During his keynote address in Israel last Thursday, President Bush took a veiled swipe at Senator Barack Obama’s readiness to pursue diplomacy with America’s adversaries should he win the November election.
Bush denounced such plans to engage the enemy, declaring: “We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Bush not only transgressed a presidential tradition of refraining from partisan gamesmanship when traveling abroad, but also grossly distorted the historical record.
Obama’s readiness to engage adversaries is a sign not of naïveté or inexperience, but of hard-headed realism. The history of diplomacy makes amply clear that longstanding rivalries usually require engagement—often at the highest levels—to reach resolution. In contrast, isolation and the silent treatment serve primarily to sustain mutual hostility and suspicion.
Bush should have learned as much from the results of his own policies. Throughout his presidency, Bush has refused to enter into direct negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program and broader issues of regional security.
The result has been mounting hostility and an Iran that is continuing to enrich uranium while fueling extremist causes throughout the Middle East.
In contrast, after years of watching North Korea advance its nuclear weapons program, Bush finally dispatched a top envoy to negotiate directly with Pyongyang. Although a number of sticking points have yet to be resolved, North Korea has already shut down and begun to dismantle its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
North Korea is hardly an isolated example of the merits of negotiating with adversaries; engagement has time and again produced results.
One of the key turning points in the Cold War was the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Communist China—an outcome achieved only because Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were prepared to go to Beijing for direct negotiations with Mao Zedong. Moreover, the Nixon administration reached out even as China was providing ample military support to America’s enemies in the Vietnam War.
In a similar fashion, it took presidential intercession to bring the Cold War to a close. Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric and confrontational policies were initially matched in kind by the Soviet leadership. Only after direct diplomacy between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did decades of East-West rivalry come to an end.
Apart from the evident successes of U.S. diplomacy, the 20th century is full of other cases in which longstanding rivalries ended only after the direct engagement of national leaders.
Following the founding of Malaysia in 1963, Indonesia enacted an economic blockade and engaged in sporadic military incursions to scuttle the new federation. After General Suharto took over from General Sukarno in 1966, the new leader dispatched a team to Kuala Lumpur to end the confrontation. Rapprochement between Indonesia and Malaysia ensued, clearing the way for the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967—a body that has helped preserve peace in the region ever since.
The peace process in the Middle East has enjoyed few breakthroughs. But the most notable was surely the result of Anwar Sadat’s momentous journey to Jerusalem in 1977 to meet face-to-face with Menachem Begin. Facilitated by the personal intervention of Jimmy Carter, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Peace Accords—arguably the most important advance toward Arab-Israeli peace since Israel’s founding.
Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century, Brazil and Argentina were strategic rivals. Their relationship took a sudden turn toward amity in 1979-1980 when direct meetings between the Argentine president, General Jorge Rafael Videla, and the Brazilian president, General João Baptista de Figueiredo, led to a series of agreements on nuclear cooperation, trade and scientific exchanges. Rapprochement began despite the fact that both countries were governed by repressive military dictatorships.
As the examples of Indonesia/Malaysia and Brazil/Argentina make clear, presidential engagement can lead to diplomatic breakthroughs even among autocracies.
The regime in Iran may be repugnant and Washington justified in pressing Tehran to change its ways. But the historical record suggests that the United States can do business with such regimes to advance the cause of international peace and security even as it seeks to expose them to the benign effects of democracy and commerce.
Engagement with adversaries does not always work. But not trying is to miss opportunities to resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
After eight years of a dangerous bunker mentality in Washington, Obama’s plans for engaging friends and enemies alike offers the best hope for cleaning up the woeful mess that will be left behind by the Bush administration.
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