Diplomacy Is Dead By Roger Cohen


DeM Banter: so many issues here and it is not simply the GOP and Congress…decline of Empire?

January 22, 2013

London — DIPLOMACY is dead.

Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.

This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.

There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time.

Violence, of the kind diplomacy once resolved, has shifted. As William Luers, a former ambassador to Venezuela and the director of The Iran Project, said in an e-mail, it occurs ”less between states and more dealing with terrorists.” One result is that ”the military and the C.I.A. have been in the driver’s seat in dealing with governments throughout the Middle East and in state to state (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq) relations.” The role of professional diplomats is squeezed.

Indeed the very word ”diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.

Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, ”When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital.

So when I asked myself what I hoped Barack Obama’s second term would inaugurate, my answer was a new era of diplomacy. It is not too late for the president to earn that Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course diplomats do many worthy things around the world, and even in the first term there were a couple of significant shifts — in Burma where patient U.S. diplomacy has produced an opening, and in the yo-yoing new Egypt where U.S. engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood was important and long overdue (and raised the question of when America would do the same with the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas.)

But Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.

There are some modest reasons to think the lid on diplomacy’s coffin may open a crack. This is a second term; Obama is less beholden to the strident whims of Congress. The Republican never-give-an-inch right is weaker. In John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, his nominees for secretary of state and secretary of defense, Obama has chosen two knowledgeable professionals who have seen enough war to loathe it and have deep experience of the world. They know peace involves risk. They know it may not be pretty. The big wars are winding down. Military commanders may cede some space to diplomats.

Breakthrough diplomacy is not conducted with friends. It is conducted with the likes of the Taliban, the ayatollahs and Hamas. It involves accepting that in order to get what you want you have to give something. The central question is: What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it? Or, put the way Nixon put it in seeking common ground with Communist China: What do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want?

Obama tried a bunch of special envoys in the first term. It did not work. He needs to empower his secretary of state to do the necessary heavy lifting on Iran and Israel-Palestine. Luers suggested that one ”idea for a New Diplomacy would be for Hagel and Kerry to take along senators from both parties on trips abroad and to trouble spots. This used to be standard practice. Be bold with the Senate and try to bring them along.”

For diplomacy to succeed noise has to be shut out. There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky citizen-diplomats out there these days blathering on about dreamy one-state solutions for Israel-Palestine and the like. Social media and hyper-connectivity bring huge benefits. They helped ignite the wave of liberation known as the Arab Spring. They are force-multipliers for openness and citizenship. But they may distract from the focused, realpolitik diplomacy that brought the major breakthroughs of 1972, 1989 and 1995. It’s time for another.

3 Replies to “Diplomacy Is Dead By Roger Cohen”

  1. From the perspective of an American with “roman”nian roots: We (in USA) are not an Empire. We are a Republic, with problems typical republics have. Some republics become Empires in order to “fix” messy republican problems. Rome is the perfect example. It was a superpower long before becoming an Empire. Republics are messy, though, and a time came when a Caesar offered a better option to the messy Senatorial politics as well as to perceived and real external threats. His unified command postponed many of Rome’s problems, but also shut out a bunch of good ideas. Our collective intelligence, even in times of apparent discord, is greater than that given by a unified command structures. To paraphrase a good Roman, “I’ll take republican corruption (indecision, partisanship, etc) to the dictatorship of imperial reign”. Incidentally, he got assassinated… I think we are better than the Romans, or any other centralized state controlled society, and we will ultimately emerge with a winning paradigm, both at home and in international politics. However,beware of thought consolidation. Let us be a bit messy in international politics. Breakthrough diplomacy is like innovation – it can end up 50% bad in the long run. For one, it can have negative effects (like closing doors to other possibilities later down the line). Have faith and carry on with a rather fragmented and regionalized international affairs pursuit, where our friends define our interests more than our enemies 😉

  2. Sir, I definitely believe we are in a world-wide realignment, perhaps in an economic “fog of war”. Whether we are in decline will ultimately be determined by our ability to undergo effective transformation… So… fight’s on! However, believing we are in decline is one way to get leaders energized in the upcoming fight for the “commanding heights” of today’s economy. It can provide a key ingredient in transformation – sense of urgency.

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