Diplomacy works, but it cannot defuse every threat
Published: May 7 2009
One of the enduring myths about the cold war is that the nuclear stand-off between the US and Soviet Union made the world a safer place. Never mind that mishap or miscalculation would have reduced the planet to radioactive dust. The balance of terror provided certainty; and certainty equalled security. Today’s threats, though diminished, are asymmetric and unpredictable; the world is more dangerous for that.
The facts do not support this theory. Even if one discounts the possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange or a Dr Strangelove with a finger on the button, many more people were killed in proxy wars between the US and the Soviet Union in Asia, Africa and Latin America than have been in myriad subsequent conflicts.
The difference was that most of these wars were in far-flung places. With one or two exceptions – Vietnam most obviously – they rarely impinged on public consciousness. Times have changed. The revolution in communications has brought distant disorder into our living rooms. Al-Qaeda terrorism has demonstrated that ordered parts of the world cannot avoid the consequences of chaos elsewhere.
Another big change has been a reduced tolerance of risk. The nature of the cold war was that the danger of mutually assured destruction was ever present. It was something to be lived with. In the famous description of the US diplomat George Kennan, the best one could aim for was containment.
The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a big psychological shift. The west had won the epic struggle against communism. The US had emerged the sole superpower. Liberal democracy was on the march. Ergo, governments should be able to dispose of any residual threats.
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall the consequences of these assumptions are still being felt. People are at once more conscious of threats and more demanding of security. They want governments to banish risk rather than contain it. Kennan’s message that we must grow accustomed to life in the shadow of danger does not sell.
All this has considerable significance for the foreign policies pursued by Barack Obama. Sensibly, the US president has abandoned the organising assumption of George W. Bush’s administration that the US could use its military might to remake the world to its own design. The war on terror has been consigned to the history books, and with it the misguided belief that Islamist extremism can be defeated by missiles alone.
Instead, Mr Obama has elevated diplomacy and engagement as vital instruments of American power. He has recognised that legitimacy counts alongside military muscle; and that even the sole superpower needs allies to exercise effective leadership.
Yet paradoxically, Mr Obama may face much the same problem as his predecessor. If Mr Bush tested to destruction the idea that the US could get its way by force of arms, Mr Obama will have to accept that diplomacy and engagement offer no certainty of quick success. The best they can do is increase the odds that Washington will secure its goals.
Iran is an obvious case in point. The west’s response to Iran’s nuclear programme has long been seen in terms of a binary choice. The US (or Israel) could bomb the country’s nuclear installations; or, through a mix of diplomacy, incentives and international sanctions, the Tehran government could be persuaded to eschew a nuclear weapons programme.
The first option was never convincing, even during the days when its early military success in Iraq was seen as evidence of effortless US hegemony. The most hawkish of neoconservatives dare not suggest that America invade Iran. For their part, most military and intelligence analysts are agreed that, while air strikes could seriously damage Iran’s nuclear programme, they could not destroy it. This latter calculation, of course, leaves aside the likely heavy costs of Iranian retaliation.
That is not to say, however, that negotiation with Iran – even if the US carries the full support of the likes of China and Russia by offering the Tehran regime the security assurances it wants – will be successful. It may work – especially since the signs are that the US administration is serious in its intent to establish a different relationship with Tehran. Ultimately, though, the Iranians may decide to continue on their present course. Beyond the choice between force and diplomacy, that would leave the west with the unspoken third option: deterrence and containment.
Other adversaries may also spurn diplomacy’s mix of persuasion and pressure. North Korea is the obvious example. Thus far, Pyongyang has shown itself determined to press ahead with its nuclear and missile programmes in spite of the entreaties of China as well as the US.
Mr Obama faces a different problem in Afghanistan. Here, the president has confronted the reality that his predecessor always sidestepped: the Taliban cannot be defeated as long as it finds safe havens and support in neighbouring Pakistan. But to define properly the challenge of sustaining stable democratic government in Pakistan is not to open the door to instant solutions. Rather, Mr Obama has described the intractability of the problem.
The dangers for the president here are obvious enough. Expectations are too high. If diplomacy fails to yield early results, the cry may go up that the hawks were right all along: force is the only language America’s enemies understand. To say that this is proven nonsense will not stop the president’s opponents from insisting otherwise.
The comprehensive failure of American foreign policy during Mr Bush’s presidency was rooted in an over-estimation of the utility of military force. In seeking to blend hard with soft power, Mr Obama has set an intelligent course and one more likely to enhance global security.
On almost every issue Mr Obama’s opening gambit has been confident. He wants a strategic partnership with Beijing, nuclear disarmament with Moscow, dialogue with Iran and more realistic ambitions in Afghanistan. He knows also how to flatter his allies. The world already feels a safer place.
The essential truth facing the US president, however, is that it may well be impossible to eliminate the most serious threats to international security. Diplomacy will often disappoint, leaving some things unfixed well beyond his presidency. In these cases, containment will be the best we can hope for. History did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is time to disinter some of its insights.
More columns at www.ft.com/stephens
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009