Damned If You Do
Diplomatic dangers and cautions


LOPEZ: How do you determine who is rogue? What are the lines to draw on who is “the devil” and who can be engaged?

RUBIN: As you may recall, it’s actually the Clinton administration that came up with the term. In short, rogues sponsor or engage in terrorism, often seek weapons of mass destruction, and don’t abide by the rules of diplomacy.

The fundamental question we have to ask is whether the target of our diplomacy will abide by agreements once reached. If not, then diplomacy simply becomes a way to spin in place and delay tougher choices about how to deal with the problem.

LOPEZ: How do rogue regimes pretend to be aggrieved to put the West on the defensive? Can we engage but respond differently?

RUBIN: Culture matters. While American diplomats pride themselves on cultural sensitivity, we fail to recognize that rogues often use culture against us. Jihadists, for example, know how afraid we are of offending Muslims, and so hide weapons in mosques because they recognize we will hesitate to enter them.

My favorite example, though, which I highlight in the book, involves the phrase “carrots and sticks.” A few years ago, some Iranian diplomats told some American dialogue partners that such a phrase was insulting, and that we were comparing Iranians to donkeys. Several senior American diplomats took their word for it, and began criticizing the insensitivity of Americans and demanded that we take a softer, more conciliatory approach to Tehran. Had they bothered to check what the same Iranian officials said in Persian, however, they would have found that the Iranians used the same phrase all the time.

LOPEZ: You point out that Machiavelli “maintained a skeptical view of negotiation.” Does the U.S. really want to be Machiavellian?

RUBIN: No, but we need to recognize that some of our opponents do.

LOPEZ: Why is it important to point out that “Reagan met Gorbachev in Reykjavik only after years of preparation”?

RUBIN: Because diplomats today forget that talking is only the last step in a carefully crafted strategy. We’ve kept the talk, but forgotten the strategy.

LOPEZ: In the book, you write: “As Reagan deployed intermediate-range and cruise missiles across Europe, antagonism toward the United States soared. But Reagan’s jokes about bombing Russia convinced Soviet officials that he might just be crazy enough to use those missiles. It appeared to be in Moscow’s interest to negotiate.” Was Reagan joking about using nuclear weapons on Russia a good thing?

RUBIN: Probably not, though the unintended effect of convincing Soviet leaders that he was unpredictable and dangerous may have catalyzed diplomacy, ironically. What was important, however, was his moral clarity in calling the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” Former Soviet dissidents and even those Soviets who were not politically active said it really was a watershed moment to hear someone call it like it was. Unfortunately, for today’s diplomats, moral clarity has become a dirty concept.

LOPEZ: Are sanctions — such as with China after Tiananmen Square and Sudan after Darfur — inhumane?

RUBIN: There’s no magic formula. If sanctions are too broad, they might hurt innocent people. But they’ve got to be broad enough to spark grassroots sentiment against the government. If they are so targeted that they don’t have an impact on general society, however, they will be ineffective. The important thing is not to use sanctions alone, but to combine them with other elements of national power.

LOPEZ: How does the false appearance of sincerity threaten U.S. national security?

RUBIN: The basis of diplomacy is that deals stick. If countries either value the process more than the deal or if they cheat on the final agreement, then national security suffers.

LOPEZ: How does deal-making undermine moral clarity?

RUBIN: It doesn’t need to, but, too often, the State Department will sacrifice dissidents in order to accelerate agreement. But if we play our cards right, we can have it all.

LOPEZ: Is yours a moral case against engagement with rogues?

RUBIN: That’s part of it, but the core arguments are that diplomacy poorly executed can undermine national security and that, regardless, diplomacy has a cost. Too many officials who should know better — Richard Armitage and Nicholas Burns, for example — have argued essentially that it is cost-free.

Whether diplomacy is more costly than other strategies is something we can determine on a case-by-case basis. Dancing with the Devil most certainly isn’t a call for military action. But we’ve got to stop treating diplomacy as a panacea.

Tags: Diplomatic dangers and cautions


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