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Strategic Dialogue

It's a long journey from U.S. enemy to ally, but for the last half-century, there has been one sure-fire sign that things are moving in the right direction: holding a "strategic dialogue" in Washington. Think of it as the foreign-policy equivalent of a meeting of mafia dons: There's no love lost, but there's mutual advantage to be won from breaking bread together. These days, though, everyone wants a strategic dialogue -- from close friends to wary adversaries -- and increasingly, they're looking to Beijing.

J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images
J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

1961: Harvard professor Henry Kissinger becomes an advocate for U.S. talks with the Soviet Union — "no matter what Communist purposes" might be, he writes in The Necessity for Choice. His idea becomes the foundation of U.S. strategic dialogue with Moscow and Beijing.

May 3, 1973: In an address to Congress on Soviet talks, U.S. President Richard Nixon lauds what becomes known as détente: "For the past four years, both sides have engaged in a dialogue on strategic matters that was inconceivable in 1969."

Late 1970s: "Strategic dialogue" emerges as a media term marrying U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear-arms reduction talks and "East-West dialogue" over more general diplomatic issues. As a 1980 Washington Post editorial put it, talks are a "painful decades-long effort to find increments of security in restraint."

January 1979: The United States and China open a strategic dialogue on defense, the brainchild once again of Henry Kissinger. Negotiations soon fall apart over Taiwan, but they are resurrected in 1983 when Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger goes to Beijing with the promise of military technology.

July 15, 1987: Strategic dialogue turns scandalous. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater on the Iran-Contra affair: "What started as an opportunity to open a strategic dialogue with Iran deteriorated into an arms-for-hostages deal."

January 1992: The first high-level strategic dialogue is held between former Warsaw Pact and NATO countries in Brussels. Despite the Cold War’s end, the term still refers largely to talks about security matters.

March 15, 1993: U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin begin a strategic dialogue. Although focused on defense and economic cooperation, it also becomes a vehicle for advancing a broader goal: Middle East peace talks.

The 2000s: To shore up support for U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush turns strategic dialogue into a primary tool of statecraft, launching a half-dozen official, high-level bilateral talks with everyone from Chile to Japan.

2007: Strategic dialogue goes viral. Everyone from consulting firms to think tanks picks up on the term. A South African book, Socrates & the Fox: A Strategic Dialogue, even appropriates the phrase for that other viral phenomenon: the business how-to book.

The late 2000s: China gets in on the act, opening strategic dialogues with no fewer than 15 countries. Talks with India and Japan focus on security, but others bring economic rewards. Chinese trade with dialogue partner South Africa, for example, skyrockets to $11.2 billion in 2007.

July 27-28, 2009: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joins what becomes formally known as the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. A year later, 200 U.S. officials trek to Beijing for talks, but the results do not impress. 

March 2010: Washington begins a strategic dialogue with nuclear-armed Pakistan. The Pakistani delegation includes three ministers, two advisors to the prime minister, the Army chief of staff, his military advisors, six government secretaries, the ambassador, and "many other people," U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke says. Two months later, a jealous India launches its own talks with Washington. 

June 2010: Beijing kicks off yet another strategic dialogue, this time with the Gulf Cooperation Council, challenging U.S. dominance among the Middle East’s top energy producers. Game on?

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