Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Putting the "Dip" in Diplomacy

This election has raised the issue of diplomacy to a recent high. The Democrats have lofted diplomacy to a level of almost a deity. In the process, they have demonized anyone who has questioned its virtuosity. Yet the history of diplomacy is not an impressive one, and I can find no application of it, even one within the context of our current situation, which justifies this kind of emphasis. It is important to understand diplomacy within its historical context to properly assess its potential, so let’s look back at America’s modern (Hitler to present) experience with it.

The most sited example is Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. However, for all the success dramatically reported, it was by no feat of diplomacy that Nixon was able to convince China to change its tune. Numerous secret talks between Henry Kissinger and his Chinese counterparts were needed before Nixon made the trip to China. These talks led Kissinger to explain afterwards that, “Only extraordinary concern about Soviet purposes [and the large buildup of Soviet forces on along the Chinese boarder] could explain the Chinese wish to sit down with the nation heretofore vilified as the archenemy.” The Chinese were lacking the technology and resources they needed to provide for and protect their country. Thus there ensued over a period of many years a series of third-party backdoor messaging leading first to secret talks with Kissinger and finally to Nixon’s visit.

Of Nixon’s visit to China, Kissinger wrote, “I know of no presidential trip that was as carefully planned. The voluminous briefing books…contained essays on the trip’s primary objectives and on all subjects of the agenda previously established…they suggested what the Chinese position would be on each topic and talking points on what the President might follow…Nixon committed the talking points to memory and followed them meticulously in his meetings with Chou En-Lai.” The responses from Chou and Mao were no less prepared. The direct Presidential talks, in reality, formalized rather than caused the desired changes in Chinese policy. The cause was entirely unrelated to the diplomatic efforts of the US government, which served only as the final stage in a very long process in which Chinese realized, before it even met with the Americans, that it needed America more than it needed the Soviets.

Another oft-cited example is Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Again, however, it took a long process in which Egypt realized, through no diplomatic efforts of the US or Israel, that it needed peace more than it needed conflict. Sadat had led Egypt away from its anti-Israel position since his surprise attack on Israel in 1973. In fact, Sadat went so far as to expel the Soviets from Egypt out of fear for not only his own strength as President but also out of fear for the implications it would have on its relationship with the rest of the world. In an interview with ABC News, Sadat signaled his desire to end the conflict with Israel. Two days later Begin responded with a TV ad inviting Sadat to Israel and eight days after that Sadat landed in Jerusalem. At no time before Sadat’s arrive had diplomatic efforts been used to secure the changes in Egyptian policy.

Yet another example of a re-positioning, a very significant one, was the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev met with Reagan in 1986, 87, and twice in 88. He then met with Bush Sr. in 1989. No Gorbachev accounts, nor the accounts of those involved in these meetings, provide any evidence that the meetings influenced his evolution towards policy changes. Gorbachev has described the evolution as being driven by the wish to modernize and revitalize the country he ruled. By his third year he was making comments on the USSR system giving him a “troubled conscious” and the need for “democracy like air.” This evolution was a product of Soviet reality, not American diplomacy.

Finding an example of diplomacy bridging a gap with an enemy or hostile country is very difficult. In fact, the success rate is negative, with results from major diplomatic pushes bringing at best neutral and at worst hugely costly.

After WWII, the heads of America, USSR, Britain, and France got together in the heralded spirit of unity, “the spirit of Geneva,” that ended a year later with Soviet tanks rolling over Hungry and Nikita Khrushev threatening London and Paris with nuclear attacks over Suez. Four years later the US and the USSR held their first bilateral talks at Camp David, ending with nothing beyond the inevitable agreement to hold another meeting. By May of the following year, Khrushev demanded an apology for the invasion of a US spy plane that they shot down. President Eisenhower refused and the meeting never materialized. And for the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Bush Senior similar patterns followed. 35 years of US-Soviet diplomacy lay exposed, showing no demonstrable effects on Gorbachev’s final positions towards the dissolution of the USSR and his attempts to make peace with America.

But the breadth, or rather dearth, of diplomacy goes beyond our relationship with the Soviets. Similar stories can be told of Vietnam, North Korea, Iraq, and of course Germany and Hitler. No case better disproves the idea that “we have nothing to lose by sitting down and talking with their leaders” than the Munich agreement.

This era of diplomacy was extremely costly, both in lives and in face. In 1935, when Hitler defied the disarmament provisions of Versailles, British Foreign Secretary John Simon began pushing for talks. Ignoring Germany’s violations, he agreed to a new pact aimed at limiting naval forces. Meanwhile, France sent its foreign minister to Moscow to sign a defense pact with Stalin and to Rome to offer Mussolini the opportunity to take part in Ethiopia. Upon Mussolini’s later declaration of his goal to conquer Ethiopia, England sent its man to buy him off with a chunk of Ethiopian land. Convinced that these actions illustrated weakness and a lack of resolve, Mussolini declared the formation of a “Rome-Berlin Axis.” Emboldened by this series of events, Hitler moved into Poland and Czechoslovakia, culminating with the Munich agreement. This ultimate act of diplomacy, as if previous pacts with Hitler had worked, put the Allies on a direct and unavoidable path towards war – by not confronting the threat up front, and emboldening the enemy by not enforcing agreements, Hitler was left with no reason not to take the next step, and the lives of 70 million people were lost.

None of this is to say that diplomacy has no role. Obviously, the recipe for success is a cycle of diplomacy and action. But in all cases of both, the purpose and message should be simple: it will be more costly to be against us than with us. Deterrence 101 says that you can only be in a position to influence if you own and clearly sell a credible threat that the other party believes in and can avoid by not ignoring it. Diplomacy cannot mean offering carrots and sticks for coercion if the other party can get what we are offering from someone else. What the US can offer, that most other countries cannot, is total destruction. This threat needs to be made credible, and while that does not mean a regular cycle of war, it does mean that we need to keep to ourselves the likelihood of waging war. This is where President Bush went wrong – he made threats the other side knew he could not keep, and warned of repercussions the other side could avoid by joining forces with another country.

Perhaps the most successful act of diplomacy was the way America ended WWII with Japan. In the summer of 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration, which offered the Japanese either a peaceful surrender or a final blow. While many in Japan believed that their country would be devastated by the impending attack, made credible to them by previous Allied actions, the Allied side did not make credible enough the threat of the final blow because they did not accurately communicate the means and level of devastation. Japan refused the offer, thinking that they could counter the Allies and win a more acceptable settlement, and two weeks later America dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. Having then made the threat credible, the Allies were empowered to embark on a serious and mastery diplomatic effort that resulted in Japan becoming one of our closest allies. Diplomacy can be a spoke in the wheel of change, but it needs to be done with the utmost care and used selectively based on suitability. It is not the magic wand many would have you believe.


Unknown said...

Ugh. Long political posts--I don't know why I always read them...

I know I'm way out of line here, but I can't help myself. I'm really proud of Jewish progressivism, and I apologize in advance for saying that I wish you were the token Jew (if you are) on a Republican blog rather than a token Republican on a Jewish blog.

Y? said...


You know, they say, "Two Jews, Three opinions."

Sleep Now In The Fire said...

Honestly, I'm just glad you read it in the first place