Diplomacy, it seems, is in the air. After the militant unilateralism of the first Bush 43 term, “engagement” has become the meme of the moment. One sees the trend all around: from the suggestions of the Iraq Study Group to the recent pronouncements of presidential candidates (especially the Democratic ones), who have vowed to travel far and frequently to meet foreign leaders (especially the most antagonistic ones) and to base policy on negotiations, dialogue and accommodation. Even the second-term Bush Administration itself has adopted a more conciliatory tone, which rang out immediately after the second Inaugural Address with a new Secretary of State’s fence-mending visit to Europe. Before long Washington was pursuing the diplomatic route to address several pressing issues, previously deemed unsuited to negotiation—North Korea, Iran, the Israel-Palestine cauldron and others besides. In short, diplomacy, thought of specifically as the pursuit of foreign policy goals through negotiations rather than force, has made a comeback.
Or has it? Aside from the fact that none of the aforementioned issues has actually been resolved by diplomacy, its usefulness rather depends on what one means by the term. Those who think of diplomacy as an alternative to the exercise of power rather than as a complement to it will be disappointed in the future. To be sure, diplomacy bereft of calculations of power and suasion can work among close democratic allies who hold basic principles in common. And yes, the sort of diplomacy necessary to end wars will always have a place as long as wars cause disturbances that need tidying up. But the idea that diplomacy can and should displace considerations of power among states with conflicting interests and values is an illusion bound to cause grief.
One gets the impression that just as the principals of the Bush Administration set out to be the un-Clinton and overreached in the process, so now the pendulum is swinging too far back in the opposite direction. Many of Bush’s critics not only reject his policies; they also presuppose in that rejection a reversal of its basic modus operandi. In short, these critics have concluded that overreliance on military assets is best remedied by foreswearing such reliance altogether. Yet a sober and realistic evaluation of the strategic landscape facing the United States shows that whoever occupies the White House in January 2009 will have to deal with a world in which diplomacy is not as availing for settling genuine conflicts of interest as it used to be. Starting with a necessary primer on a much confused concept, let us see why.
What Is Diplomacy?
In Diplomacy (1939), the famous British diplomat Harold Nicolson defined the term as the “management of relations between independent states by processes of negotiation.” Here, Nicolson set diplomacy in contrast to war, in which relations among states are determined by the application of brute force. He never implied, however, that the ever-present possibility of war had no bearing on the management of relations by negotiation. Diplomats of Nicolson’s day, and of most other days, were able to make deals because the balance of power and resolve outside the negotiating room necessarily shaped what went on inside it. As Frederick the Great once remarked, diplomacy without power is like an orchestra without a score.
Still, Nicolson was making a then common and still useful distinction between diplomacy as a means to avoid war and diplomacy as a means to settle one. He knew that negotiations between warring sides often occur during a conflict and can contribute to its termination, but such negotiations are ultimately dependent on the outcome of the military clash. In extreme cases, when one side is completely defeated, negotiations essentially devolve to rituals in which the winner imposes terms on the vanquished. (Consider, for example, the terms dictated by the Allies in 1945 to defeated Germany and Japan). Diplomacy as a means to avoid war must involve negotiators who compare the costs and uncertainties of war to the costs and uncertainties of a political settlement. In either case, diplomacy is pursued in the shadow of war, a shadow formed by the realities of power.
A further distinction needs to be made: between diplomacy as a process and diplomacy as an outcome. These two meanings of diplomacy, often used interchangeably in our own times, are profoundly different. The diplomatic process—the “talking”—may well be at an historical peak. After all, we live in an age of growing communications, constant meetings and elaborate summits, and ever more pervasive multilateral institutions that facilitate interactions among states. We live in a world, too, where occasions for “track two” diplomacy are proliferating. Even when official contacts are limited, as they are in the cases of U.S. relations with Iran or North Korea, the number of semi-official and unofficial parties involved—from other states to international organizations and even private individuals—still allows for constant, often intense conversations.
A diplomatic process, however, must achieve a result, or at least seek to do so. Otherwise it becomes a series of pointless social encounters that manage nothing and in the end solve nothing. Process-driven diplomacy is not diplomacy in this traditional sense at all. Outcome-oriented diplomacy is actually waning, even as empty process diplomacy is reaching an all-time high. The result is that we are talking more, but too often we are talking past each other—and enjoying useful outcomes far less frequently.
Those who confuse process-driven diplomacy for the real thing make a serious error. Indeed, the failure to distinguish between process and outcome defines those who advocate and hope for a return to the path of diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy. For them the main culprit in the decline of diplomacy is George W. Bush, who missed and mismanaged several diplomatic portfolios over the past seven years: withdrawal from the ABM treaty; opposition to the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol; the relationship with Iran; and above all the thinly disguised disdain for the United Nations that enabled the Iraq war. These critics have argued, often implicitly, that negotiated solutions to all these dilemmas were at hand, and could have been secured had the Administration not abandoned diplomacy itself as a tool of statecraft.
According to most critics, the roots of the Administration’s dismissal of diplomacy lie in the personal character of President Bush, as well as in the neoconservative pro-democracy ethos of key aides.11.
The literature critical of the Bush Administration is long and growing. For a sample, see G. John Ikenberry, “The End of the Neo-Conservative Moment”, Survival (January 2004); Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, “The Sources of American Legitimacy”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2004); Joseph Nye, “The Decline of America’s Soft Power”, Foreign Affairs (May/June 2004); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (Basic Books, 2007). The President and his advisers, the critics say, share a pseudo-theological, Manichean vision of international relations in which the “good” are the supporters and practitioners of democracy and the “evil” are all who oppose them. In such a world, engaging in diplomacy with tyrannical regimes amounts to a Faustian bargain that is not only morally repugnant but, in the long run, deadly. As a result, Washington abandoned diplomacy for naked force.
As goes the standard indictment, so goes the standard prediction: Continue along this sinking path and the United States will be left self-isolated, surrounded by at best suspicious and at worst antagonistic states. Washington’s unwillingness to seek multilateral venues to address the pressing security challenges of our times, and its reluctance to pursue diplomatic solutions to conflictual relationships, will weaken American power, diminish its prestige, and ultimately topple the United States from the pinnacle of global influence.
This is not an entirely vacuous prediction. Some of it has already come true. If one eschews standard diplomatic etiquette just to make a point about American exceptionalism or to avoid drudging negotiations with allies, as the first Bush 43 Administration often did, one is going to pay a price. Turning down NATO’s offer of an Article V engagement after September 11, 2001 is a notable case in point. But the notions that the most troubling U.S. security challenges today all have diplomatic solutions, and that Washington can reach these solutions simply by reversing its tactical course, as is expected from the next administration, are just not true. The proposed realignment strategy is essentially twofold: The United States must reduce its commitments (read: withdraw from Iraq) to alleviate the antagonism generated by its projection of power; and it must re-engage in diplomacy (read: negotiate settlements with North Korea, Iran, Russia and others, and force Israel to do so with Syria and the Palestinians) to reduce threats to international security. If the United States has sired a global security crisis by abandoning diplomacy, it can solve the crisis through renewed diplomatic “engagement.” It’s really all up to us.
Alas, it isn’t. A new president and a renewed pledge to put U.S. objectives on the negotiating table will not suffice to bring the desired results. The decline of diplomacy as an effective management tool among states is due not simply to George W. Bush’s strategic myopia and abrasive manner, but to fundamental changes in international politics. To take a subset of the problem, just as the comity of the Atlantic Alliance cannot be restored to what it was before the Soviet Union disintegrated, no matter how many pleasant cooing noises we make to each other, the larger problem is also systemic in nature. It consists of three interrelated parts: Many shared basic principles from the classic era of Western diplomacy are disintegrating in a world no longer exclusively dominated by Western norms and powers; foreign policy objectives are decreasingly amenable to negotiated settlements; and the emergence of new non-state actors (many pursuing inherently non-negotiable objectives) circumscribes the customary reach of state action and makes both achieving and enforcing agreements highly problematic.
The belief that an effective diplomacy is a matter of tactical taste, something we can choose at will if we are wise enough to do so, is a deeply ahistorical presumption. The aforementioned three systemic conditions—the existence of some commonality among relevant parties, the negotiable nature of their objectives, and an ability to reach and enforce negotiated settlements among parties—fluctuate throughout history. Diplomacy as we have understood it in a post-Westphalian, Europe-dominated context is far from a constant in international relations, and we may be entering a period of its protracted decline.
The first condition is perhaps the most abstract. Historically, diplomacy has worked best when the main parties shared common principles, whether procedural or substantive. For example, the minimal requirement of diplomacy has been that the two bargaining parties be states. The assumption here is that all states, regardless of internal regime structure or cultural-religious preferences, share a desire to survive—raison d’être and raison d’état being highly compatible notions in this sense. This commonality sets a benchmark allowing for the mutually intelligible calculation of costs and benefits, thereby permitting a process of bargaining. Negotiation can therefore lead to accommodation, because both states want to survive, and both understand how war can undermine that prospect.
Of course, diplomacy is more effective still when states share more than a primordial instinct for survival. As Henry Kissinger argued in writing about the Congress of Vienna in A World Restored (1973), diplomacy among Europe’s great powers was enabled by a shared concept of political legitimacy. States can engage in potentially fruitful negotiations by recognizing not only the other’s will to survive but also each other as sovereigns, as governments whose authority within their own borders is not questioned by other governments. If one could add to respect for sovereignty, for example, a shared belief in the legitimacy of monarchies amid contestation by uppity republics, then so much the better for diplomacy’s prospects. This much is self-evident: If two states have everything in common, diplomacy goes begging for lack of conflicts to solve. As political entities diverge to the point that they share nothing in common, diplomacy becomes increasingly more necessary to avoid war, but also more difficult to make work.
The latter circumstance is hardly only theoretical. We have real experience of what happens when states do not consider each other legitimate and deny each other’s right to exist. We know what can happen when the goal of a powerful state is to upset the existing international order regardless of the potential costs it may incur. Thus, it was correct to assert that Nazi Germany both wanted to bring down the tent of Western civilization as decent people understood it, and could not be appeased. It was correct, too, to assert during the Cold War that so long as Leninists were serious about their determination to overthrow all capitalist democracies, there could be no lasting political settlement between the Soviet Union and the Western alliance. These were disputes not about the hierarchy of international order, but about the basic nature and rules of that order. In such circumstances diplomacy can be useful at the margins, as a form of damage control or even as a form of propaganda, but it cannot be used to end the conflict on terms acceptable to all sides.
Diplomacy today can succeed among states that do not share many interests because, as before, the risks of war can make negotiated compromise attractive by comparison. But it cannot succeed between states which do not share basic principles of international relations (such as nuclear non-proliferation) or which are willing to risk an almost suicidal war. Some believe that Iran and North Korea can be negotiating partners of the United States because our differences of interests do not extend to matters of basic principle. Others disagree. Iran, after all, is vocal in rejecting Israel’s right to exist, and its leaders sometimes speak in otherworldly, millenarian terms. North Korea’s regime seems unable to credit any U.S. pledge to abandon a policy of regime change because North Korean leaders certainly would never themselves abandon the goal of regime change in South Korea.
Other countries, Russia and China, for example, express more moderate goals today, but will future Chinese and Russian leaderships be prepared to alter the existing international order rather that negotiate within it? Or will their discontent be not with the rules of that order but only with the hierarchy of power and prestige within it? We do not know. Despite Washington’s calls to Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system, China appears more interested in eventually challenging U.S. influence in the Pacific, even if it upsets regional stability by doing so. What we do know is that diplomacy cannot function well as a management tool to the extent that states lack basic shared principles, and it cannot function easily when states’ interests diverge greatly, even when basic principles are not explicitly called into question.
The second condition necessary for diplomacy to be effective is that the subject matter at the center of the conflict must be amenable to bargaining. Historically, states negotiated over territory and population, the most tangible signs of power. These also happened to be the easiest to haggle over, since they are physically divisible. Experts and diplomats could erase old borders and draw new ones on maps in search of acceptable and stable agreements that reflect new power relationships. Power implied a set of operating rules (maintain a rough equilibrium, or else), and diplomacy provided means (territorial partitions and population transfers) to create some of the most famous diplomatic agreements of all time: the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the Paris Peace conference (1919) come to mind. Indeed, negotiations about square miles, borders and demography go back to the origin of the modern state system, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia itself. The only, or at any rate the easiest, way to end a decades-long conflict, fought to a large degree for religious reasons, was to carve up the European (particularly the German) map to separate the warring sides. It was clearly easier to negotiate borders than theology.
It is true that there were always serious problems with the territorial approach to diplomacy. Agreements among major powers regularly violated the basic rights of smaller nations. Nor was all territory divisible: It was one thing to give up peripheral lands, and quite another to sacrifice the core of one’s own homeland or holy ground. Kosovo, considered by Serbs to be fundamental to their national identity in large part because of an epic battle against the Ottomans in 1389, is a good example of a situation in which territorial claims do not conduce to a diplomatic settlement. Similarly, states or leaders seeking the annihilation of a race, insisting on the imposition of a certain regime type, or pursuing honor or prestige for its own sake are conflicts less amenable to compromise. A negotiation is at base a rational process. Where racism, fanatical ideology or sheer hubris intervene, one can only negotiate about very limited matters of risk management. In such circumstances diplomacy cannot actually settle differences.
Regrettably, it seems that non-negotiable objectives are becoming more common. Honor and glory are causes of conflict too often forgotten by modern analysts, but they continue to surface.22.
See Donald Kagan, “Our Interests and Our Honor”, Commentary (April 1997). Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin has been motivated by tangible strategic interests, but it cannot really be understood without crediting the pervasive and deeply entrenched belief in Russia that the close of the 20th century has brought a tragic end to a long history of Russian grandeur. This sense of dishonor has driven Putin to stem that decline and, with a bit of luck and skill, to restore Russia’s past glory. This is not an objective that is easily negotiated away.
The objectives pursued by states are also hardening because of the growing role of public opinion in statecraft. The spread of democracy has undermined the prerequisites of diplomacy. Diplomats, whose goal is to settle conflicts, have been replaced by politicians whose interest is often to pander to their electoral bases with populist slogans.33.
See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Measure of Diplomacy”, Foreign Affairs (July/August 1994).
As Walter Lippmann saw at the outset of World War I,
the traditional diplomat [is] shy of democratic control of foreign affairs. . . . He does not wish foreign affairs made the subject of party politics. He prefers secrecy; he desires above all other things to face foreign diplomats with the assurance that a united people is behind him.4
The ascendancy of public opinion does not make diplomacy impossible, of course. Indeed, democratic states may be more credible when they issue a threat because they require some broader consensus to do so, and so are reluctant to bluff. That could enhance their ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. By and large, however, a more active and influential public opinion makes diplomacy more complex, either by giving conflicting impressions of what a state will do, or by toughening the positions of the negotiating parties.
For some adversaries, too, diplomacy is inherently not in their interest. Over the past decade or two we have witnessed the emergence of non-state actors, as well as some leaders, for whom violence, not compromise or diplomatic settlements, is a source of power and support. For such groups and leaders, engaging in diplomacy diminishes their appeal and undermines their political power. Extreme cases are easy to cite. Negotiations with al-Qaeda and similar organizations are impossible not only because our interests are diametrically opposed to theirs, but also because they have no incentive to negotiate with us.
Negotiations with groups such as Hamas or Hizballah fall into a slightly different category. To some extent, these organizations are fixed in territories and reliant on either states (Iran in the case of Hizballah) or social support (a radicalized Palestinian society for Hamas in Gaza) far more than small, hermetic groups like al-Qaeda. Since they have interests that can be targeted in one way or another, leverage can be brought to bear against them short of destroying them. This is partly why there is a lively debate in Europe, the United States and even Israel on the extent to which these groups can be influenced by diplomatic engagement. But it is doubtful that a peaceful settlement can be achieved between them and Israel. In both cases, the leadership of these groups is willing to impose enormous sacrifices on the population under its control, to the point of risking its survival, in order to pursue the objective of removing Israel from the map.
As with al-Qaeda, the choice of whether there will or won’t be diplomacy with such groups does not just belong to America, Europe or Israel. Hizballah and Hamas’s strength is derived to a large degree from being perceived by their supportive constituencies as the most forceful opponents of the United States or Israel (or the West in general). Their ultimate objective is not as important for practical purposes as the immediate achievement of attacking and killing Americans, Jews or their purported supporters, for that action is the source of these groups’ cohesion and influence. To engage in genuine diplomacy would nullify their raison d’être.
An analogous logic applies to state leaders who demonize their enemies. Putin’s saber rattling against Georgia, continued use of violence in Chechnya, and increasingly shrill rhetoric about a Western encirclement of Russia may befuddle us, but it has boosted his domestic support. Such behavior makes negotiations and compromise more difficult because diplomacy would undermine the domestic strength of such leaders. Moreover, bellicose populist behavior makes other states less amenable to compromise, lest they be seen to reward and appease that behavior. As a result, what may be “only” rhetoric alters the strategic landscape in such a way as to diminish the feasibility and effectiveness of diplomacy.
A third and final condition for effective diplomacy is that the various negotiating parties not only be willing to engage in diplomacy but, if a settlement is reached, be able to implement its decisions. Diplomacy requires political actors to make a decision and then convince or force their citizens to accept it. It is not by chance that diplomacy, understood again as a process of negotiations to reach a political settlement of divergent interests, has reached its full expression only in modern history. It is tightly connected to the rise of the modern state, a process that, beginning in the Italian Renaissance, resulted in states recognizing each other as equals and fully sovereign within their own territories.55.
See Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955). This recognition implied the capability of states to enforce the law, including international agreements, among their populations—a capability that increased with the growing administrative competence of the state. By contrast, the more decentralized and weak the political entity, the harder it is to enforce any decision, including a diplomatic agreement. As a result, negotiations may occur, but they are constantly marred by the doubt that a settlement might not be implemented. The process may be in place, but the outcome is missing.
We may be witnessing the beginning of a protracted age in which the modern state will no longer be the only main class of political actor in international relations. While the demise of the state has been frequently heralded and greatly exaggerated, several trends are creating space for non-state actors to be viable strategic players. On the one side of the spectrum, small, highly decentralized groups of individuals, detached from a state and lacking a fixed territorial base, are increasingly capable of inflicting severe destruction upon even great powers. Al-Qaeda is of course the most brutal manifestation of this type of organization, but it is by no means the only or the last one. “Global insurgencies” will continue to present strategic challenges to international politics. The problem these groups pose for diplomacy is that, even if they espouse goals that are limited and perhaps negotiable, their organizational structure as decentralized networks makes negotiations and a political settlement impossible.
On the other side of the spectrum of non-state actors is a motley assortment of unevenly constituted conglomerates of states, international organizations and non-governmental groups whose political clout is growing. Entities such as the European Union, the United Nations or the International Crisis Group act as diplomatic players that pursue strategic objectives, engage in negotiations and reach agreements. But most of these non-state or para-state (in the case of the EU) actors have little or no ability to monitor and enforce the agreements they reach or help others to reach. In part, this inability is due to the fact that these organizations lack robust enforcement mechanisms to impose costs in cases of non-compliance. In the case of the European Union, its pretensions to function as a unitary diplomatic actor far outsize its abilities to enforce any agreements it makes. The United Nations, which has no independent enforcement capacities as all, is a more extreme case. The UN is often compelled to renegotiate agreements with external actors under duress, thereby weakening its credibility and ability to conduct meaningful diplomacy. The UN’s sorry record in Darfur is a perfect case in point.
In brief, effective diplomacy demands efficient hierarchical organizations such as those possessed by unitary states to negotiate and enforce agreements. Their weakening or (occasional) disappearance will undermine diplomacy’s ability to manage international relations peacefully. States, in other words, provide an economical and realistic form of order to the world; wishing for their decline at the same time that one wishes for a more stable global peace, as so many liberal internationalists do, is an oxymoronic exercise. This does not, however, seem to make it any less popular.
When Diplomacy Cannot Work
These three conditions and current trends affecting them obviously do not suffice as a complete analysis of diplomacy’s prospects. Diplomacy is affected by many other variables, from the character of leaders to several contingent and therefore unpredictable factors, and it may occasionally work even when the basic enabling conditions mentioned above seem absent. For instance, a strong and credible American hegemon could mitigate these trends by compelling other actors to compromise with each other, effectively salvaging diplomacy from dire circumstances by inserting its own power as an engine of others’ agreement. Still, most likely we are at one of those historical junctures where diplomacy will struggle to settle politically conflicts of interests and clashes of values. What is different about our times is that even as the prospects of outcome-driven diplomacy ebb, we are deluged by the futile conversations of mere process diplomacy.
Whether we see our circumstances clearly or not, the broad consequences of a weakening of diplomacy are predictable. If political compromises become impossible to achieve, then force will dominate. War comes when diplomacy ends. Of course this is regrettable, but we ought nonetheless to prepare for the absence of negotiated settlements in international relations. Specifically, we should change our policies in three ways.
The first, and perhaps the most evident, policy consequence is that states will have to rely more on their ability to impose settlements, even through force, in order to resolve conflicts of interest. Power, and military power in particular, has always been and will continue to be the decisive factor in international relations—the ultima ratio as the professionals of Nicolson’s generation called it. This means that Washington should maintain a posture of high military preparedness both to defend itself from attacks as well as to strike enemies abroad. It means that, for instance, the widely criticized doctrine of preventive war is not likely to be abandoned. (Indeed, this doctrine may be gaining silent support even among those European countries most opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.66.
See, for instance, Peter Dombrowski and Rodger Payne, “The Emerging Consensus for Preventive War”, Survival (Summer 2006).
) A willingness to strike an enemy early and unexpectedly flows in large measure from recognition that a diplomatic solution to a conflict of interest is impossible.
In terms of military power, it is indisputable that the United States enjoys military dominance and a substantial economic and geostrategic superiority over other great powers. Yet this should not lead to complacency. The past few years have demonstrated that traditional forms of military power are of limited utility when fighting non-state groups as well as insurgencies, and many future conflicts are likely to involve similar opponents. Thus it is imperative to increase U.S. capabilities—particularly U.S. military manpower—to prepare for traditional wars involving armored divisions and naval fleets, wars of counterinsurgency similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “hybrid wars” that are a confusing mix of both.
Second, we must conduct more skillfully the forms of diplomacy still open to us. Just because we cannot usefully negotiate with al-Qaeda or Hizballah does not mean we should forsake negotiating with political actors that share our values and interests. On the contrary: We should eagerly develop relationships most likely to bring agreements that will strengthen key alliances and help friendly states weather politically unsolvable conflicts. The next administration should reinforce relations with other democracies—or, more broadly, with states that esteem individual freedom and share with us at least some basic political values.
Several proposals have been floated over the past few years in this regard. One suggests the creation of a community or even an alliance of democracies to serve as a spearhead to defend the security and interests of democratic regimes, as well as promote global order based on respect of international law.77.
See, for instance, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, “Democracies of the World, Unite”, The American Interest (January/February 2007); “A Seductive Sound”, Economist, June 7, 2007; G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Forging a World of Liberty under Law”, The Princeton Project on National Security, September 27, 2006. Another proposes strengthening the West through existing institutions such as NATO, whose “out-of-area” mission in Afghanistan exemplifies the concept. Such proposals imply a lack of faith that diplomatic efforts can mitigate most conflicts in today’s world. They lead to the conclusion that it is better to tighten the ranks of those who can agree in order to deal in other ways with those who can or will not.
If bold proposals like an alliance of democracies cannot be realized anytime soon, the practical thing for the next administration to do in the meantime is to shore up America’s commitments to traditional allies: Europe, Japan, Australia, Israel and Taiwan. Russia’s resurgence, the Middle East’s continued troubles and China’s ambitions will not allow the United States to retreat into a form of 19th-century continental isolation. These challenges will demand instead sustained American involvement in all these regions. The success of diplomacy at managing, if not resolving, conflicts will depend on a U.S. commitment to support acceptable outcomes. That will require an active, if still selective, American global involvement, and that involvement must include the projection of deterrent and reassuring military power.
This proposal clearly runs against the grain of any strategy of “restraint.” Diminishing the American footprint abroad, especially in countries that have been traditional and close allies, will neither slake the antagonism of our enemies nor enhance our ability to shape the security landscape through diplomacy. On the contrary, as diplomacy continues to lose effectiveness for the structural reasons outlined above, U.S. retrenchment will merely further weaken America’s strategic position. It is naive, and ultimately very risky, to believe that U.S. allies, shorn of American support and commitment, would continue to support our interests simply because we “engage” with them.
Finally, the next administration should take special care not to engage in empty process diplomacy. It is always tempting to enter into protracted negotiations, if only to generate hope of a political solution on the horizon. In truth, it is not always possible to know in advance which investments of diplomatic capital will eventually pay off and which will not. But when it is clear that diplomacy cannot deliver acceptable outcomes, negotiations will invariably be counterproductive. They will buy time for irreconcilable opponents, making it harder to prevail in a conflict if indeed conflict comes, and they will weaken American political will by giving a false impression of pending political compromise. Diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake, process alone with no possibility of a meaningful outcome, is dangerous.
Even though it is not always clear which diplomatic engagements are futile and which may not be, there are ways to tell. Following the logic of the foregoing analysis, we should ask ourselves three questions: Do we share significant commonalities with the other side? Are the objectives pursued by the parties negotiable? Do the organizational structures of the two sides allow for negotiating and implementing a compromise? If the answer to even one, let alone two or all three of these questions is “no”, diplomacy is unlikely to achieve any positive results. This is not an argument for severing relations or ceasing communications with other political entities; it is simply a warning that diplomacy in such cases should not be enshrined as the primary strategy to solve a conflict.
Diplomacy is desirable. It can prevent wars, end violence, alleviate disputes, and resolve conflicts of interest. It can establish frameworks for long-term political stability and build institutions and alliances that help states achieve common objectives. Clearly, diplomacy can achieve a lot when the conditions are right, but it cannot create the fundamental conditions for its own success. These conditions are systemic, and diplomacy cannot alter them in a substantial way.
The absence of shared principles, the emergence of non-negotiable objectives and the rise of actors incapable of enforcing agreements are increasingly the structural realities of our time, over which we have little or no control. It is delusional, albeit perhaps reassuring, to think that the difficult circumstances of the past decade are the fault of presidential personalities and faddish theories of international life, both of which come and go. A mere election cycle will not solve our problems. Depending on how things turn out, it might make them worse. Let us certainly hope for diplomacy, but let us also prepare for its absence.
The literature critical of the Bush Administration is long and growing. For a sample, see G. John Ikenberry, “The End of the Neo-Conservative Moment”, Survival (January 2004); Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, “The Sources of American Legitimacy”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2004); Joseph Nye, “The Decline of America’s Soft Power”, Foreign Affairs (May/June 2004); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (Basic Books, 2007).
See Donald Kagan, “Our Interests and Our Honor”, Commentary (April 1997).
See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Measure of Diplomacy”, Foreign Affairs (July/August 1994).
Lippmann, The Stakes of Diplomacy (Henry Holt & Co., 1915).
See Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955).
See, for instance, Peter Dombrowski and Rodger Payne, “The Emerging Consensus for Preventive War”, Survival (Summer 2006).
See, for instance, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, “Democracies of the World, Unite”, The American Interest (January/February 2007); “A Seductive Sound”, Economist, June 7, 2007; G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Forging a World of Liberty under Law”, The Princeton Project on National Security, September 27, 2006.