Shadow Government

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Looking for the strength to negotiate

Facing a series of significant foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration appears to be responding with an array of diplomatic initiatives built around negotiations. Thus, the White House hopes to convene a diplomatic conference on the Syrian war in Geneva , and to launch a dialogue with China on cybersecurity, both to take place in ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Facing a series of significant foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration appears to be responding with an array of diplomatic initiatives built around negotiations. Thus, the White House hopes to convene a diplomatic conference on the Syrian war in Geneva , and to launch a dialogue with China on cybersecurity, both to take place in July.  Meanwhile, the administration still hopes to resume yet another round of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.    

The problem in each of these cases is not that the Obama administration is following a diplomatic track. The problem is that the White House and State Department seem to be pursuing negotiations from a posture of weakness, and are not taking the needful steps to strengthen their negotiating hand. Diplomacy always takes place in the context of facts on the ground, and in each of these cases America's adversaries are doing a better job of creating facts on the ground more favorable to their positions. Meanwhile, perhaps seduced by the false dichotomy of thinking that diplomacy is always an alternative to the use of force rather than often a complement to force, the Obama administration may be setting up its various diplomatic gambits for failure.

Take Syria. While Secretary Kerry is begging and cajoling various parties to agree to attend the peace conference, in the war itself the Assad regime's patrons such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are helping Damascus regain the battlefield initiative against the rebels through substantial weapons upgrades and territorial advances. Even if the Geneva gathering does take place next month, it will occur in circumstances far more favorable to Assad and his backers - and will consequently be far less likely to lead to Assad's departure and any viable settlement.

Facing a series of significant foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration appears to be responding with an array of diplomatic initiatives built around negotiations. Thus, the White House hopes to convene a diplomatic conference on the Syrian war in Geneva , and to launch a dialogue with China on cybersecurity, both to take place in July.  Meanwhile, the administration still hopes to resume yet another round of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.    

The problem in each of these cases is not that the Obama administration is following a diplomatic track. The problem is that the White House and State Department seem to be pursuing negotiations from a posture of weakness, and are not taking the needful steps to strengthen their negotiating hand. Diplomacy always takes place in the context of facts on the ground, and in each of these cases America’s adversaries are doing a better job of creating facts on the ground more favorable to their positions. Meanwhile, perhaps seduced by the false dichotomy of thinking that diplomacy is always an alternative to the use of force rather than often a complement to force, the Obama administration may be setting up its various diplomatic gambits for failure.

Take Syria. While Secretary Kerry is begging and cajoling various parties to agree to attend the peace conference, in the war itself the Assad regime’s patrons such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are helping Damascus regain the battlefield initiative against the rebels through substantial weapons upgrades and territorial advances. Even if the Geneva gathering does take place next month, it will occur in circumstances far more favorable to Assad and his backers – and will consequently be far less likely to lead to Assad’s departure and any viable settlement.

In the case of China, the White House in recent weeks has at last begun publicly speaking out against China’s state-sponsored hacking of American military and commercial targets, but the only real action in response seems to be a call for dialogue because, in the words of a senior administration official "we need to develop some norms and rules."  Well, yes, developing norms and rules would be nice, but the immediate issue is much simpler: the Chinese government needs to stop stealing technology from American companies, and needs to stop engaging in low-grade acts of cyberwar against the American military. China will continue this cyberwarfare as long as it can do so without any consequences – and a diplomatic dialogue or even "sternly-worded demarche" from the State Department do not count as consequences.  Especially since Beijing has proven very artful at using dialogues as diversionary tactics to resist taking concrete policy steps, with the episodic U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue being just one example (an especially sad reminder of the failures of U.S. human rights policy as this week marks the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre).

Iran, meanwhile, is starting to resemble "Groundhog Day," with Tehran pursuing a salami slicing strategy of incrementally advancing its nuclear program while sporadically coming back to the negotiating table.  Here at least the US diplomatic strategy has included coercive instruments such as economic sanctions and other measures.  But as Mike Singh and others have repeatedly pointed out, missing has been a credible, unambiguous threat from the U.S. of the use of force.  It is just such a credible threat that would, ironically, reduce the likelihood of war by showing the Iranian regime that a diplomatic solution is their best and only option.

Looking at history, many previous negotiations succeeded because of the strong hand the U.S. wielded.  Nixon and Kissinger used the Linebacker bombing campaigns to strengthen the American position in the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War. Reagan’s diplomatic outreaches to Gorbachev took place amidst America’s enhanced military posture, development of the Strategic Defense Initiative that drove the Russians nuts, and pressure on the Soviet periphery through support for insurgents in places like Afghanistan. The Clinton administration had a strong hand to play in negotiating the Dayton Accords thanks to Operation Deliberate Force.

In contrast, the Obama administration has dealt itself a weak hand in its various diplomatic initiatives. This is not at all to say that diplomacy should be abandoned, but rather that the White House should look for ways to approach negotiations with incentives for the other side to change its behavior.  In Syria, this could mean steps like arming the rebels or imposing no-fly zones. With China, it could mean engaging in some retaliatory cyber-measures against Unit 61398 (one hopes this is already being done?), so that when Chinese officials sit down for the dialogue they will do so knowing that refusing to cooperate will carry costs.  In the case of Iran, the regime needs to know that its choices are a negotiated settlement or the destruction of its nuclear program.

When your only instrument is talk, then talk will likely fail.  The Obama administration certainly has the will to negotiate, but needs to develop the strength to do so as well.  

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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