Despite its gallery of slimy sycophants and haughty hypocrites, and notwithstanding its winding maze of ethical snares and private hazards, there remained a significant, even noble, aspect to entering government service. As Montaigne’s mental fellow traveler and shut friend, the theologian Pierre Charron stated, renouncing all participation in public life through a bloated sense of high-mindedness was simply one other type of pridefulness parading as virtue, which deserved, subsequently, to be “rigorously condemned.”

To flee the world and conceal oneself, for whatever private or individual motive, while we’ve the means to profit one other person, and aid the general public, is to change into a deserter, to bury one’s talent, to cover one’s light. 

As a substitute, with a stoic measure of self-discipline, one must repeatedly remind oneself of 1’s mental limitations and moral imperfections, and of the necessity for continuous self-improvement. “We should know easy methods to distinguish and separate ourselves from our public charges,” he urged, echoing his friend from Bordeaux, before reminding his readers that,

The skillful man will perform his office well but always remember to evaluate clearly the folly, the vice, the knavishness he finds there. He’ll exercise his charge because that is the practice in his country; it is beneficial to the general public and will also be to himself; that is the best way the world runs and he should do nothing to wreck it. One must make use and avail oneself of the world as one finds it; but nevertheless consider it a thing alien to oneself, know easy methods to enjoy oneself aside from it, commune confidently with one’s own inner goodness, and on the worst walk by oneself.

Pierre Charron, like all the opposite weathered policymakers cited on this essay, was under no illusions as to the difficulties tied to such a fragile internal balancing act. Nevertheless, he and his counterparts in early modern England, France, Italy, and Spain all deemed it vital to place their detailed recommendations in writing, not just for the good thing about their contemporaries in government, but in addition for that of their successors. Their vibrant discussions of the ethics and challenges of working in policy are usually not just deeply soulful — also they are often mordantly witty and surprisingly relevant.

 So next time you might be browsing through a second-hand bookstore, feeling downcast after probably the most recent bout of bureaucratic wrangling or skilled backstabbing, veer away from the self-help and business psychology aisles, with their brazen lettering, blunt recommendations, and catchy titles. As a substitute, pick up a musty, dog-eared copy of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, Montaigne’s Essays, or Baltasar Gracián’s Art of Wordly Wisdom. In spite of everything, as Harry Truman famously said after departing the “great white jail” of the White House, “the one thing latest on the planet is the history you don’t know.” 



Iskander Rehman is an Ax:son Johnson Fellow on the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, and the Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies on the American Foreign Policy Council. He’s a contributing editor at War on the Rocks and will be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman .

Image: It is a faithful photographic reproduction of Andrea Mantegna’s Court of Gonzaga, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

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