Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.

Big Sticks are Nice, But Don’t Forget that Soft Talking Is Required, Too.

Ed. note: I have been finishing my thesis and out of town for some time. Hopefully we’re back on the posting front now.

Ed. note part deux: This was an op-ed for Prof. Drezner’s Statecraft class. I am lazy, so I have crossposted it here.

Fifteen captured British navy personnel are recovered from Iran, unharmed. Without a single shot fired or helicopter crashed in the desert, the prisoners were released in a fortnight, not 444 days. Iran’s reckless President Ahmadinejad came off looking even more of an erratic and violent bumbler and managed to further alienate the rest of the world. The temperature on the pressure cooker that is the Persian Gulf dropped a few degrees, and all breathed a sigh of relief that yet another Middle Eastern conflict is not yet imminent.

Well, almost all. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton – the Don Imus of the Diplomatic Corps – wrote a scathing piece in the April 9th Financial Times lambasting Britain for its “weakness” and describing the resolution of the crisis as a “win-win” for Iran. The problem appears to be that Bolton is deeply offended by the fact that discussions between Iran and Britain took place at all; that these lead to the release of the prisoners is irrelevant. He does not offer a superior alternative method to achieve the liberation of these unfortunate hostages, though one imagines it would involve things going “boom”. This attitude – that diplomats should (possibly) be seen but (certainly) not heard – is sadly not the sole perspective of bombastic cashiered neocons. A childish unwillingness to talk to those defined as “the bad guys” is at the heart of the posture of President Bush and his administration towards the world.

It’s really too bad. This petulant insistence that America’s rivals must acquiesce to the US bargaining position before negotiations can begin is not only ineffective; it’s dumb. For years, President Bush and his advisors fiddled while North Korea burned through 8,000 nuclear fuel rods, potentially turning them into a dozen atom bombs. During this entire time, the US insisted that the Kim Jong Il had to halt his nuclear reprocessing programs before negotiations about the nuclear reprocessing could begin. When the precondition to discussion is the elimination of the problem that is to be discussed, is it any surprise that the North Koreans decided not to take part?

The same pattern is playing out all over the globe. In Iran, a similar race for nuclear weapons is underway throughout which America has sat on the sidelines and watched its European Union counterparts take the lead in actually discussing the issues. Most recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was castigated for having the temerity to talk to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The man is a tyrant and a deplorable human being – but he also happens to be a key element in finding any sustainable peace solution between Israel and Palestine, and the huge Syrian border with Iraq is often cited as an entry point for anti-American insurgents in Iraq.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group agrees that American taciturnity is terrible. This bipartisan collection of Wise Old Men (and Sandra Day O’Connor) wrote that “a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies” and America and allies should “actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions.” As the Study Group report appears to have had no use around the White House save perhaps as a doorstop, it is disappointing but unsurprising that this sage advise is also being ignored.

Dialogue is not weakness, and stubborn silence is not strength. Conversations between rivals serve many useful purposes; even if a particular dispute cannot be resolved, both sides benefit from learning more about their opponent’s world view and needs. Clever, canny diplomats will be able to find ways that both sides can gain, perhaps achieving surprising solutions that would never been thought of in Washington. US interests can best be served by talking with our enemies as well as our friends.

America can boast of the largest military in the world – approximately as powerful as all the others combined. In Teddy Roosevelt’s famous maxim to talk softly but carry a big stick, there’s no question that in the first decade of the 21st century that the US armed forces make for quite a hefty club indeed. But unless our men and women in uniform intend to topple and replace every dictator, king, or French President with whom the American administration would rather not deal, President Bush and his team must get in the uncomfortable habit of actually having conversations with enemies. Not all the problems that face us in the next years and decades will have military solutions. For the troubled relationships that the United States and countries around the world will have in the future, one must remember the best solution for resolving problems – from kindergarten playgrounds to the international arena – remains communication. It’s time to stop just doing something and start talking instead.

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