When negotiations suck eggs….

Time magazine’s Romesh Ratnesar has a long story on Condoleezza Rice and her growing foreign policy clout: Rice has wrested control over the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy away from war-cabinet hard-liners, curbing their unilateralist bluster. She persuaded President George W. Bush to support negotiations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Time magazine's Romesh Ratnesar has a long story on Condoleezza Rice and her growing foreign policy clout:

Rice has wrested control over the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy away from war-cabinet hard-liners, curbing their unilateralist bluster. She persuaded President George W. Bush to support negotiations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs, though both countries have balked at offers from the U.S. and its allies. In the process, she has cemented her status as the President's most trusted lieutenant, a relationship that makes her the most influential Secretary of State in more than a decade.

For Ivo Daalder, this turn to negotiations is all to the good -- thought that's not because they're guaranteed to succeed:

Time magazine’s Romesh Ratnesar has a long story on Condoleezza Rice and her growing foreign policy clout:

Rice has wrested control over the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy away from war-cabinet hard-liners, curbing their unilateralist bluster. She persuaded President George W. Bush to support negotiations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs, though both countries have balked at offers from the U.S. and its allies. In the process, she has cemented her status as the President’s most trusted lieutenant, a relationship that makes her the most influential Secretary of State in more than a decade.

For Ivo Daalder, this turn to negotiations is all to the good — thought that’s not because they’re guaranteed to succeed:

The purpose of negotiations in these kinds of situations is really two-fold: to try to resolve the issue through a mutual give-and-take and arrive at an outcome that both parties see as preferable to the status quo or, failing that, to demonstrate that you are looking for such an outcome and thus place the onus for failure squarely on the other side. The main reason why Rice may have been able to convince Bush and Cheney that a demonstrable commitment to negotiations was now necessary is that the North had succeeded in isolating us rather than themselves. For now, the tables have turned — opening up the possibility that the North reassesses the value of giving in or, at the very least, making clear that they rather than we are to be blamed if negotiations fail. In the latter case, we will have laid the for gaining support for a more coercive strategy, should that be desirable.

This all sounds eminently sensible…. except for a one teensy little problem — what happens if our allies shift their position during the negotiations? Both the Iran and North Korea cases require active consultation and coordination with allies that might, just might, change their minds about what constitutes unacceptable behavior. David Adesnik points out that with regard to Iran, even the Washington Post‘s editorial team thinks this:

the editors of the Post argue that

The experience of letting the Europeans do it their way, offering trade and economic incentives before bringing in sanctions or making any military threats, has been enormously important…Now, any steps taken to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons will have international credibility.

Finally, the Post adds a caveat

What remains to be seen is whether the Europeans will come through, as they have promised they would, with a tough-minded push for sanctions.

Consider, for a moment, the tension between those last two statements. What if the Europeans don’t follow through? If, at that point, we strike out on our own, will we no longer have “international credibility”? In other words, is the price of credibility that we always follow the European lead?

With regard to North Korea, there is the tricky problem that South Korea has now decided to back North Korea’s demands for a peaceful nuclear program. This is an logical outcome of South Korea’s sunshine policy — a problem that I mentioned two years ago. Won Joon Choe and Jack Kim explain in the Christian Science Monitor why the South Koreans have been acting in such a peculiar manner:

Many South Koreans no longer see North Korea as a threat. Instead of a mortal enemy, North Korea has become transmogrified into a sympathetic brother in the South Korean imagination. This transmogrification is mainly government-induced. Since the election of the longtime dissident Kim Dae Jung to the presidency in 1997, Seoul has pursued the “Sunshine Policy” – a policy designed to appease Pyongyang’s murderous regime through massive economic bribery. To sell this policy to a skeptical electorate, Kim spearheaded a comprehensive propaganda campaign to reconstruct the South’s image of the North. This campaign included government censorship and intimidation of those who would criticize North Korea. As a result of this ongoing campaign, South Koreans are now increasingly kept in the dark about the true nature of Pyongyang’s gulag state. Even more troubling, however, is Seoul’s belief that it may actually benefit from the North Korean nukes…. These differences between Washington and Seoul regarding Pyongyang’s nukes will continue to frustrate the Bush administration’s attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. While it is unlikely that Pyongyang would give up its nukes without a credible threat of military action, the current leftist government in Seoul, headed by Kim Dae Jung’s successor Roh Moo Hyun, would never back a military solution. Given that Seoul bankrolls Pyongyang, it would also be difficult for the US to impose workable economic sanctions. Even the Chinese, whose influence the Bush administration has come to rely on as the last best hope, have complained that Seoul’s appeasement emboldens Pyongyang and renders it less amenable to Beijing’s pressure. (emphasis added)

So, contrary to Daalder, there is another possible outcome from negotiations besides a fair settlement and a shifting of blame — the possibility that our allies back down leaving the U.S. in the lurch. [So you’re saying screw negotiations, right?–ed.] Alas, no — for the North Korean case in particular, negotiations are a lousy, rotten option — until you consider the alternatives — which Fred Kaplan did last month in Slate:

In the case of the United States, the Bush administration’s top national security officials?Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush himself?just didn’t want an accord with North Korea, didn’t want even to sit down and talk. Kim Jong-il is an evil dictator; he’d broken an agreement by resuming his nuclear program; merely negotiating with him would be rewarding him for bad behavior; signing a treaty with him would legitimize and perpetuate his reign. Bush’s policy in the first term was to wait for Kim’s regime to collapse and, in the meantime, to take a look at the war plans. Then three things happened. First, Kim’s regime didn’t collapse. Cheney tried to convince the Chinese to cut off aid, which might have done the trick; but they didn’t want millions of North Korean refugees to pour across their borders. Second, the Joint Chiefs told President Bush that the war plans were too risky; nobody knew where all the targets were, and Kim Jong-il had thousands of artillery rockets a few minutes away from Seoul; if he retaliated, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans could die. Besides, the South Korean government announced that it would not endorse?or allow its territory to be used for?a U.S. airstrike or invasion. In other words, “regime change” wasn’t happening, and war didn’t look like a real option.

So my point is this — the U.S. is favoring negotiations right now not because they’re such an alluring alternative — it’s because given our resource constraints and the countries we are dealing with, the negotiation option is the best of a rotten set of alternatives.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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