Learning to talk to enemies

From Russia to Iran to Cuba, the US or its allies have engaged morally suspect regimes that are prone to abuse diplomatic negotiations. Any talks with adversaries must have a good prospect of success to be justified.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson talks with Cuban dissident Hector Maceda in Havana Jan. 23. The United States and Cuba have began historic discussions on restoring diplomatic relations.

Once-democratic Thailand now has a repressive regime, yet American troops are participating in a military exercise with that country’s forces this week. German leader Angela Merkel is “disillusioned” with Russia for reneging on a Ukraine ceasefire yet she keeps talking to President Vladimir Putin. And despite Iran’s admission of using past negotiations to keep working on its nuclear program, Western powers are still at the table with Iran.

To engage or not to engage one’s adversaries? Given the examples above, the trend in diplomacy these days seems to lean toward keeping the door open for talks with even the most morally repugnant countries. As Barack Obama said in 2007 as a presidential candidate, it is ridiculous to think that “not talking to countries is punishment to them.”

Yet as president, Mr. Obama has at times withheld engagement when the prospects of improving a situation appeared slim. Talks with North Korea, for example, have all but collapsed as its actions have left it with little credibility. Even with the possibility of another famine in North Korea, the US is reluctant to again provide food aid.

Obama qualifies his outstretched hand to adversaries by saying they must reciprocate. But how and for how long? In talks with Iran, Cuba, China, and similar countries, Obama tries to be more specific on conditions for staying engaged. With most terrorist groups, the US conditions are even tougher. And Obama definitely did not leave any room for negotiation when he sent special forces to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In addition the president has become more sensitive to maintaining a high moral ground during negotiations. In the latest US national security strategy, the White House makes clear it will not sacrifice American principles: “Even where our strategic interests require us to engage governments that do not share all our values, we will continue to speak out clearly for human rights and human dignity in our public and private diplomacy.”

One example is the US restoring its membership on the United Nations Human Right Council, which had long been under the influence of members like Syria or Libya. The US has helped make the council more effective.

The risk in talking to an enemy is that it might legitimatize bad behavior while getting nothing in return. In opening talks with Cuba over diplomatic recognition, Obama is simply appeasing “a rogue regime,” claims Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. And in talks with Iran, the US and its allies are merely providing time for Tehran to get close to a nuclear-weapon capability, other critics say.

In any engagement, it is important to distinguish between specific behavior and the country itself. Former US negotiator Victor Cha recalls telling his North Korean counterparts that “we only have a hostile policy towards your nuclear weapons. With regard to the rest of your people and everything, we don’t have a hostile policy.”

“Jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” Winston Churchill once said. But in jawing with an enemy – much like wrestling with an alligator – it is best to know if one can eventually drain the swamp. Such diplomatic engagement needs both clear-eyed realism and moral clarity.

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