The Case for Diplomacy

By Lee Hamilton for Huffington Post
Aug 25 2015

We're still several weeks away from finding out whether Congress will formally approve or reject the White House-backed nuclear agreement with Iran. Nevertheless, the political fight is already raging, and thus far the rancorous debate taking place in the nation's capital and on the presidential campaign trail has had less to do with the particulars of the deal itself than the larger diplomatic effort that has delivered us to this point.

Since the U.S. and several of its allies struck a deal with Iran last month, President Obama has argued that diplomacy should be our preferred option in first addressing the world's most important challenges. I, for one, basically agree with the president in his assessment. But central to the current debate isn't the value of negotiations themselves, but rather whether we should be in the business of engaging in any type of diplomacy with our adversaries.

A large amount of skepticism surrounds our nation's view toward negotiating with our enemies, and we continue to be presented with two extremes. In one camp, we find the followers of President Kennedy, who famously said, in his 1961 inaugural address, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." On the other side are those who share the attitude expressed by former Vice President Cheney, who has declared, "We do not negotiate with evil, we defeat it."

Anyone who has followed my political career before, during and after my tenure in Congress knows where I side in this debate: I strongly support aggressive diplomacy. Furthermore, I believe there are numerous reasons why we should talk with our adversaries. Indeed, I do not think we can solve the most critical issues facing the planet without talking to other countries and foreign leaders, even if we strongly disagree with them.

Make no mistake, though, I am not at all starry eyed about what diplomacy can achieve. Diplomacy is not a panacea. It won't make the world's problems go away, and in a tough world it has to be supported with other tools of American power, including sanctions and military force.

That said, not talking comes with a near guarantee that our world's problems will fester and any opportunities we have to make progress will pass over.

There are many reasons to sit down with our adversaries. Doing so gives us a chance to explain our policies and, in turn, better understand their views. It allows us to collect information about our adversaries and their intentions. It also enables us to dispel misunderstandings that, as history has shown, can quickly develop into actual conflict.

On occasion, we might even reach an agreement, but it's important to note that diplomacy isn't just a matter of making deals. Often, the primary benefit of diplomacy is in how it prevents bad actions and reduces the potential for inadvertent escalation, which can sometimes lead to war.

Diplomacy doesn't always work, of course, and doesn't get us what we want all of the time. Unfortunately, it can leave a lot of problems unresolved, and we should certainly not put all of our eggs in the negotiating basket. Case in point: North Korea, where we wrongly thought we had an agreement with the dictatorship there to constrain the country's nuclear arsenal. Ukraine, where intense fighting against Russian-backed separatists continues to flare, further underscores the difficulties of negotiation.

North Korea and Ukraine each offer examples of diplomacy being attempted under the harshest of spotlights. Not all negotiations should be conducted in public, however. While many talks can and should take place out in the open in the interest of transparency, many of our contacts must be made in private and away from the glare of the grinder better known as our 24-hour news cycle. Indeed, diplomacy takes time and patience, both of which modern-era media lack, and often involves extended discussions that can span years. (See: Iran.)

Diplomacy often requires concessions and compromise, which are anathema to many of today's political leaders. (Another important point: diplomacy requires that all of the parties needed to solve a particular problem have a seat at the negotiating table.) But the day has passed, if it ever was, when the U.S. could dictate any outcome we want. We can, however, lead and persuade, and usually get all, if not most, of what we want. Here's where the Cheney train of thought, which eschews any compromise with our enemies, derails the type of diplomacy that I believe is essential to bringing about real progress. Simply put, you cannot craft a deal by only talking to your friends.

Evaluating whether to engage our adversaries through diplomacy also requires that we fully examine the alternatives, including economic sanctions and the threat of military involvement. We will always find significant national support for the use of armed force, simply because our military continues to be the best in the world. Recently, however, we've witnessed the limitations of our military might, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the unintended consequences that deep military involvement can bring about. While the use of military force can provide some stability, it simply cannot solve cultural, economic and political problems that, at least in those aforementioned countries, have existed for centuries.

Of course, the time for talking with our adversaries is not always now. While we're currently engaged in negotiations with Iran and Cuba, there is legitimate debate on the optimum time for negotiating with the Taliban or ISIS. Few individuals right now would advocate talking with North Korea, which hasn't indicated a readiness or willingness to enter into serious discussions over eliminating the threat that country poses in the region.

When done at the right time, with the right people and with the proper open mindset, however, diplomacy can establish openings for major global progress. Even more importantly, it can save lives. To this end, I often think about the post-World War II generation, including legendary figures such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry Truman, George Marshall and Dean Acheson, individuals who strongly emphasized how well diplomacy could serve not just the U.S. but also the world at large.

We continue to live in a tough, violent world, of course. At the same time we seek peace around the world, there are groups actively seeking to kill us and do us harm. Certainly there will be occasions when we have to strike these individuals before they strike us.

But I continue to believe strongly that diplomacy must always be given a chance. And even if it fails, it is a prerequisite to gaining the support of others and the effective use of force.

Eisenhower once said, "I would rather persuade a man to go along, because once I've persuaded him, he'll stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone."

No one is arguing that diplomacy isn't difficult or that it always delivers optimum results, but its value cannot be overstated. Indeed, like Ike, we Americans would be wise to stick with it.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.