What Benjamin Franklin Can Teach Us About Foreign Policy gnewsplus24


Benjamin Franklin was America’s first diplomat and undoubtedly its best. Yes, there have been other stalwarts, such as George Kennan and Richard Holbrooke (a former editor of this magazine). But they would never have excelled without Franklin—indeed, without his unique brand of statecraft, there would be no United States.

The book cover for Ben and Me by Eric Weiner

This article is adapted from Ben & Me: In Search of a Founder’s Formula for a Long and Useful Life by Eric Weiner (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $29.99, June 2024).

Franklin is perhaps best known for securing French support for the American cause during the Revolutionary War, but he accomplished much more than that. He was a printer, publisher, scientist, inventor, legislator, memoirist, and postmaster. Notably, he was the only person who signed all four documents leading to the founding of the United States.

Franklin the Diplomat borrowed from Franklin the Scientist. His major contribution to the field of electricity was the discovery of the principle of conservation of charge. What scientists had previously believed were two distinct types of electricity, Franklin proved was actually one. On the diplomatic front, he saw unity everywhere and, where it didn’t exist, aimed to create it.

Today’s U.S. envoys and policymakers would be wise to revisit Franklin and his diplomatic style. Technologies advance and alliances shift, but the fundamentals of diplomacy and human nature remain the same. As Washington faces mounting foreign-policy challenges, from brokering peace in Gaza to managing its knotty relationship with China, there is still much to learn from America’s first diplomat.


Franklin’s greatest diplomatic magic trick came during the 1782-83 peace negotiations with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War. He projected parallel realities, one for Britain and the other for France, all while pursuing U.S. interests. To the British, he hinted that the United States might be willing to desert its ally, France, and make a separate peace with London; to the French, he insisted their alliance was indestructible. It worked. The United States acquired more land—as far west as the Mississippi—than Franklin or his fellow negotiators imagined possible.

This moment of success displays Franklin’s great diplomatic dexterity. He refused to be put in a box. He was both realist and idealist, bold and cautious. He always managed to locate the intersection of America’s interests and those of its allies—and even its enemies. “Love your enemies,” he once said, “for they tell you your faults.” Although he valued alliances, he always kept his options open. He didn’t let the U.S. alliance with France prevent him from vigorously pursuing U.S. territorial aims and reconciliation with Britain.

Franklin leveraged even the puniest of assets. He worked with what he had. In France, that wasn’t much. There was no U.S. Embassy or staff awaiting his arrival in 1776. He had to invent the U.S. Foreign Service from scratch, and in secrecy, since the French had yet to sign an alliance with the young United States. The United States did not yet have a national emblem, so he sent official documents with his personal seal. The embassy had no printing press, so he set one up, churning out U.S. passports, legal documents, and invitations to embassy receptions.

Although Franklin may have had little in the way of material resources, he had a large diplomatic toolkit at his disposal, skills acquired over a lifetime spent navigating fraught relationships. Franklin jettisoned definitive words, such as “certainly” and “undoubtedly,” and instead deployed more measured phrases, such as “I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so.” Sometimes he leaned on the power of the long, uncomfortable silence to make a point. Franklin would no doubt chafe at the bombast of a Benjamin Netanyahu or a Donald Trump.

Franklin always knew his audience and could slip in and out of roles fluently. In London, he played the part of the English gentleman. In France, donning a marten fur cap on his wigless head, he adopted the role of the backwoodsman philosopher, dispensing witticisms in fractured French.

Crucially, Franklin had the ultimate soft power at his disposal: fame. The French adored Franklin. His image was everywhere. As he told his sister Jane, “My face is now almost as well known as that of the moon.” This notoriety delighted Franklin but irked his fellow U.S. diplomats. John Adams moaned about “a scene of continual dissipation” that permeated Franklin’s daily routine: late nights spent drinking Madeira, playing chess, and flirting unabashedly with his female admirers. Adams failed to grasp that Franklin’s social and diplomatic lives were of a piece. He was meeting the French on their own terms. What his prudish colleagues saw as indulgence and depravity, Franklin saw as gentle persuasion.

The United States, now a superpower, has largely lost this soft touch. The decision in 1999 to shutter the U.S. Information Agency, which was devoted to carrying out U.S. public diplomacy, would surely befuddle Franklin. One of the main aims of U.S. foreign policy, he thought, was winning hearts and minds abroad. Why jettison the one agency devoted to dispersing information that was essential to that task?

Franklin’s diplomatic arsenal also included large caches of empathy and humility. When posted to France, he saw the world through French eyes, understood their desires and fears. For instance, he timed his requests for aid not to the U.S. timetable but to that of the French budgetary system. Franklin, observed one historian, “had the common sense not to annoy the French.” Yet today, in some quarters at least, annoying U.S. allies is seen as a badge of honor. Former U.S. President Donald Trump, for instance, has often chided some European NATO members for not contributing enough to the organization, while the Biden administration famously snubbed France by signing a backroom deal with Australia and the United Kingdom to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

Franklin reminded the French that a huge new market awaited them in North America if the Continental Army proved victorious, but he knew self-interest alone was rarely enough to sway people. He made other, more high-minded appeals, best articulated in a letter to his friend Samuel Cooper. “‘Tis a common observation here, that our cause is the cause of all mankind; and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”

By tactfully soliciting French support, Franklin deployed a quirk of human nature now known as the Ben Franklin Effect. Simply put: We don’t like people who are nice to us; we like people to whom we are nice. It sounds counterintuitive, but recent studies confirm that a surefire way to endear yourself to someone is to ask for a favor.

Washington would be wise to deploy the Ben Franklin Effect in its foreign policy today. Instead of lording over less developed nations, why not ask them to do a favor, however small, for the world’s most powerful nation? Why not ask Kazakhstan, for instance, to use whatever leverage it has with Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for the release of U.S. prisoners in Russia?

Gratitude also played a role in Franklin’s worldview. Unlike his fellow American envoys, Franklin thanked the French every chance he had. “Such an expression of gratitude is not only our duty but our interest,” he said. Franklin’s philosophy of gratitude paid off; even after the war, France continued to loan large sums to the United States.

Perhaps the most potent tool in Franklin’s diplomatic kit was humor. Lord Stormont, Britain’s ambassador to France, frequently schemed to undermine Franklin’s reputation and cast doubts on the prowess of the U.S. army. At one point, rumors circulated that six battalions of the Continental Army had surrendered. Asked if these reports were true, Franklin replied, “No, it is only a Stormont.” The gibe stuck, and soon a new word reverberated across French high society: stormonter, “to tell a falsehood.”

Franklin would encourage today’s U.S. diplomats to add strategic humor to their arsenal. Humor, of course, won’t end the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Nor will it magically improve U.S. relations with China. But it represents the sort of personal diplomacy that, employed wisely, can open doors and change minds.


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