The United States is doing none of this today in the Middle East. Iran is achieving its objectives by force outside negotiations. It marches steadily toward a nuclear capability, arms and funds jihadist forces in Lebanon and Syria, and meddles increasingly in Iraq and Afghanistan as the United States withdraws. Meanwhile, the United States cuts its defense budget in a mindless sequestration, scales back missile defenses against Iran for minimal concessions from Moscow, leaves no residual forces in Iraq, agonizes and delays over arming the moderate rebels in Syria, and pivots forces to Asia that are now needed in the Middle East. What does Iran lose by negotiating as long as it can? Its influence grows stronger as violence spreads both north and south of Israel. Meanwhile, the United States launches new Middle East peace initiatives. Was this past summer really the moment to expect negotiations to succeed? The situation surrounding negotiations matters as much as the negotiations themselves, and the situation in the Middle East today is decidedly unfavorable for either side to make risky concessions for peace. Belatedly, President Obama gets the point.
Back force with diplomacy. The purpose of armed diplomacy, however, is not to defeat adversaries in some conventional military showdown, as extreme hardliners might prefer, or to coexist with adversaries indefinitely in some morally ambivalent status quo, to which realists might resign themselves. It is rather to succeed in negotiations that move freedom forward in adversary countries. Compromise inside negotiations does not necessarily achieve this objective, but no compromise at all undermines it.
Again, Ronald Reagan offers pointers. He won the Cold War without firing a shot, but that does not mean he never would have been willing to fire a shot. He risked an accelerated arms race that many believed was out of control, faced down anti-nuclear peaceniks in Europe, and armed freedom fighters to the point of damaging his own presidency — not to defeat the Soviet Union by military means but to deny it military success outside negotiations and move it toward outcomes inside negotiations that advanced freedom. In his diary in early 1983, he wrote, “I think I’m hard-line and will never appease but I do want to try and let them [the Soviets] see there is a better world if they show by deed they want to get along with the free world.” He envisioned a peaceful way out of negotiations that the Soviets could accept (no offensive nukes and a globalized economy), and in the process the Soviets themselves dispensed with Communism.
Envisioning ways out of negotiations that advance freedom and that Syria, Iran, North Korea, and their patrons in Moscow and Beijing might accept is perhaps the most difficult aspect of armed diplomacy. How might such peaceful outcomes be achieved? First, don’t stop calling despots despotic. Obama, with his “realism” toward Russia and China, has gone too far in ignoring human-rights violations. Reagan called the Soviet Union evil even as he negotiated with it, still defending his “evil empire” remarks on the eve of his trip to Moscow in 1988. Second, fashion an outcome that despots can accept but that does not rescue them from their own sclerotic domestic systems. As John Lewis Gaddis points out, the new element that Reagan brought to strategy toward the Soviet Union was not deterrence or détente; it was the deliberate weakening of the Soviet domestic system. In Syria, a mutually acceptable outcome may mean negotiating with Assad over a longer transition period to a future government. In Iran, it may mean accommodating a civilian nuclear program with less than perfect inspection guarantees if the country opens up to freer trade and contacts, much the way the Helsinki Accords nurtured openness and verifiability in the former Soviet Union. And in North Korea, it may mean eventual recognition of Pyongyang to clear the way for peaceful competition and eventual reunification between North and South Korea and their eventual reunification, as with East and West Germany.
But none of these compromises is advisable inside negotiations unless pressures persist outside negotiations — to maintain economic sanctions, vigorously protest human-rights violations, and checkmate forceful alternatives on the ground. When armed diplomacy works best, no military force is actually used. But it is a mistake to assume that therefore military force was not present or necessary.