Two cheers for the “Washington establishment”?

Two cheers for the “Washington establishment”?

By Christian Brose

I finally got around to reading this Fareed Zakaria piece that some have recommended, and I can’t say I’m much impressed. He’s usually a smart writer, but he makes assumptions in this piece that are far more reflective of the so-called "Washington establishment" he aims to criticize, and it’s worth picking at it for those reasons. Here’s his main point:

The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own — Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it’s imperial policy. And it isn’t likely to work in today’s world.

I’m all for a serious discussion of diplomacy, but unfortunately this isn’t it. Is negotiating akin to appeasement? No, not inherently, but as with everything, the devil’s in the details. Diplomacy is not just a synonym for talking. It is the balancing of incentives and disincentives to elicit changes in another party’s behavior. So the question should never be, are we negotiating? — but rather, are we aligning our tools of engagement and coercion to get our desired result?

I’d be the first to say that the Bush administration did not always pass that test. Indeed, one of the many tragedies of the Iraq war was that, at the moment (in April 2003) when U.S. leverage over Iran was highest, the Bush administration did not attempt to use it to change Iran’s behavior. Would it have worked? Who knows. But it should have been tried, because the administration then spent its final years trying (unsuccessfully) to recreate the leverage it once had for a policy that was too-little-too-late.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Obama administration’s plans to talk to adversaries — Iran, Russia, Syria, the Taliban, etc. But we’ve heard preciously little about how the administration intends to create conditions of strength that are the requirement for diplomatic success. Everyone knows Obama is willing to talk. The question is what new leverage he will bring to bear to make that talk effective. Will we use the military forces we are withdrawing from Iraq to exert greater pressure on Iran? Are we asking our European allies to take any bold new steps on financial coercion? What exactly is Russia willing and able to do to change Iran’s decision-making? So far, answers to questions like these have not exactly been forthcoming, and in their absence, it’s not at all off-base to think that talking without leverage could harm U.S. interests. (And all of this is assuming that Iran hasn’t just said, screw it, we’re getting the bomb, and damn the torpedoes, which opens up a whole new world of problems.)

Similarly, there’s Zakaria’s assertion, which is echoed so often by people in Washington, that "other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own." Well, there’s interests, and then there’s interests. It is perfectly legitimate for Russia to use its national power to advance its commercial and security interests. And Obama’s team, like Bush’s, will have plenty of conversations with Russia about whether our interests and theirs are reconcilable. Some will be; others won’t. And we should never mistake, as Zakaria and others seem to do, a lack of agreement for a lack of diplomacy.

But in some sense, this is the less important issue. The real sticking point is how a Syria or a Russia defines some of its "interests." Damascus’s desire to dominate Lebanon is not an interest. Nor is Russia’s attempt to create a sphere of influence in its old imperial stomping grounds and prevent sovereign nations from making free choices about their own foreign policies. Such "interests" should be, in Zakaria’s words, "by definition unacceptable." And to capitulate on this point, in the case of Russia specifically, is not only craven; it plays into what increasingly seems to be Moscow’s real goal: to force the United States into a position where every decision we make about our own interests in Europe and Central Asia has to go through the Kremlin first — be it resupply to Afghanistan or cooperation on missile defense with NATO allies. We can call this many things, but a partnership isn’t one of them.

These are hard problems, and rather than tired cliches or pleasant rhetoric about outstretched hands, it’s getting to be time for serious answers. Zakaria I suspect knows better. I hope the administration does too.