Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Diplomacy Matters

The other day, I attended a lecture by the distinguished British diplomat Sir Ivor Roberts. Listening to him speak, I began to think about the modern American distaste for diplomacy. What fascinates me is not that Americans do not believe in diplomacy, but the reasons for the skepticism. Were the attitude based on a general cynicism about the efficacy of government, I would find such views understandable. However, many Americans do have faith in the government, so long as it acts by the sword rather than the pen. Diplomacy is viewed as weak. But more than that, it is viewed as impossibly ineffective. America's enemies cannot be reasoned with. They are crazed monsters who hate our freedom and will stop at nothing to annihilate us.

Give me a break.

Let's look specifically at two related parties addressed by Sir Roberts in his lecture: Iran and al-Qaeda. Both seen as symbols of Islamic extremism of the worst kind, they seem to be prime examples of why diplomacy has no place in the modern world. Like Roberts, I reject this notion.

Iran is a huge problem for the United States. It is not only an abusive theocracy, but one with aspirations of nuclear armament. The view held by many is that, as a theocracy, it cannot be reasoned with. It is willing to sacrifice itself before giving into American demands. We therefore have no option but war.

I do not believe this view holds up to scrutiny. History contradicts it. The USSR was another brutal enemy of the U.S. During the McCarthy era, the cries heard today were prevalent then. It seemed ludicrous to attempt to negotiate with the Soviets. However, the Cold War progressed without the US and the USSR engaging in hot warfare. In the end, process of d├ętente worked.

I do not believe that Iran is impossible to deal with peacefully. I believe neither Ahmadinejad nor Khamenei to be suicidal. They know that, were they to launch an attack on Israel, or any other ally of the US, the government would be destroyed in a heartbeat. Iran knows it has nothing to gain by acting violently. However, it has plenty to gain by flexing its military muscles. By responding so dramatically to signs of Iranian aggression, the US is simply validating Iran's geopolitical significance. This is exactly what Iran wants. The government does not need to be overthrown, it needs to be engaged.

Al-Qaeda presents a more multi-faceted situation. We are not going to see Bin Laden in attendance at any global summits. However, the fact that al-Qaeda is a non-state actor makes diplomacy even more important. You cannot defeat terror with bombs. The last seven years wasted in Iraq have made that immensely clear. The only way to stop terrorism is to turn public opinion away from it. Violence breeds violence. Sir Roberts famously once said that George W. Bush is al-Qaeda's best recruiting tool. He is right. Al-Qaeda has no capital to siege. For each leader killed, more emerge.

So what do we do? According to Roberts, part of the answer lies not in Afghanistan or Iraq, but in Israel and Palestine. Much of the animosity towards America stems from the mishandling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the conflict, but suffice it to say that its resolution would do wonders for America's image, which in turn would only hurt al-Qaeda. This indirect approach is the only real way to handle terrorism. Terrorism is a symptom of anti-Western sentiment. Treating symptoms is never as effective as treating underlying problems.

The bottom line is this: violence should not be the primary means of conflict resolution in the modern world. It should always be an option, but the challenges facing America are too complex to simply bomb away. The Obama administration has shown some desire to reverse the trigger-happy policies of the previous administration, but there is still much to be done. America must get to a place where it leads the world through diplomatic power, not military might. Diplomacy is not dead. But in America, it seems to be on life support. I implore you to not lose faith. Keep diplomacy alive.


Andrea Watts said...

Great debut post Rabi!

Welcome to Lefty's, I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

ShamRockNRoll said...

Glad to see so many new posters lately! This was a good post Rabi, hope to be reading more of you soon. I am a little more optimistic about the Obama administration's diplomatic skills. I actually think they have been handling the Israel situation well lately. I'm glad to see the administration has been voicing opposition to new Israeli settlements instead of just going along with them because of our "special relationship."

Rabi Abonour said...

Yeah. I touched Israel only tangentially here, I think my next post will be a more detailed write-up of my view on the peace process.

Henry James Vasquez said...

Great post, Rabi. I'm glad we have writers that have their eye on the foreign policy side of politics. I am glad to see the Obama Administration being more heavy-handed with Israel, though I don't feel they have gone far enough. It is difficult to lead the world with soft power and legitimacy when we acquiesce to the human rights violations of any ally.

Sarah Jones said...

Ahh, excellent post Rabi :) We should talk more about this some time at a meeting together.

I'm all about strengthening international relationships (is it obvious I'm an international studies major?). The world is rapidly becoming more and more globalized and we need to be ready for it. To be honest, a huge proponent of my support towards the Obama campaign was due to the way he wanted to handle foreign relationships. I've been slightly disappointed but I'm happy to see some change in the way that our country works with others.

Kelly Smith said...

Rabi, I'm so proud of you! Great job! Props on posting and for being such an active dem. IU is luck to have you :)

Anonymous said...

The "Cold" War ended not because of diplomacy but because of massive deficits and military spending of both the USSR and the US. And let's not pretend that both sides didn't massively arm and fight in the world-wide battle between communism and capitalism (hello, Vietnam!).

Same goes for WWI and WWII. Where was diplomacy then--when the Munich Agreement was signed??

just something to think about. We'v e yet to see diplomacy really succeed anywhere on military issues .

Tim Ryan said...

I would think that Vietnam would be yet another example of when perhaps diplomacy would have been a better option than all-out warfare.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. Well said.

Rabi Abonour said...

Fair enough points. You are probably right that the Cold War is not the best example. However, my point was that, despite the horrors of the Vietnam war, the the Cold War ended without the US and the USSR in *direct* military conflict.
Of course, that brings the issue about the possibility of symmetrical warfare between nuclear states, but that it is whole other can of worms.

ShamRockNRoll said...

It's amateurish to say the Cold War ended solely because of deficits and not because of substantial efforts at diplomacy on both sides that reduced nuclear arms and kept us from nuking the hell out of each other.

ShamRockNRoll said... wasn't one or the other, it was a mixed bag, of which diplomacy played a significant role.