When it comes to adversarial states, diplomatic aims are better served by engagement, not isolation.
The current heated, even toxic, debates in the United States about the Iran nuclear deal and President Obama’s agreement with Raul Castro to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba reflect what has long been a core US policy issue: Should the United States directly engage its adversaries? Or should it seek to isolate them.
Other Western democracies place more faith than the United States in diplomacy’s capacity to mitigate bad behavior by recalcitrant states.
For nearly a century this issue has been central to US foreign policy. Isolating an adversarial state can, of course, be expressed through trade embargoes and economic sanctions, but the United States has often also imposed a form of symbolic and formal isolation by refusing to have diplomatic relations with the state. Instead of engaging—typically through recognition and the mutual exchange of embassies and ambassadors—the path of isolation has been taken.
There are many examples of this “traditional” US refusal to establish full formal diplomatic relations with adversarial states: the Soviet Union (1917–33), the People’s Republic of China (1949–79), Cuba (1959–2015), and Vietnam (1975–95); this approach has also been applied to Libya under Qadhafi (1969–2003) and to Iran (1979–present) and North Korea (1948–present)—and more often than not, this policy has frustrated US foreign policy goals.
The US’s refusal to engage diplomatically with Vietnam for nearly two decades following the end of the war in 1975 thwarted efforts to recover the remains of American servicemen missing in action. Since 1979, the United States has had no direct, bilateral diplomatic instruments to counter Iran’s propaganda and growing regional influence. And Cuba became a dangerous outpost of Soviet power during the Cold War, exposing the United States to a high degree of geostrategic vulnerability while doing little for democracy promotion and occasionally giving the impression—at the United Nations and with the Non-Aligned Movement—that it was the United States that was isolated, not Cuba.
For nearly a century this issue has been central to US foreign policy.
Linked with the US policy of diplomatic isolation is the stipulation that adversarial states must meet certain preconditions before they will be formally engaged. This practice contrasts with that of other Western democracies, which, as history suggests, place more faith than the United States in diplomacy’s capacity to mitigate bad international behavior by recalcitrant states. Recent high-level visits by Western delegations to Tehran and the British decision to reopen its embassy there—closed after protesters ransacked the ambassador’s residence in 2011—illustrate the point.
In US domestic politics, the divide on the isolate-or-engage issue falls roughly along party lines, with liberals tending to support diplomatic engagement, and conservatives tending to oppose it. There are important exceptions to this generalization, of course—for example, Republican presidents Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush adopted a pro-engagement position with China and the Soviet Union. The conservative tendency, though, has been to uphold the isolation tradition. President George W. Bush even extended it to include regime change in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
In contrast, President Barack Obama came to office in 2009 promising a new direction for US foreign policy, disavowing that of his predecessor, Bush. He signaled openness to the possibility of breaking with the tradition of non-engagement until preconditions are met. In his inaugural address, Obama told leaders “who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West” that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The Obama administration’s first few months included public overtures to Cuba, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. But the process then appeared to stall, only to have Obama make a historic announcement deep into his second term that, after 18 months of secret talks, the United States and Cuba would move toward full diplomatic relations.
The December 2014 agreement with Cuba and the July 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers, including the United States, reignited the isolate-or-engage debate. But as already indicated these two agreements are far from unique challenges for US foreign policy. Today, US policymakers and presidential candidates must take a hard look at the isolate-or-engage issue vis-à-vis many different adversarial relationships. Should the United States deal bilaterally with the hermit state, North Korea? And what about odious non-state actors, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and Boko Haram in Nigeria? Will the traditional, isolation approach be beneficial compared with engagement? What has history taught us?
The major arguments against engagement with adversarial states are:
It rewards bad behavior. US recognition and formal diplomatic relations reward bad behavior and do not promote democratization and human rights in many cases (for example, Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba).
It implies legitimacy and allows claims of a propaganda victory. The mutual exchange of embassies and ambassadors gives legitimacy and respectability to reprehensible regimes, which then claim a propaganda victory, equating normalization with US weakness.
It offers a target for attack. Resident US representation provides an inviting target for popular and terrorist attacks (as occurred in 1979 at the US embassy in Tehran and in 2012, when US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi, Libya). Resident American diplomats can also be shadowed and intimidated.
There is, of course, truth in all three arguments. The problem is that these claims do not tell the whole story. Here are a few key reasons, or counter-arguments, for why the United States is best served by engaging its adversaries.
It counters propaganda, lessens tension, and incentivizes behavior change. Refusing to have diplomatic ties with an adversary unifies the anti-US views of those in the adversary’s government, fueling the propaganda war and lessening the possibility of behavior change—as happened in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, China after 1949, Vietnam after 1954, Cuba after the 1959 revolution, and Iran since 1979. Having US diplomats in the adversary’s capital and major cities is an effective (although by no means trouble-free) way to counter propaganda and influence the public.
Otherwise, the only paths for effecting change are offshore broadcasting (for example, Voice of America—the official external broadcaster for the United States) and government-directed social media. Additionally (as the Iran and North Korea cases amply illustrate), the absence of diplomatic representation forces both sides to signal their views via public media, generally increasing rather than diminishing tension. Dealing directly with adversarial governments and their publics on security, trade, and human rights, is more likely to result in long-term reforms.
It produces better reporting and intelligence. When the United States has no diplomatic mission in the adversarial state, staying informed about that state is seriously jeopardized: The United States, in essence, robs itself of valuable sources of information. The worth of on-the-ground reporting from a US diplomat in an adversarial state is best exemplified by George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” sent from the US embassy in Moscow in 1946, in which Kennan argued for long-term containment of the Soviet Union.
Could such a penetrating analysis of the Soviet Union have come from anywhere other than that embassy? Without such a presence in the adversarial state, the more likely outcomes are misinformation and dangerous mutual demonizing. Moreover, embassies are important for gathering covert information on adversarial states, since diplomatic missions provide cover for intelligence activities.
It provides protection for US citizens abroad. The absence of a US diplomatic mission in an adversarial state harms US interests in the consular realm, especially in terms of protecting US citizens, including journalists, who have been (often wrongly) imprisoned in the adversarial state. These cases involving US citizens can usually be handled by a third country acting for the United States (as the Swedish embassy does in Pyongyang, or the Swiss embassy in Tehran), but such arrangements weaken the US’s ability to protect its own citizens from invidious actions.
All in all, a policy of isolating rather than engaging adversarial states produces less desirable outcomes for the United States and offers disincentives for adversarial states to change. Undoubtedly, US diplomatic relations with such countries as Russia, China, and Vietnam have advanced US interests and values.
Of much interest at the moment are US relations with Cuba and Iran. Cuba clearly offers a test of how well the pro-engagement thesis will fare. And once the Iran nuclear deal is in place, the next step will be to plan the calibrated establishment of diplomatic relations as a conduit for helping ensure the deal is properly implemented and for addressing other issues. The choice of ambassador and the timing are critical, but the high stakes involved call for having US diplomats extending the hand in Tehran in order to unclench that fist.
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