Stephen M. Walt

Talking to Our Adversaries Should Be Routine (updated)

If you wanted yet more evidence of how unserious the United States is in its conduct of diplomacy, I’d nominate the breathless "will they, won’t they?" attention paid to whether U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will actually meet during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. If they do meet, will they shake ...

Photo: MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images

If you wanted yet more evidence of how unserious the United States is in its conduct of diplomacy, I’d nominate the breathless "will they, won’t they?" attention paid to whether U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will actually meet during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. If they do meet, will they shake hands? Will it be an impromptu sidebar or a sit-down conversation? What color tie will Obama be wearing? Will they drink coffee or tea? Boxers or briefs?

For all I know, these and other truly vital questions will have been resolved by the time this gets posted. My main point is that Americans attach too much significance to these sorts of meetings — mostly because we are too fond of not talking to countries we dislike — and this reticence cripples our diplomacy. Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it’s dumb.

Did it really help U.S. diplomacy when we refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1934? Were U.S. interests really furthered by our refusal to recognize the People’s Republic of China for more than two decades after Mao’s forces gained control there? Has keeping Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the deep freeze since 1961– that’s nearly 53 years, folks — brought his regime crashing down, helped the lives of Cubans, or even advanced the political goals of Cuban-American exiles? Has our refusal to conduct direct talks with Iran slowed the development of its nuclear research program and helped us explore possible solutions to the problems in Afghanistan, Syria, or the Persian Gulf itself?

Obviously not. But because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can usually afford to snub people or governments it doesn’t like. Despite what you keep hearing from various threat-mongers, Iran isn’t a very powerful country and it isn’t an existential, looming threat to vital U.S. interests. To the extent that its behavior does impinge on certain U.S. interests — such as the maintenance of a balance of power in the Gulf — we have lots of tools for addressing that problem. If our various clients in the region don’t think we are doing enough for their security, they are welcome to look for other patrons (good luck with that!).

Because the United States is so much stronger, we really shouldn’t be afraid to talk to Iranian officials, especially when they are not mouthing offensive nonsense like Iran’s previous president was fond of doing. Unfortunately, our strength and favorable geographic position also makes it possible for the United States to ostracize hostile governments without paying any immediate price. But once we do that, then it becomes a BIG DEAL when we finally do contemplate talking, and presidents have to spend political capital just to start the conversation. The result: Our own ability to explore solutions with rivals is crippled.

Hawks at home and abroad are always harping about U.S. credibility and the need for presidents to show their strength. But refusing to talk to those with whom we differ isn’t a sign of confidence and strength; it’s actually a sign of timidity and weakness. It tells the world that we’re afraid that shaking hands, sitting down, and talking with someone might rock the foundations of our power. Are we really so worried? Having a conversation with an adversary doesn’t require us to agree with them; indeed, sometimes talking exposes just how sharp the differences are and reveals that compromise isn’t possible at that time. By itself, talking to another sovereign government gives away nothing, especially when it is just a normal part of one’s diplomatic practice.

So if I could wave my magic wand today, I’d make the perennial U.S. aversion to talking to our enemies disappear. In a perfect world, conversations with our adversaries would be routine, as U.S.-Soviet dialogues were during the Cold War. Somehow, having lots of meetings between U.S. and Soviet officials didn’t undermine America’s global position; instead, the United States ended up winning the Cold War.

In short, I’d like our attention focused not on the mere fact that Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are finally talking or that Obama and Rouhani might shake hands, but on the substance of the exchanges and the possible terms of a U.S.-Iranian détente. That’s what really matters, and all the attention paid to the atmospherics of a possible meeting just gets in the way and wastes everyone’s time.

UPDATE: News reports now say that there won’t be any Obama/Rouhani meeting, and attribute this to Iranian reluctance.  Apparently, the Iranian side felt it wasn’t ready for a meeting, and that a one-on-one encounter would raise expectations too high, especially when it was clear that Rouhani wasn’t going to be coming home with any tangible US concessions.  Which if true, also goes to show you that the United States isn’t the only country that sometimes declines to maintain regular channels of communication, and then discovers that reopening them becomes a lot more difficult and fraught with unhelpful political complexities.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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