It is a reminder of how far discourse on foreign policy had been distorted that former Bush speechwriter and now-Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has declared the basic act of diplomacy the “Obama Doctrine.”
This is unfortunate, as Gerson makes some valid points on the difficulties and dilemmas of negotiating with authoritarian regimes. Few would argue that the ticking time bombs of North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation inherited by Obama six months ago have been defused or even headed in that direction.
But to argue that, “the defining principle of President Obama’s foreign policy is engagement with America’s adversaries,” is both silly and wrong. Talking to governments we don’t like is not only not a doctrine, it is not even a policy. “Engagement” is simply an act of statecraft, a tactic and basic tool of foreign policy. It is only if measured against the notion that negotiating is not a tool, but necessarily a moral act, that engagement even becomes an issue. Never mind that the administration is “engaged” in two wars it inherited from its predecessor and has made the Afghan/Pakistan conundrum a central element of its foreign policy.
Of course, there are circumstances when it might make sense and advance interests to avoid contact with unsavory regimes. Apartheid South Africa might be a historical case-in-point. And then there are complicated cases like contemporary Iran, where there is demonstrable internal turmoil and Iranians — including the clerical elite — themselves are questioning the legitimacy of the regime. Yet at the same time, the nuclear clock is ticking.
In any case, it is certainly a fair point that dealing with quirky, nasty authoritarian regimes lacking in democratic accountability is a difficult affair and is best approached cautiously and with an underlying toughness in pursuit of national interests. But as U.S. diplomacy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War illustrated, undemocratic regimes do have interests and more often than not can be dealt with on that basis. Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “Trust, but verify” is instructive in this regard. And it is probably not coincidence that verification is a key issue on which negotiations with North Korea have foundered.
But is it fair to argue that President Obama’s willingness to talk to countries of concern is a “doctrine.” Such inclinations have been the stuff of foreign policy for hundreds of years. Diplomacy is a means, not an end. That appeared to be Obama’s point during campaign 2008, though he often was chastised by his opponents for purportedly being “naïve.” Assuming benign intentions of regimes like those in North Korea, Iran or Burma would be naïve. Simply offering to talk to them, however, is, short of sanctions or war, one of the few choices available. The issue is the context and what you say and how judiciously you deal with them. No matter how much you may disdain Pyongyang, mere scorn, no matter how intense, is an attitude, not a policy.
Dialogue does not necessarily lead to the resolution of differences. In fact, it could be the opposite: negotiations might lead you to conclude that differences are so deep that no deal is worth pursuing. But can you really know that without probing the government in question?
Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher aptly described Bosnia in the mid-1990s as “a problem from hell.” The current administration has inherited its share of those, with the threat of nuclear North Korea and Iran high on the list. There are few obvious solutions, let alone palatable options. But a serious debate over the best course forward should not be confused with red herrings like whether or not to talk.
Robert Manning is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.