Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Obama's confidence in Diplomacy

The above article is from the September 2008 issue of Commentary. It is by Joshua Muravchik and entitled “Obama’s ‘Talking’ Cure.”

“Talking” in this case means “diplomacy.” Obama believes the Bush Administration has been too belligerent and not diplomatic enough. Last year Anderson Cooper asked Obama: “In the spirit of . . . bold leadership would you be willing to meet . . . during the first year of your administration . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

“Obama did not hesitate. ‘I would,’ he replied.”

The author then rhetorically asks, “How valuable is diplomacy? Can it in fact ‘bridge the gap’ with enemies by disclosing unsuspected common ground and thereby changing the equation between them and us? Has it ever done so?”

His answer is “no.” Diplomacy has never bridged the gap with an enemy. The most frequently cited examples demonstrate that to be the case. The first example is Nixon’s visit to China. This was not a spontaneous diplomatic effort that “bridged the gap with China.” There was never a better planned, more thoroughly sought, better rehearsed and scripted visit in history. Nixon’s visit was the culmination of decisions previously made. There were many reasons for the China’s willingness to meet with the Americans. Not least of which was the “large buildup of Soviet forces on the Chinese border.”

Muravchik discusses another example and then writes, “It is actually difficult to think of any case where diplomacy has served to ‘bridge the gap’ with a hostile or enemy nation. Which is hardly to say that such diplomacy has not been tried. Time and time again, American and other Western statesmen have undertaken strenuous diplomatic efforts at the highest levels in order to reach and change the minds of enemy leaders. As the history of the cold-war summitry attests, the results have been at best trivial, at worst deleterious.”

Muravchik then discusses some famous diplomatic episodes of the past, none of which did the West any good. Most of which hurt us in some way. He concludes as follows:

“Even the Soviet Union, our superpower counterpart, was eager for the symbolism of being treated by America as an equal. How much more so would the power of the petty tyrants or would-be tyrants who rule Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea – the countries with whose leaders Barack Obama expressed his readiness to meet in the first year of his administration – be inflated by an audience with an American President. In this, especially, there is much to be lost – by ourselves and by those under their rule.

“Should we talk with our enemies? Yes – so that they cannot make an issue of our refusal to do so, and in order to make clear that when they are ready to abandon their hostile policies, we stand ready as always for relations of comity. We should talk to them, that is, on our own terms and not theirs, and with their captive peoples in mind. But to the question that Anderson Cooper put to Senator Obama, the simple and correct answer was ‘No.’ If Obama ever gains the presidency, the world will be safer if he has figured that out before he enters office.”

COMMENT: Obama’s response to Anderson Cooper at first seems another indication of his inexperience and naiveté, but so many others have made the same mistake that it is not fair to single Obama out as unusual in this regard. Many Western leaders, perhaps overestimated their powers of persuasion, sought and failed to “bridge the gap” diplomatically with an enemy. I was especially interested in Muravchik’s analysis of the diplomatic negotiations with Hitler. He doesn’t blame Neville Chamberlain as much as others have. Neville Chamberlain worked in an “era of appeasement.” To be sure, Chamberlain agreed with this diplomatic philosophy, but no one else, practicing this philosophy, would have done any better against Hitler.

And today, can we be said to live in “an era of appeasement”? In a way, I think. The Europeans have painted themselves into a diplomatic corner where they have made the threat of war almost impossible for them. The threat of war has been “off the table” for them for some time. Robert Kagan, living in Brussels, wrote Of Paradise and Power to emphasize Europe’s desire to make a virtue out of weakness. His subsequent book, The End of History, shows them confronted by a belligerent Russia, the sort of national force they hoped never to confront again. The book ended with the EU not only not dealing with the Russian threat but not knowing how to deal with it.

What does this have to do with Obama, the European’s choice? Europe likes him for a reason. They believe he shares their ideals. Europeans like the way he talks. It is too soon to tell what he will do if given the chance. It is safe to assume, however, that the Europeans believe he would do what they would do. Let us hope not.

Lawrence Helm

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