When Diplomacy Works

By Wendy R. Sherman

This latest round of diplomatic dancing with North Korea should finally put to rest the hoariest of political clich̩s Рthat a willingness to talk with an enemy is appeasement.
Last week, the Bush administration took North Korea off the US list of states sponsoring terrorism and lifted some sanctions after Pyongyang made an accounting of its nuclear program. Within a few days, North Korea also destroyed a nuclear plant cooling tower and loosened restrictions on food aid.
This by no means puts an end to US concerns about North Korea, but it certainly should end Republicans’ concerted political effort to label Sen. Barack Obama an appeaser for his stated willingness to talk with hostile regimes. President Bush, who implicitly accused Democrats of appeasement during a speech in May to Israel’s Knesset, has exposed through his actions the intellectual and moral emptiness of his own words.
Equating negotiation with appeasement is based on a distortion of history. The 1938 Munich Pact, in which France and England signed off on Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland, is justly considered the epitome of diplomatic cowardice. Yet that cowardice did not arise from the allies’ decision to meet and talk with Adolf Hitler. The appeasement came in the substance of what was agreed to. A willingness to engage with enemies is central to diplomacy; it only degenerates into appeasement when honor is sacrificed in the pursuit of short-term, often illusory goals.
In the case of North Korea, the Bush administration tried name-calling, stonewalling and bluster before realizing – after the October 2006 North Korean nuclear test – that a change in approach was needed. The new strategy has not yet proved fully successful, but it has produced several positive steps. North Korea has stopped adding to its plutonium stockpile, provided new information about its nuclear program and promised to dismantle its atomic weapons facilities.
This is not the first time the Bush administration sat down with America’s enemies. In fact, its only major foreign policy accomplishment to date had been the renunciation of nuclear arms by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Recent gains in Iraq too are owed primarily to the US military’s tactical alliance with Sunni militias – groups previously labeled terrorists. Bush’s emissaries have also conducted talks at various levels with problematic regimes in Iran, Syria, Sudan and Myanmar.
This is not to say that offering to negotiate is always wise. Timing matters, and so does leverage. The Reagan administration’s secret negotiations with Iran in 1985-86 was a classic case of how not to proceed. Reagan’s desire to gain the release of Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed kidnappers was understandable, but he bargained from a position of weakness, rewarded bad behavior and – in selling weapons to the ayatollahs – violated US law. By comparison, Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union, which combined military strength with openness to dramatic reductions in nuclear arms, was relatively deft.
Successful diplomacy results from rigorous planning. A president must pick the right negotiator, consult allies, decide how public to be about the process, control expectations and acquire the best possible understanding of how the world looks from the perspective of his adversary. In the most extreme cases, as with al-Qaida, negotiations have no purpose; annihilation is not subject to compromise. In other cases, the goal may be limited to delivering a tough message on one particular issue, leaving broader disagreements for another day.
American voters this fall will be asked to make a momentous choice about who will lead our country during the next four years. That decision should incorporate a fair understanding of the possibilities and limitations of diplomacy. As our talks with North Korea reflect, the possibilities can be surprising if diplomats are creative. We do not want a president – of any political party – to be hamstrung by unfair accusations of being an appeaser.
On the contrary, the next president must be smart and persuasive enough to use diplomacy effectively in situations in which U.S. interests are most at risk. In a world of extraordinary and ever-shifting dangers, that will require boldness, not timidity, and critical thinking, not cheap political smears.

Wendy R. Sherman, former counselor for the US State Department, is a principal of the Albright Group.

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