November 21, 2006

America must talk to its adversaries

The average citizen, who takes little or no notice of foreign affairs, may read or hear about international conflicts and wonder why on earth statesmen can’t just sit down together, look each other squarely in the eye, and work things out. Individuals have their disagreements, and they don’t usually resort to bombs and bullets to resolve them—why should things be so different in relations between states?

It’s a gross oversimplification, but it contains some truth. Vigorous diplomacy can help prevent international conflicts. While the root causes of conflicts can often be found in what theorists call the “structure” of the international system, the immediate causes are almost always specific events that trigger an escalating crisis that soon spirals out of control. Diplomacy between rivals cannot usually resolve fundamental disagreements about security goals and power relationships, but it can help to manage or forestall crises by identifying common ground, drawing the “bright lines” which cannot be crossed without triggering a war, and providing clearer information about states’ interests and ambitions.

That is why the Bush administration’s refusal to talk one-on-one with Iran, Syria, and North Korea is wrongheaded. Mere negotiations are not appeasement; instead, by facilitating communication between states and providing crucial information, they help to decrease the risk of miscalculation and ensure that conflicts take place in a boardroom rather than on a battlefield.

The events of the past few weeks offer hope that things may at long last be looking up for the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The Democratic sweep sent a clear message that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy is unsustainable, and it gives the president the political cover he needs to make a dramatic change of course. The canning of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the selection of Robert Gates as his replacement may signal a long-overdue shift from a failed, ideology-infected neoconservative foreign policy to a more limited and realistic policy focused on protecting vital American interests rather than, say, “transforming” or “liberating” the Middle East.

Sensing the shifting tide, America’s adversaries are opening the door to cooperation. Syria has offered to help with the chaos in Iraq and said that it is open to peace talks with the U.S. Iran has likewise signaled a willingness to talk to America, so long as we drop our demand that they stop enriching uranium before talks begin. North Korea has agreed to return to six-party talks, and the U.S. will probably offer to sign a full peace treaty with them if the regime dismantles its nuclear program.

These are major changes, and taken together they constitute a unique historical opportunity for the Bush administration. Six years into the Bush presidency, we can safely judge Bush’s diminished-diplomacy foreign policy to be a failure. The policy of not talking to our adversaries has helped prevent the emergence of solutions to the most important security threats facing America. It is time to start talking.