Charles A. Kupchan
How the United States Can Court Its Adversaries
In his inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama informed those regimes "on the wrong side of history" that
the United States "will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." He soon backed up his words with deeds, making engagement with U.S. adversaries one of the new administration's priorities.
During his first year in office, Obama pursued direct negotiations with
Over a year into Obama's presidency, the jury is still out on whether this strategy of engagement is bearing fruit. Policymakers and scholars are divided over the merits and the risks of Obama's outreach to adversaries and over how best to increase the likelihood that his overtures will be reciprocated. Debate continues on whether rapprochement results from mutual concessions that tame rivalries or rather from the iron fist that forces adversaries into submission. Equally controversial is whether the United States should pursue reconciliation with hardened autocracies or instead make engagement contingent on democratization. And disagreement persists over whether diplomacy or economic engagement represents the most effective pathway to peace.
Many of Obama's critics have already made up their minds on the merits of his outreach to adversaries, concluding not only that the president has little to show for his efforts but also that his pliant diplomacy demeans the United States and weakens its hand. Following Obama's
If tentative engagement with U.S. adversaries is to grow into lasting rapprochement, Obama will need to secure from them not just concessions on isolated issues but also their willingness to pursue sustained cooperation. Doing so will require
Some of the recalcitrant regimes Obama is seeking to engage will surely refuse to reciprocate. With such states,
These glimmers of progress notwithstanding, critics insist that trying to make deals with extremists is appeasement by another name. Drawing on British Prime Minister
On the contrary, the historical record reveals that the initial accommodation of an adversary, far from being an invitation to aggression, is an essential start to rapprochement. Such opening bids are usually the product of necessity rather than altruism: facing strategic overcommitment, a state seeks to reduce its burdens by befriending an adversary. If the target country responds in kind, an exchange of concessions can follow, often setting the stage for the rivalry and mutual suspicion to abate. In the final stage of rapprochement, top decision-makers bring around bureaucracies, legislative bodies, private interest groups, and ordinary citizens through lobbying and public outreach. Broader societal engagement is needed to ensure that rapprochement does not unravel when the leaders that brought it about leave office.
To be sure, offers of accommodation may need to be balanced with threats of confrontation. Nonetheless, the historical record confirms that accommodation, not confrontation, is usually the essential ingredient of successful rapprochement. the United States and Great Britain were antagonists for decades; after the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, their geopolitical rivalry continued until the end of the nineteenth century. The turning point came during the 1890s, when the
As diplomacy dampened the rivalry, elites on both sides of the Atlantic sought to recast popular attitudes through ambitious public relations campaigns.
HOW PEACE BREAKS OUT
Other instances of rapprochement followed a similar trajectory--as was the case with rapprochement between
Peace came to
As these and many other episodes of rapprochement make clear, Obama is on firm ground in seeking to resolve long-standing rivalries through engagement rather than confrontation. This strategy is all the more attractive at a time when the United States is overstretched by the wars in
GETTING RAPPROCHEMENT RIGHT
As Obama pursues rapprochement with a host of different rivals, he faces two main challenges: how to handle the sequence and substance of the negotiations and how to manage the political fallout at home and abroad. As for sequence and substance,
History also provides useful guidance on these matters. Anglo-American rapprochement started slowly, with the
In contrast, attempts at rapprochement have foundered when they have gone too far too fast.
Such historical examples offer at best a loose comparison with the rivalries
So far, the Obama administration's handling of relations with Russia has followed just such an approach.
Obama's outreach to
It was precisely this kind of step-by-step approach that allowed
THE HOSTILE HOME FRONT
Obama's second main challenge is to manage the domestic backlash that regularly accompanies the accommodation of adversaries--one of the key stumbling blocks in past efforts at rapprochement. Anglo-American rapprochement in the nineteenth century on several occasions almost foundered on the shoals of domestic opposition. The
Like past leaders who advocated accommodation, Obama faces formidable domestic opposition. When he pledged to pursue engagement with the Iranian government even after its troubled election last year, the
An even bigger challenge than parrying these rhetorical blows will be ensuring that the concrete bargains struck in the service of rapprochement pass muster with
To complicate matters further, Obama has to worry about domestic obstacles to rapprochement in other countries as well. From Iranian President
Building congressional support for Obama's outreach to adversaries will mean debunking three myths that often distort public debate about strategies of engagement. The first is the presumption that
But Obama is fully justified in putting the democratization agenda on the back burner and basing U.S. diplomacy toward other states on their external behavior, not their regime type. Even repressive regimes can be reliably cooperative when it comes to their conduct of foreign policy.
Striking bargains with repressive regimes does require making moral compromises. Doing so is justified, however, by the concrete contributions to international stability that can result.
A second misconception, often affirmed by opponents of engagement, is that pursuing rapprochement with an adversary means abandoning hope that its government will change. On the contrary, doing business with autocracies has the potential to bring about regime change through the backdoor by weakening hard-liners and empowering reformers. Engagement with
Belligerent governments have frequently been the victims of rapprochement.
Should Obama's outreach succeed in winning over adversaries, the anti-American pedigree of such leaders as Ahmadinejad, Castro, and Putin may well do more to compromise their credibility than to enhance their popularity. Over the long run, working with recalcitrant autocrats may undermine them far more effectively than containment and confrontation.
DIPLOMACY BEFORE DOLLARS
A final misconception is that economic interdependence is usually a precursor to rapprochement. Proponents of a "commercial peace" contend that trade and investment encourage amity between rivals by bringing their economic and political interests into alignment. By trading with
Rapprochement, however, is the product of diplomacy, not commerce. Although commercial integration can help deepen reconciliation, primarily by enlisting the support of industrialists and financiers, the diplomats must first lay the political foundation. Anglo-American trade declined in relative terms between 1895 and 1906, the critical decade of rapprochement. Big business on both sides of the Atlantic did help improve relations, but only after the key diplomatic break-throughs that occurred between 1896 and 1898.
Moreover, strong commercial ties by no means guarantee comity. By 1959, after a decade of economic integration, 50 percent of
The lesson for the Obama administration is to keep its eye on the fundamentals. Under pressure from its critics, the
DELIVERING THE GOODS
If the Obama administration's tentative engagement with
Obama also needs to start laying the groundwork for congressional support. To help clear the legislative hurdles ahead, Obama should consider including in his stable of special envoys a prominent Republican--such as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Senator
Despite the numerous obstacles at home and abroad, the Obama administration should stick to its strategy of engaging U.S. adversaries. Rapprochement usually takes place in fits and starts and, under the best of circumstances, requires painstaking diplomacy and persistence. But when it works, it makes the world a much safer place. That realization alone should help buy Obama at least some of the time that he will need if he is to succeed in turning enemies into friends.
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(C) 2010 Council on Foreign Relations, publisher of Foreign Affairs. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.