Where did the idea we don't negotiate come from?

The need to negotiate means one nation has problems to iron out with another. And those the US has the biggest problems with are much less likely to be friends than they are states that sponsor terrorism or are run by tyrants. Obviously then, the most critical negotiation is that between states at odds with each other.

Though this author has only been a student of foreign policy for five years he’d never come across the Bush administration’s notion that you don’t negotiate with countries like North Korea, Iran, or Syria. Besides that it suspiciously resembles a snit, where, we wondered, is the historical precedent?

Sparing us hours of research, that paragon of good sense, Fred Kaplan at Slate, mercifully provided it for us. It turns out, that with presidents, anyway, a precedent, to a certain extent, exists.

In “Is Barack Obama Too Naïve To Be President?” Kaplan address Obama’s willingness to speak with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea without preconditions.

The remark did violate an article in the playbook of Cold War diplomacy: that a presidential visit is special, something that the recipient of the visit. . . needs to earn; that. . . before such a hallowed event can be scheduled, the grunts need to complete all the “spade work,” leaving little for the presidents to do beyond signing on the dotted line.

Trouble is the Bush administration has been averse to even allowing the grunts to dig the diplomatic ditches. Until, that is, it relented with Christopher Hill in North Korea — perhaps the only act of foreign policy on the part of the Bush administration even resembling success — and with Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East (not much to report on that front). Meanwhile Kaplan continues on the subject of presidential diplomacy:

But. . . and Obama seems to have a grip on this. . . A presidential visit is not the cherished commodity that it once was, because the United States is no longer the superpower that it used to be.

Look at the deals that foreign leaders are cutting on their own. Israel and Hamas are talking about a cease-fire, using Egypt as a mediator. Turkey is serving as middleman in talks between Israel and Syria. The political factions in Lebanon worked out an accord, under Qatar’s supervision. . . . the more these kinds of deals get struck without American involvement, the more marginalized we become.

In other words, because the rest of the world no longer quakes in fear of America, we can no longer remain aloof. Not only must its diplomats jump down in the ditches, our next president needs to show up at the job site and make sure the customer is satisfied.

9 replies »

  1. Yes, there is a certain protocol and in a certain world it makes a certain amount of sense. Regardless, it’s like you say – we don’t live in that world anymore. And we don’t have any real evidence in the past several years that the old protocol is working for us, do we?

    If you want to argue that this is a function of Bushian ineptitude instead of a failure of the approach per se, go ahead. But something needs to change, and yesterday.

  2. I read somewhere once that diplomacy is the art of convincing other nations that it’s in their best interests to do what you want them to do. Generally, it would seem, “best interest” is some combination of, “if you do this, good things will happen and if you don’t, bad things will happen to you.”

    I think one of the issues with not negotiating is that negotiation must be in good faith or it is simply a propaganda tool. For instance, Berzerkia sends political dissidents to prison, murders villagers of the wrong tribe in great numbers, funds shoulder-fired SAM missiles for violent fringe groups, and conistently launches raids on a weaker neighbor. The “president” of Berzerkia has complete control of all the reins of power and will be president for life unless killed or otherwise removed by force. He has absolutely no intention of changing anything Berzerkia is doing, but he would love to negotiate with the US because it gives him political cover. When criticized, he simply says, “We have shown a willingness to talk about these things with the US and others, and negotiations are ongoing.”

    See? He’s a reasonable man.

    If I were president, I could definitely see times when I would not negotiate and provide that sort of cover for nations that have no intention of negotiating in good faith.

  3. Thanks, Dr. S., for your comment on, if I understand it correctly, the futility of talk. A part of me agrees.

    Thanks, too, JSO, for, as in the past, finessing my point with your knowledge of history.

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  5. “Negotiation” implies that there is something to discuss. Negotiations with North Korea, Iran or even the despots in Zimbabwe and Burma, for that matter, always appear to be rather one-dimensional. The despots want to rape and pillage their countries, while building up stockpiles of nasty weapons with which they want to threaten their neighbours.

    The US and Europe don’t want them to.

    In the Middle Ages (right up to around Gulf War II) this was resolved in a fairly standard way: invade and blow things up.

    That option has proven to be politically and financially ruinous, but it was the only threat that brought despots to the table. Now they know the US is unlikely to follow through. This leaves negotiations as an exercise in kindergarten arguments (“Do!” “Don’t!” “Do!” “Don’t!” “Do!” “Don’t!” “Do!” “Don’t!” “Do!” “Don’t!”).

    So, maybe a photo-op with the US president is a prize worth negotiating over. I don’t know what else you have to offer.

    Although, as JS says, I’m not sure what you do once you realise that they’re just enjoying the tea and scones, but have no intention of picking up the bill.

  6. Jim Webb, as quoted today on Huffington Post:

    “Under the right circumstances, you have to [talk to your enemies],” he said. “My model for Iran is China in 1971. China was a nuclear power, it was a rogue state, it had American war on its border with Vietnam, it was spouting the same kind of hostile rhetoric. We took none of our military options off the table, we abandoned none of our alliances, but we reached out in a aggressive way diplomatically to bring China into the world community.”

  7. Russ:

    I was just a kid at the time, but didn’t the State Department do a heckuva lot of pre-work so that, when Nixon went, agreements were already made? Maybe one of the issues here is that talking should be ongoing and I think it usually is through embassies with a very few exceptions (Cuba comes to mind, and I believe that’s a ridiculous situation). Maybe I’m getting confused between a president visiting a country to negotiate, or even when formal negotiations are announced, and ongoing talking through respective foreign services?

  8. “Negotiation” implies that there is something to discuss. Negotiations with North Korea, Iran or even the despots in Zimbabwe and Burma, for that matter, always appear to be rather one-dimensional. The despots want to rape and pillage their countries, while building up stockpiles of nasty weapons with which they want to threaten their neighbours.

    In our case, it’s the pot calling the kettle black. Everything listed here describes the policies of the Bush administration, so having Bush go abroad and preach sanctimoniously about peace and democracy results in catcalls and condemnations of hypocrisy. We couldn’t even scold China for their massacre in Tibet because they claimed to be fighting terrorism with the tactics the US established in Iraq.

    Bush’s problem with diplomacy is that he has no moral collateral to bargain with. All he knows is how to goad people with a big stick, and the world is not responding to it any longer.

  9. SpaceGhoti – horseshit. Please have a look at this picture:

    This is Morgan Tsvangirai. He is the leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe. Jokes aside, the day that the leader in the official opposition in the US is beaten up by the police on the instructions of the president, you can start spouting nonsense like “Everything listed here describes the policies of the Bush administration”.

    Get over it, the US is not a totalitarian state. And by saying so, you insult the suffering of those whose governments really have beaten the shit out of them.