Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Diplomacy returns to US arsenal

| March 2, 2012

WITH LITTLE fanfare, the Obama administration is adopting a new approach to foreign policy. More than a decade after 9/11, President Obama is following Churchill’s insight that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’’ This return to diplomacy doesn’t exclude the use of force in dealing with terrorists, but is an adept pivot by an administration searching for a new formula to advance American interests in the world.

Consider how President Obama is coping with threats to our national security.

In Afghanistan, with no hope of a military victory in sight, the administration is pursuing “reconciliation’’ through negotiations between the Taliban and the Karzai government. The aim is to end the conflict at the negotiating table - exactly where the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Bosnia ended. With US forces out of Iraq, our diplomats will now take the lead to help Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders avoid a bloodbath. The United States has also turned to diplomacy with an enigmatic and isolated North Korean government. And in dealing with a fast-rising China, diplomats will bear a large share of the burden of outrunning and outsmarting Beijing in the race for future influence and power in East Asia.

This return to diplomacy is most consequential regarding Iran. Obama, like President Bush before him, has threatened Iran with sanctions and force with one goal in mind - to persuade its recalcitrant leaders to accept diplomacy and a possible negotiated outcome short of war. Lost in our increasingly shrill national debate about whether to bomb Iran is bipartisan consensus to at least try negotiating with Iran’s mullahs before we decide to fight them. This is a reality Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to understand when he visits Washington next week.

The military is still vital to American success, and effective diplomacy is often impossible without it. The fact that we have the most capable fighting force is a huge source of America’s global strength and should make us pause before taking a meat cleaver to its funding.

But we asked our military to do too much in the past decade and discovered that victory parades down Pennsylvania Avenue are elusive indeed. We can’t fight all our foes and can no longer afford to pay for costly long-term occupations in the Middle East.

In asking our diplomats, rather than our warriors, to once again take the point position in foreign policy, Washington will need to make adjustments in how it has viewed the usefulness of diplomacy in recent years.

First, Congress must rebuild and refinance the American Foreign Service - our corps of talented but underfunded and often overlooked diplomats. We have fully funded the Pentagon and intelligence agencies and created the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11. But we have starved the State Department of funds.

Second, we need a reset in how political leaders think about diplomacy itself. Too many on the right routinely deride Obama for considering negotiations with Iran. They’ve called him naive for believing that peace in Afghanistan might yet be achieved through negotiations. But presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton have discovered that diplomacy, negotiations, and statecraft can be an effective part of the American arsenal, along with the military, in confronting difficult governments around the world.

Third, we need to be willing to talk to our most dangerous foes. We’ve fallen into the habit of declaring that we will not talk to governments we dislike. Now we find ourselves in the unusual position of contemplating war with an Iranian government with which we have not had a serious conversation in 30 years. Figuring out if there is a deal to be made to stop Iran’s expanding nuclear program is not charity to Iran but in our clear self-interest.

Here is welcome news - America is actually good at diplomacy. We have a first-rate foreign service. Since the end of the Cold War, our diplomats have ended wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, mobilized money and commitment to fight HIV/AIDS, and just this week negotiated a nuclear freeze with North Korea.

In the years ahead, Americans will surely need to call on the military to protect us. But, more often than not, we will need to outwit our foes in a complex and unpredictable world. Diplomacy does require a fair degree of patience in our restless political culture. In the end, however, it can promise progress and sometimes even peace if we believe in our power to pressure, cajole, and persuade rather than just fight.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, R. Nicholas.“Diplomacy returns to US arsenal.” The Boston Globe, March 2, 2012.