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Deciding whether or how to engage with the leaders of hostile states has been a matter of debate among U.S. policymakers for decades. In the post-9/11 world, it has become increasingly controversial as national security officials weigh the merits of negotiating with states seen as pursuing weapons of mass destruction as well as non-state actors posing a threat to U.S. targets or U.S. allies. This debate rages continually in the foreign policy community, and during presidential election years like 2008, it has often burst into the open.
Containment and Contacts
Presidents have historically maintained diplomatic—and summit-level—contacts with adversarial states, although the timing and purpose of such engagement has sometimes met criticism. The most often-cited example is the Soviet Union. The United States was committed to maintaining dialogue with the Soviet Union from the early days of the Cold War while seeking to check Soviet influence and expansion—the underpinning of the containment policy accepted by top foreign policy officials of both major political parties. But containment and the notion of maintaining high-level contacts with the Soviets, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1959 invitation to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to visit the United States, generated resentment from some U.S. conservatives. Conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., told a rally at Carnegie Hall in 1960 that Eisenhower’s "diplomatic sentimentality...can only confirm Khrushchev in the contempt he feels for the dissipated morale of a nation far gone, as the theorists of Marxism have all along contended, in decrepitude."
Critics of engagement also seized on President John F. Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev in June 1961, five months after his inauguration, as an example of a poorly prepared summit. Some experts say the meeting gave the Soviet leader a chance to lecture the young president at length. Writing in a May 2008 New York Times op-ed, Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins suggest Khrushchev emerged from the encounter emboldened; he followed up by green-lighting the Berlin Wall and shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba. At the same time, historians say Kennedy’s deft handling of negotiations with the Soviets during the autumn 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis averted a major confrontation. Within a year, the two nations established a "hotline" to improve communications and signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first international agreement on nuclear weapons.
The Détente Experiment
Republican President Richard M. Nixon accelerated contacts with Soviet leaders in the early 1970s. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, introduced a policy of détente that aimed to establish new linkages on issues ranging from arms control to improved trade terms. The goal was to lessen superpower tensions as well as induce positive changes in Soviet international behavior. Kissinger writes in his book Diplomacy that Nixon’s advisers "saw no contradiction in treating the communist world as both adversary and collaborator: adversary in fundamental ideology and in the need to prevent communism from upsetting the global equilibrium; collaborator in keeping the ideological conflict from exploding into a nuclear war."
The new contacts bore fruit in the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972 by Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But within a year, tensions related to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War showed superpower competition remained vigorous, at one point prompting a heightened nuclear alert for U.S. forces. In 1974, congressional critics of détente, led by Democratic Sen. Henry M. Jackson, sidelined a U.S.-Soviet trade agreement with the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked trade to emigration of Soviet Jews. Writing in Foreign Affairs, historian John Lewis Gaddis called détente a "sophisticated and far-sighted strategy" that Nixon and Kissinger failed to put across to their "own bureaucracies, the Congress, or the public as a whole." Robert S. Litwak, director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, writes in his book Rogue States and U.S. Foreign Policy that the détente policy was hampered by the "Soviet leadership’s ability to compartmentalize relations and frustrate the Nixon administration’s efforts to establish linkages."
Some Cold War analysts say more effective as a counterweight to Soviet ambitions was the Nixon administration’s simultaneous diplomacy with China, which led to the formal establishment of a dialogue with the 1972 Shanghai Communique. While not posing the direct threat that the Soviet Union represented, Communist China was viewed as no less odious by critics of the Nixon negotiations due to its intervention on North Korea’s side in the Korean War, and because of massive human rights abuses, especially in the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Despite such concerns, Nixon saw value in ending China’s isolation. He wrote in an October 1967 Foreign Affairs article: "We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors."
In the years that followed, U.S. administrations held a number of adversarial states at arm’s length, diplomatically. These states included Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Libya, Nicaragua, Syria, and Sudan. In some cases, like Vietnam, diplomatic ties have been fully restored. In others, such as North Korea, dialogue has resumed over the issue of the country’s denuclearization. Relations with Iran were severed after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy, and diplomatic contacts have occurred only sporadically since then. High-level contacts with Cuba remained a remote prospect in 2008 as an economic embargo continued over U.S. concern at political repression.
President Ronald Reagan took office signaling a tough posture toward the Soviet Union and an intention to stanch communist support for rebellions in Central America. But Reagan also stepped up negotiations on nuclear arms control and participated in summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a practice continued by George H.W. Bush until the Soviet Union’s collapse. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration pursued dialogue with Pyongyang and normalized relations with Vietnam, while seeking to contain and isolate Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership.
Engagement with Iran
The issue of speaking to "rogue states" arose in the 2008 presidential campaign after Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) said in July 2007 that he would meet unconditionally with the leaders of states like Iran, Syria, and Cuba in his first year in office. He dismissed the Bush administration policy of withholding high-level talks as "ridiculous." Obama drew criticism from main Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and later from Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), both of whom said his willingness for such talks betrayed a naiveté about summit-level discussions with adversaries. The debate, which intensified in mid-2008, has also drawn attention to the Bush administration’s mixed record of engaging and isolating states deemed as rogues.
Iran, under international pressure to cease its uranium-enrichment program, represents an especially vexing case for U.S. policymakers. The Bush administration has conditioned broader talks with Iran on the country’s agreement to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, which Washington and a number of Western states believe is cover for a nuclear-weapons program. Iran denies this and has refused to suspend its nuclear program. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in repeated interviews in May 2008 that the United States has created an ample framework for a full range of discussions with Iran: "The question isn’t why we won’t talk to Tehran," she said. "The question is why won’t Tehran talk to us?"
As CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb wrote in an April 2008 op-ed: "The real issue is not whether to talk to the bad guys but how—under which conditions, with which mix of pressure and conciliation, and with what degree of expectation that the bad guys will keep their word." A 2004 CFR Independent Task Force report on Iran called for selective engagement but also advised the executive branch to lay out the framework for formal dialogue with Tehran, along the lines of the Shanghai Communique.
But President Bush has raised doubts about dealings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pointing to his militantly anti-Israeli rhetoric. In a widely cited May 15 speech to the Israeli parliament, Bush cited the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad as well as leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah and made references to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along, " Bush said. "We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, says Iran poses a challenge because of its multiple poles of power. However, he believes Washington should be committed to negotiations to try to work out its differences with the regime. "We negotiated with the Iranians when they were holding fifty-two diplomats hostage [in 1979]," Hoffman said. "I don’t see it as a sign of weakness to say we are going to negotiate on issues even more consequential."
Some regional analysts say Iran’s odd political identity makes dealing with its current leadership tricky. Iranian-born author Amin Taheri writes in a May 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed that Iran is still passing through an identity crisis of sorts: "The Islamic Republic does not know how to behave: as a nation-state, or as the embodiment of a revolution with universal messianic pretensions. Is it a country or a cause?" Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute writes in a May 2007 CFR.org Online Debate that dealing with Iran’s elected leaders could be fruitless. "If engagement is to be successful, it must include the sincere involvement of the people who control those aspects of regime behavior which Washington finds most objectionable—this means the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. This is an unlikely prospect," he writes.
Presidential candidates Obama and Clinton have faulted the Bush administration for failing to exert more energy on diplomacy with Iran. Obama has gone a step further by indicating he would be interested in meeting with Iranian leaders without making meetings contingent on suspension of uranium enrichment, although he subsequently indicated that some lower-level preparatory talks would be necessary. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has spoken out against meeting the Iranian president. He has indicated he would continue the Bush administration’s approach of offering inducements to Iran if it suspends enrichment while stepping up efforts to isolate the regime if it fails to cooperate, including a global divestment campaign.
The 9/11 Effect
National security experts note the U.S. strategy for dealing with rogue regimes changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. In a June 2002 speech at West Point, President Bush said: "containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy, issued in September 2002, asserted the need for preemptive strikes against states or entities intent on terrorism. This language "reflected the view that the bad behavior of these regimes was inextricably linked to their character," says the Wilson Center’s Litwak. "Hence, a change of conduct or behavior would be inadequate because the behavior derived from the regime’s character. Therefore, you had to change the regime to end the behavior."
The preemptive-strike policy was employed in the March 2003 invasion that ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose regime was accused of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that posed a threat to the United States. But in the case of Libya, which was linked to multiple terrorist attacks and was developing its own WMD programs, the Bush administration tried a different tack that relied more on diplomacy. Washington gained a Libyan agreement to dismantle its WMD programs and renounce terrorism in 2003 in exchange for U.S. assistance in opening economic and political ties.
Debate continues over the usefulness of negotiations with an Iran seen as intent on developing nuclear weapons. John Bolton, a former top arms-control official and UN ambassador in the Bush administration, warned in a May 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed of a reliance on negotiation with states or entities intent on supporting weapons or developing dangerous weapons. "In today’s world of weapons of mass destruction, time is again a precious asset, one almost invariably on the side of the would-be proliferators," Bolton wrote. "Time allows them to perfect the complex science and technology necessary to sustain nuclear weapons and missile programs, and provides far greater opportunity for concealing their activities from our ability to detect and, if necessary, destroy them."
The U.S. refusal to recognize or negotiate with non-state terror groups predated 9/11, although there have been nuances in U.S. policy before and after the attacks, as this Backgrounder notes. Experts from both major U.S. political parties appear to be united on opposing diplomatic talks with stateless parties linked to terrorism such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Obama, Clinton, and McCain have all said they would not hold talks with the leaders of either group. The Bush administration refuses contacts as well, although a top U.S. diplomat called the May 21, 2008, power-sharing deal that gave Hezbollah a blocking majority in the Lebanese cabinet a "necessary and positive step."
Former diplomat Dennis Ross believes negotiations can be used to alter the behavior of other states, but in a May 2008 op-ed he wrote that non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah must meet a higher threshold before talks are justified. "If achieving legitimacy is so important to them—if proving that they don’t need to adjust to the world, but proving that the world must adjust to them is such a central aim of theirs—then it is essential that they not get something for nothing," Ross wrote. "They should be required to meet certain conditions before we negotiate with them." Terrorism expert Hoffman adds that a goal of counterterrorism strategy "should always be to isolate the violent extremists and to try to prevent otherwise nonviolent extremists from becoming violent." Some weakening of terrorist groups should occur before negotiations start, he says, so that states are not "negotiating out of fear."
A Mixed Record
A number of experts on diplomacy and terrorism point to mixed messages from the Bush administration on dealing with rogue states. It has named an envoy for Sudan to deal with a Sudanese leadership the administration accuses of genocide. It has engaged North Korea in denuclearization talks after initially labeling it in 2002 part of an "axis of evil," and it has continued those talks even amid recent signals Pyongyang was providing nuclear technology to Syria. Talks continue with Iran, through European interlocutors. "We are caught between precedents," says the Wilson Center’s Litwak. "We can’t replicate the Iraq model and it’s not been clear that we’re prepared to offer the Libya model," which included removing the threat of regime change.