Terms of Engagement

Terms of Engagement

Obama’s top advisors think they can get results from dictators and autocrats without making odious moral choices. Time to prove it, says James Traub in his new weekly column for Foreign Policy.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Virtually all conversations with Obama administration foreign-policy officials, no matter where they begin, come to rest at "engagement" — that vexing, mutable, all-purpose word. The U.S. president has "engaged" with rogue states, civil society, the United Nations, and citizens around the globe. Iran vindicates the policy of engagement — or discredits it. China is a failure of engagement, Russia a success. Inside the Obama realm, engagement has come to mean "good diplomacy."

To critics on both the left and right, however, it has come to mean "bad diplomacy" — cynical or naive, depending on which side you come from.

These days — these shaky days — the critics seem to be gaining the upper hand, making those Obama officials increasingly defensive about their policy toward autocratic states, whether in the Middle East or Eurasia, Iran or Sudan. Having spent years thinking hard thoughts in universities and think tanks, magazines and books, they cannot believe that they are losing the definitional war over their own policy. They are eager, and maybe a little desperate, to set things aright. And so it was, earlier this week, that when I asked to talk to one official about democracy promotion, I wound up having a 75-minute phone conversation with four White House figures, much of it about "engagement."

"A lot of the baggage we carry," said an officeholder I might as well designate as Senior Official #1 — the conversation was on background and the White House that offered up these folks to defend the policy was insistent they not do so on the record — "is the word ‘engagement.’ People hear the word and they think ‘constructive engagement.’" I’m not sure this is true outside certain New England common rooms, but it’s definitely not an association the Obama White House would like to encourage. After all, Ronald Reagan’s administration used that expression to justify the United States’s ongoing relationship with South Africa’s apartheid government, a policy widely derided as a cynical pretext to preserve ties with a Cold War ally. And it failed.

If "constructive engagement" is one definition the Obamans are eager to avoid, another is straightforward, old-fashioned Kissingerian "realism" — if by realism one means dealing with the interests of states, including brutal states, to the exclusion of those of ordinary citizens. As another interlocutor — call him Senior Official #2 — growing rather hot under the telephonic collar, put it, "A lot of my friends said, ‘You guys are a bunch of engagement realists. They’ll never talk about democracy and human rights.’" Barack Obama himself arguably encouraged this view during his 2008 presidential campaign by criticizing George W. Bush’s moralistic bluster, by regularly expressing his high regard for archrealists like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, and by stipulating his willingness to meet "without preconditions" with even the worst tyrants. And since becoming president he has muted criticism of the regimes in Sudan and Burma, and referred respectfully to "the Islamic Republic of Iran."

The allegation of realpolitik is still intolerable — even baffling — to these officials, who pledged themselves to Obama out of a deep faith in his redemptive promise. But if engagement rests upon the expectation that treating autocrats and theocrats with respect will significantly alter their behavior, then it suffers less from cynicism than from credulity — which is the other article of baggage under which engagement now staggers. How can anyone believe that? Administration officials have been at pains to deny that they ever did, especially since Iran has trampled Obama’s entreaties underfoot. The goal of engaging Iran, they now say, was not to change Iran’s behavior but to change the behavior of more tractable states, like Russia and China, by showing that the United States was willing to go the last mile even with the Axis of Evil.

Of course, there is abundant evidence that Obama and some of his chief advisors really did hope that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would moderate nuclear policy if they showed due regard for his country’s national interests, as Helene Cooper recently noted in the New York Times. But it’s also true that from the outset, officials have made the secondary argument for the virtues of engagement. The SOs insisted to me, as other SOs have in the past, that Obama’s Iran policy in fact constitutes a triumph of engagement because Russia has increasingly come around to the American view on the imperative for sanctions. They argue that the Russian change of heart owes not only to the country’s growing alarm over Iranian ambitions, but also to the White House’s persistent effort to put relations with Russia on a less adversarial footing than they were at the end of the Bush years. We have engaged with Russia and reaped the benefits. Of course, Russia hasn’t yet signed on to a tough sanctions measure against Iran; and China, which so far has pocketed Obama’s shows of deference without much display of gratitude, may scotch the whole affair.

Let us stipulate, then, that engagement is not quite so naive as it appears. But is it not, still, a realist bargain, trading away those universal values that the president so often evokes in the hopes of geostrategic wins, whether on Iran or climate change or the global economy?

"We’re trying to say ‘no,’" says SO #2. "We’re not going to accept that tradeoff. We’re going to do this in parallel."

Trying, of course, isn’t doing. But in Russia, this official argues, Obama successfully lowered the temperature with President Dmitry Medvedev while still meeting with dissidents and civil society groups, and he criticized the country’s undemocratic elections last fall. And it was "parallel," not a "tradeoff": Obama didn’t offer to go easy on human rights, or for that matter missile defense, to get an arms deal, nor did he insist that progress on arms control would depend on democratization.

There is a term for such a nuanced policy: "double-track engagement," an expression used by George Shultz, secretary of state during Reagan’s second term, who pursued national interests while at the same time helping to pry open such autocratic Cold War allies as Chile and the Philippines. And since Obama, unlike Reagan, puts real store by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, he is in fact practicing a yet more nuanced "triple-track engagement" — with states, with peoples, and with international bodies. The United States has rejoined the Human Rights Council, paid up its U.N. dues, and promoted the G-20 over the G-8.

It became clear enough, after 75 minutes, that engagement is not one thing, or two things. It’s three or four things. It’s "multifaceted and complex." It’s complicated because the world is complicated. Maybe that’s why the Obama administration clings to its favorite word — because complicated is hard to explain. Simple policies, like Bush’s Freedom Agenda, afford immediate gratification — and then deep disappointment down the road. Nuanced, many-things-at-once policies require patience and a tolerance for ambiguous victories. We now have abundant evidence that this is not a patient or tolerant moment. You have to wonder how long complicated can survive in the absence of big wins.

All of which leaves our senior officials increasingly defensive. "Does it take time to get a bureaucracy oriented around the idea of multitrack diplomacy?" asked SO #1. "All the habits of interaction are binary. So it does."

Sometimes, as in China or Egypt, engagement with the state seems to preclude engagement with the aspirations of citizens and you get, well, realism. Other times, folks like us just don’t get it. Of course, we might feel less confused if the Obamans used some term other than "engagement" to cover virtually everything they do.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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