Friday, February 1, 2008

Look Who's Talking

I admit it. I'm a bad political junkie. I didn't watch the Democratic debate last night, even though the field has now been winnowed to two people, and it was billed as the epic final confrontation before "Tsunami Tuesday" next week (I love the hyperbolic names that bored CNN producers come up with for these things). I had hockey tickets. So it goes.

I did, however, make a point of reading the transcript when I got home, and to be frank I was pretty impressed by the amount of substantive discussion that went on. Granted, now that the number of people on stage is more manageable, the candidates don't have to talk about their positions and proposals in less time than Jeopardy contestants get to buzz in with an answer, but still, good show by both Sens. Clinton and Obama.

I've said on numerous occasions that I won't make this blog about the U.S. election, so I promise I'm going somewhere with this. One of the principal places that Clinton and Obama have differed on foreign policy is on the question of negotiating with regimes that the U.S. doesn't like. Obama has said that he would be willing to meet, without preconditions, with the leadership of countries like Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Syria etc. Clinton, along with many of her backers, has called that stance naive, saying that such meetings would lead to propaganda victories for unfriendly regimes without necessarily benefiting the United States. Obama in turn has accused Clinton of continuing the failed policies of the Bush administration, albiet with some minor tweaks. And so on ad infinitum. I address this issue, though, because to me it seems to indicate not just a tactical difference in how the two leaders would conduct foreign policy, nor simply a shallow attempt to advance their own respective campaign narratives ("experience" versus "change"), but rather to reflect a genuine difference in perception of the geostrategic position of the United States.

First, let me clear the debate of some straw-man arguments. I assume (and it is an assumption) that when Obama says he would be willing to meet with unfriendly regimes "without preconditions," he is not so naive as to literally mean that there would be no diplomatic preparations in advance of such a summit. Obviously, without some agreement as to the issues on the table and the basic goals to be aimed for, a meeting with Chavez or Ahmadinejad would be useless and perhaps counterproductive. I assume that when Obama mentions "preconditions" he is referencing the common position taken by the Bush administration that unfriendly regimes must evince significant changes in behavior (like halting uranium enrichment) before the United States will deign to grant them an audience. This is the strategy he rejects and (as best I can tell) Clinton embraces. To suggest that President Obama would simply get on a plane, land in Tehran, call up Ahmadinejad and ask to sit down for a cup of coffee - as some have implied - is absurd, and isn't worthy of serious discussion.

The real question that needs to be answered before deciding which one of these strategies is appropriate is straightforward: how much power does the United States have relative to other actors in the international system? I have attempted to address this question before, and the answer is complex but vital. If, as the neoconservative worldview would have it, the United States posesses an enduring, historically unprecedented concentration of power, then the Bush/Clinton strategy makes perfect sense. If the world is truly unipolar, then to be cut off diplomatically and economically from the United States is to be left out in the cold. To be cut off from Washington is functionally the same as being cut off from everywhere else.

If, however, the world is (or is fast becoming) functionally multipolar, the strategy breaks down. In such a situation, while a relationship with Washington may bring many benefits, it is far from essential. There are other power centers to which countries can look for diplomatic, military and economic support. During the Cold War, U.S. leaders understood this reality, and so made a greater effort to woo foreign capitals, always concerned that the Soviets would make a better offer.

I doubt that it will surprise any regular readers that I take to the latter viewpoint. Perhaps, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when Russia was imploding, China and India were still emerging from their long sleep, and Europe could not yet be referred to as a singular entity, a strategy based on a unipolar world made some sense. These days, though, it is misguided. Indeed, the situation now is even more complex than it was during the Cold War, as relationships are no longer dependent on ideology, and need not firmly place a country into a single "camp." Iran, one of Washington's principal bogeymen of late, has managed to forge economic and political relationships with authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, democratic ones like India and the E.U., and a host of other "second world" states, giving it all the political advantage it needs. Certainly, patching up the relationship with the United States would be desirable for many in Tehran, but they understand that they needn't prostrate themselves before Washington in order to do it. They're getting along fine without us.

In such an environment, the notion that just the opportunity to negotiate with the United States should be incentive enough to alter regime behavior does not withstand scrutiny. The U.S. is extremely powerful, and will remain so for the forseeable future, but it is not omnipotent, and cannot conduct diplomacy as though it is. The simple act of negotiating with a regime does not confer upon it our approval. It does, however, acknowledge the fact that Washington cannot will that regime out of existence. That's the reality. It's time we recognized it.

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