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Meeting her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton famously presented him with a red, plastic “reset” button. “We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together,” she explained, adding, “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” “You got it wrong,” Lavrov responded.
The problem, in hindsight, was less a botched translation than it was a misunderstanding of the Russian mind. Like too many presidents and secretaries of state before them, President Obama and Secretary Clinton assumed that the problems hampering relations lay more with their predecessors than with America’s adversaries. Obama and Clinton were more willing to blame President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for what Obama caricatured as knee-jerk hostility to diplomacy with Russia than President Vladimir Putin himself. Putin took full advantage of this mistake.
Obama has made diplomacy with adversaries a cornerstone of his foreign policy. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them . . . is ridiculous,” he declared in July 2007, soon after launching his presidential campaign, promising that, if elected, he would sit down with any adversary that was willing. As secretary of state, Clinton embraced the same philosophy. “You don’t make peace with your friends. You have to be willing to engage with your enemies,” she explained.
Many Republicans agreed. Former Secretary of State James Baker dismissed criticism from some Republican circles that America sacrificed its principles when it engaged enemies. Citing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s World War II cooperation with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he declared, “Talking to hostile states . . . is not appeasement. It is good foreign policy.” Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, agreed. “We ought to have enough confidence in our ability as diplomats to go eye to eye with people—even though we disagree in the strongest possible way—and come away without losing anything.” Nicholas Burns, a top diplomat during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, agreed too. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” he told a 2009 Senate hearing examining Obama’s diplomatic outreach.
The idea that diplomacy with rogue regimes is cost-free is a relatively new idea, one that may sound good in the abstract but is less durable in reality. Policymakers often advocate diplomacy with rogue rulers and even terrorist groups because other options seem unattractive. As our recent experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, war extracts a tremendous price not only in terms of blood and treasure but in terms of national morale as well. The American public is exhausted by these conflicts and wondering if their price was worth paying.
In such a situation, grasping at sanctions is perhaps understandable as well, particularly when more war seems to be the only alternative, but they are hardly a sure thing. Few dictators care about the discomfort of their citizenry. Saddam Hussein may have charged that half a million children were dead because of sanctions—revealed as a vulgar propaganda claim by the liberation of Iraq—but in fact he cared little about the deprivations sanctions caused the Iraqi people. Even when effective—against apartheid-era South Africa, for instance—sanctions are at best slow. When they are too narrow, targeting only a handful of individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear program, for example, or Russian businessmen benefiting from Putin’s kleptocracy, they are ineffective. To sanction two dozen individuals in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation in Animal House—a response that mostly just makes those imposing it feel good. Just because military and economic coercion come at a high price does not mean diplomacy is a panacea. While diplomacy with Brussels or Burundi or Brunei (i.e., the kind of partners who uphold the norms of diplomacy) might be the bread-and-butter of statecraft, talking to rogues is different.
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