Nicholas Burns on Diplomatic Power: “We Should Talk to Our Enemies”
Career diplomat Nicholas Burns has an essay in Newsweek on the whole “negotiate with adversaries” kerfuffle. (Yeah, I said “kerfuffle” because that’s about all it deserves.) He begins:
One of the sharpest and most telling differences on foreign policy between Barack Obama and John McCain is whether the United States should talk to difficult and disreputable leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. In each of the three presidential debates, McCain belittled Obama as naive for arguing that America should be willing to negotiate with such adversaries. In the vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin went even further, accusing Obama of “bad judgment … that is dangerous,” an ironic charge given her own very modest foreign-policy credentials.
Are McCain and Palin correct that America should stonewall its foes? I lived this issue for 27 years as a career diplomat, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations. Maybe that’s why I’ve been struggling to find the real wisdom and logic in this Republican assault against Obama. I’ll bet that a poll of senior diplomats who have served presidents from Carter to Bush would reveal an overwhelming majority who agree with the following position: of course we should talk to difficult adversaries—when it is in our interest and at a time of our choosing.
The more challenging and pertinent question, especially for the McCain-Palin ticket, is the reverse: Is it really smart to declare we will never talk to such leaders?
Further in the essay, he notes:
Talking to our adversaries is no one’s idea of fun, and it is not a sure prescription for success in every crisis. But it is crude, simplistic and wrong to charge that negotiations reflect weakness or appeasement. More often than not, they are evidence of a strong and self-confident country. One of America’s greatest but often neglected strengths is, in fact, our diplomatic power. Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Libya in September—the first by a U.S. secretary of state in five decades—was the culmination of years of careful, deliberate diplomacy to maneuver the Libyan leadership to give up its weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism. She would not have achieved that victory had she refused to talk to the Libyans.
Burns’ essay is a good antidote to the breathless hyperbole about appeasement and whatnot.