Daniel W. Drezner

R.I.P., American diplomacy?

Roger Cohen has a column modestly titled "Diplomacy Is Dead."  Let’s see what he’s talking about: Diplomacy is dead. Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a ...

Roger Cohen has a column modestly titled "Diplomacy Is Dead."  Let’s see what he’s talking about:

Diplomacy is dead.

Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.

This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.

There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time….

Indeed the very word “diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.

Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, “When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital….

Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.

Narrow-minded domestic politics…. check… Web 2.0 short-termism… check… yes, this is indeed the exemplar of the Grumpy Old Diplomatic Hand column.  So as a Grumpy Middle-Aged Academic, I’d like to grouse a bit on these alleged truisms. 

Now on the one hand, Cohen has a point that the optics of patient diplomacy can be more politically challenging than military statecraft.  The use of force tends to arouse domestic suipport; diplomacy can be painted as an act of weakness or appeasement.  And one can certainly think of Cuba, Iran or even Israel/Palestine as places where diplomacy has not achieved liftoff capacity.   And, yes, Web 2.0 technologies do make things like "backchannel diplomacy" that much more difficult to keep under wraps.

All that said…. give me a f**king break. 

First of all, there’s a logical tension hidden within Cohen’s narrative.  He laments the disappearance of patient diplomacy in one breath and then observes the relative decline in U.S. power in the next.  Maybe it’s not that U.S. patience has withered, but that a hegemon with less weight to throw around requires even greater levels of patience to achieve the same tasks.  In the case of Syria, for example, it’s kinda hard to see how more realpolitik would have gotten states with fundamentally divergent national interests to agree on a manageable solution.  Indeed, one could argue that the tropuble with America’s Syria diplomacy has been too much realpolitik, not too little. 

Second of all, Cohen is glossing over some examples of patient diplomatic successes.  Even in Syria, there have been examples of successful "concert" diplomacy.  The U.S. opening to Myanmar would be another example [UPDATE:  Cohen tweets in response that he did in fact mention Myanmar.  He’s right, and I apologize for not noting that fact.].  This is a case where the Burmese themselves have done a lot of the heavy lifting, but it’s to the Obama administration’s credit that it nimbly seized on the opportunity.  Indeed, this has been part of an overall Asia/Pacific strategy that would appear to epitomize the kind of hard-headed diplomacy that Cohen does.  Even the Sino-American handling of the Chen Guangcheng case represents an example of deft diplomacy in response to Web 2.0 technology.

Third — and most important — diplomacy is a two-player game.  There have been cases where the Obama administration has reached out to leaders with a different worldview in an effort to normalize relations — think about the "reset" with Russia.  It would be safe to describe that effort as "fraught with complications."  Most of the friction in the Russia reset has nothing to do with the domestic American causess Cohen highlights, however, and everything to do with Russian policymakers feeling their relative power wane being extremely wary of the outreach effort.  Similarly, Iran’s domestic politics during the Obama years have been… complicated.  It’s not clear whether the most generous U.S. offer would actually be accepted by Iran’s current political establishment. 

One could argue that Cohen’s logic, extended globally, does have some heft.  It’s not just the rise of domestic impediments in the United States — it’s the increased importance of domestic politics in diplomacy in other countries that makes realpolitik statecraft so hard to execute in the 21st century.  But let’s be clear — this phenomenon has little to do with the Internet age, the decline in American power, or even the rise of single-issue interest groups.  Ironically, it has more to do with the effect a successful American grand strategy — the promotion of open polyarchic politics in the rest of the world.  Even authoritarian countries like China, or quasi-authoritarian countries like Russia have domestic interests and bases to sate.  The domestic politics in these countries is far more open than it was during the heyday of realpolitik diplomacy.

As International Relations 101 will say, adding domestic constraints narrows the possibility of any international agreement.  I agree with Cohen that this is happening.  I disagree with Cohen as to the reasons why.  It has very little to do with the United States, and an awful lot to do with the rest of the world. 

So, to sum up:  diplomacy’s death has been greatly exaggerated, and a lot of what ails it has very little to do with the United States. 

Am I missing anything?

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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