Skip to content

The Limits of Diplomatic Engagement

In September of 2009, Chester A. Crocker, a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University and a former Assistant Secretary of State during the Reagan years, wrote an OpEd for The New York Times in which he encouraged President Obama — and all of President Obama’s critics — to embrace “engagement” with our foreign adversaries.  Mr. Crocker was quite clear and firm that, by “engagement” he did not mean “making nice” or even, necessarily, “improving” our relations with those adversaries.  He meant what he said — talking to them, the better both to understand what they want of us and to communicate what it is we want of them.

I agree with him in many ways, but I believe he underestimates the deleterious effects that such engagement may have, not directly on our relations with our adversaries abroad but on the tenor and tone of our domestic politics, on the way those politics affect our external engagement, and on the way our adversaries can use that engagement to manipulate our internal politics to their advantage.  I wrote this directly to Mr. Crocker at Georgetown to express my reservations.  I received no reply.

14 September 2009

After reading your article on the benefits of diplomatic engagement as a policy and a practice, it occurs to me that you missed one of the reasons for hostility to the idea. That is, I suppose, understandable inasmuch as the reason is rooted not in the subtleties of foreign policy and diplomacy, which is your specialty, but in the ugly back and forth of domestic politics.

Quite simply, aside from its affects on our adversaries, engagement creates certain expectations at home: expectations that can be manipulated to gain advantage by politicians during the electoral contest and during legislative debate; and expectations that can be manipulated, also, by our adversaries as they augment the quiet closed-door diplomacy of engagement with public relations efforts aimed directly at the American citizenry.

In the first place, the act of engagement is often wrapped, for political reasons, in language of “cooperation” and “partnership” rather than in the language of practicality — that is, our leaders justify engagement by linguistically re-inventing our adversaries as “partners” in some “process”; and, in the same vein, they imply that this “process” will magically remove the points of contention between us, leading to an implicit public expectation of “progress” and an implicit public expectation of some short-term timeline for such “progress”. In fact, calls for “engagement” are almost always accompanied by calls for a less “rigid” or “ideological” or “belligerent” policy in general, by an implied criticism not merely of our means but of our ends.

“Partnership” implies, in crude and practical political terms rather than in nuanced diplomatic terms, a certain moral equivalence. This is related to, but not the same as, the problem of conferring “legitimacy” to those we choose to engage. “Partnership” signals an expectation at home that in pursuit of a “solution” to our “mutual problem” we must be expected to give as much — or perhaps more — as they; that the problem between us lies as much in our own intransigence as in theirs; that, in fact, if we do not make “progress” it will be because we were insufficiently willing to move beyond “ideology”, not because of a genuine clash of interests.

It may well be that, as you defined it, engagement allows us an opportunity to change our adversaries’ perceptions of their own interests, to align those interests more with our own and, thereby, to remove some of the underlying conflict. But such change is likely to take time, whereas the public expectation of progress (and for demonstrable public signs of progress) — accompanied by an implied presumption that a lack of such progress must be as much our own fault as the fault of our opponents — may limit the time available for such change and may put intense political pressure on the political — rather than the diplomatic — establishment to compromise our own interests rather than waiting for our adversaries to compromise theirs. Hence, some see a real danger that engagement, through the indirect mechanism of unrealistic domestic political expectation, is as likely to lead to undermining our own interest as to reinforcing it.

That process is exacerbated by the hyper-public and hyper-partisan arena in which government conducts its business now. It must be extremely difficult for the diplomatic corps to conduct honest and subtle negotiations when there is the constant threat that what they are doing and saying will be reported — without any subtlety and before it has had time to settle into its final form — on the front page of The New York Times or as a headline on FOX news or in some floor speech by a legislator with Presidential ambitions. If diplomatic overtures designed to “exert[ing] pressure, by raising questions and hypothetical possibilities, and by probing the other country’s assumptions and thinking” or “Above all…test[ing] how far the other country might be willing to go” are exposed publicly in their raw form, reported and dissected in our partisan political climate, how likely are they to elicit the answers they were aiming for; and how likely are they, rather, to distort our own political considerations, to end up moving us more than it moves our adversaries?

And, finally, engagement gives our adversaries the same opportunities it gives us — to explore the adamance of our stances and the limits of our tolerance. But, given that most of our adversaries are totalitarian societies while ours is an open and democratic one, that gives our adversaries an advantage because they can incite American public opinion outside the official channels of dialog, both the better to gauge our own reactions to their overtures and to influence the positions of our diplomats through political pressure.

I very well remember, as a high-school and college student in the late seventies and early eighties, wondering how in the world it was possible to negotiate meaningful arms reductions and other accommodations with the Soviet Union while our own electorate seemed to be pushing as hard as they could for abject surrender — for unilateral disarmament and acceptance of the evil Soviet model of governance as “legitimate”.  I had the same reaction before and during the latest Iraq war: how could Bush’s administration ever have negotiated acceptable resolutions of the impending crises while his political opponents (and our “allies”) were doing all they could to signal to the rest of the world that they would stop him from imposing any meaningful sanction, that the best options for our opponents was not cooperation and compromise but to wait us out? Whether you think his policies were right or wrong, surely that environment made it less, not more, likely that “engagement” could influence our opponents to adopt more agreeable stances. And, just as surely, Iraq (and Al Quaeda) made a concerted effort, both here and among our allies and at the UN, to foster that opposition.

© Copyright 2009, Augustus P. Lowell

Leave a Reply