When Diplomacy Gets Dangerous

It’s no secret that bipartisan consensus in Washington is exceedingly rare. Yet, the few areas of agreement that do exist are hardly fraught. Foreign policy has historically enjoyed relative harmony between rival factions, especially in regard to the practice of diplomacy. Both the anti-imperialists of the left and the small-government isolationists of the right implore that diplomacy is inherently good, and its pursuit will yield peace without fail.

This is an incredibly dangerous idea. Somehow, the nation’s best and brightest seem to lose hold of fundamental truths understood by our school children. One such truth reveals that a house of straw or sticks will readily crumble when confronted by a big, bad wolf. American attempts at deals, treaties, and other negotiations frequently resemble such haphazard constructions. Too often, diplomacy is treated as either a check-box to feign due diligence or a lauded goal in itself. Both cases make conflict more likely.

The foundation of the post-World War II global order is the set of rules that regulate relations between states. The most intuitive of these rules aim to prevent armed conflict while realizing its necessity in dire situations. To gain support for the authorized use of force, a state must demonstrate a diligent effort to resolve the dispute via non-violent means. In other words, attacking a country is only legitimate if all diplomatic avenues were exhausted beforehand.

However, recent history has shown that leaders will let themselves be overzealous, regardless of the rules in place. Thus, diplomacy becomes an obstacle in the process of preparing for a strike. Often, the most passionate arguments for war do not focus on war itself but to the relative futility of diplomacy.

The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq may be the most poignant instance of feigned diplomacy. The American leadership’s urgency to take action jeopardized the efficacy of the policymaking process. We now understand that intelligence suggesting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2003 was inaccurate. Who knew it was inaccurate and how much they knew remain subjects of heated debate, although some sources now reveal that the American intelligence community faced critical uncertainties in regard to this issue.

However, beyond the intelligence failure, there was also a diplomatic failure. When making his fruitless attempt to gain UN authorization for invading Iraq, “the president had already made his decision for military action,” according to Secretary of State Colin Powell. This would mark a complete reversal from the proper process. Negotiating and assessing all evidence must precede any decision on a certain course of action. Simply deliberating to justify a predetermined solution exposes policy to confirmation bias, but more importantly, it leads to a moral minefield of half-truths and self-preservation.

The same risk remains regardless of hindsight. The grandeur of the North Korea-United States summit last Spring was heavy on spectacle, light on substance. Months after making a non-binding, nebulous statement, intelligence now suggests that North Korea is continuing to pursue its nuclear program. Some officials, including the more trigger-happy ones, may be inclined to point to prior demonstrations of diplomacy and conclude there are no other options besides war. The mere act of conducting diplomacy creates a false sense of security when agreements, such as the one from the Trump-Kim summit, are unenforceable. It also creates a false sense of diligence that wrongly validates the deceptive feeling of “we did everything we could.” The lack of thoroughness in engaging North Korea may be making us less safe.

Beyond concerns of sincerity, policy-makers often misunderstand the objective of diplomacy; it cannot be considered an achievement to merely pursue diplomacy. Training for the race is not the same as finishing it or winning it. Diplomacy is not an outcome but rather a process pursued to safeguard interests and protect values.

Whether motivated by pride or electoral necessity, making a deal just for the sake of making a deal does not make any party safer. Rather, satisfaction with a weak or ineffective agreement breeds a sense of complacency that is more likely to jeopardize core interests in the long run.

Perhaps no one was as good at cutting a deal as Neville Chamberlain, known for his attempts to ameliorate German aggression before the Second World War. Chamberlain has been repeatedly indicted for “appeasement” ever since, but this is not without good reason. As Hitler made aggressions against Germany’s neighbors, other European powers sought to contain him. After successfully annexing Austria in March of 1938, the Nazi regime demanded to annex Czechoslovakia. Desperate to avoid war, Prime Minister Chamberlain eventually orchestrated the Munich Agreement, which agreed to allow German control of Czechoslovakia in return for Germany’s pledge to stop its aggressions. Chamberlain return to Britain and infamously celebrated the accord as “peace for our time,” a year before Germany invaded Poland.

History shows that the years after 1938 were anything but peaceful. Moreover, this episode demonstrates that a “deal” is not a guarantee of peace. Refusing to confront a hostile actor does not guarantee a smooth relationship going forward. The word “diplomatic” may connote friendliness, but diplomacy in practice is by design tense, difficult, and impactful.

In essence, diplomatic settlements seek to alter the behavior of states to reduce the likelihood or severity of conflict. To achieve this, diplomacy must be thorough, durable, and honest. Any negotiation ought to address any and all relevant issues; ignored issues will not disappear but worsen. Other parties with a stake in a deal must be consulted if not invited to participate. A potential agreement must also affect behavior over the long-term. This means that penalties such as economic sanctions are useful, and “sunset” clauses, which force a contract to expire after an arbitrary amount of time, should be used sparingly. Most importantly, any resolution must realistically account for the ability and willingness of a party to abide by all its terms. If conditions are too draconian, they may provoke backlash, if they are too lax, nothing will change. Striking the right balance is vital . Diplomacy is immensely complex as it requires an acutely intricate balance of specificity, flexibility, accommodation, and candor.

The blanket reaction to diplomatic breakthroughs is “well, at least they are talking.” In statecraft, talk can be deadly. For diplomacy to work right, it must be grounded by something more than scoring points and winning praise. It must serve long-term interests. Such interests do not typically benefit from undercutting allies, exacerbating tensions, and abandoning core values. Diplomacy is a tool, not a toy. It requires competency and responsibility. Diplomacy is responsible for much of the good in this world, yet, without proper care, it could become responsible for a lot of the bad as well.



Categories: Foreign Affairs

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