Diplomacy Isn't Appeasement | Opinion

Sitting down in the same room with an adversary and trying to come up with a mutually-acceptable agreement is one of the most labor-intensive, mind-numbing tasks in international politics. Engaging in months-long negotiations in search of a diplomatic solution is the essence of leaving predisposed biases at the door, letting personal grudges go and focusing all energy on the task at hand. Sometimes, all of the stress, anxiety and blood-shot eyes associated with a comprehensive negotiation pays off—and the world is better off for it. In other instances, positions are irreconcilable, the negotiators begin to doubt one another's sincerity and the entire enterprise breaks down.

Too often, however, the very idea of negotiating with an enemy is denounced as a foolish or futile endeavor unworthy of America's time. Every diplomatic attempt has its detractors and doubters. When former President Ronald Reagan was negotiating missile limitations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, some of his most loyal supporters in Congress were so feverishly opposed to the agreement that they sought to re-negotiate it in the Senate. A central argument against the Obama administration's nuclear diplomacy with Iran was the notion that Washington shouldn't be talking with the Iranians in the first place. And when former President Donald Trump decided to meet directly with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (the summitry ultimately fell apart), some well-respected analysts in Washington, D.C. thought the Trump administration was a brutal human rights abuser.

In all three cases, there was a powerful, albeit unhealthy, habit in the mainstream commentariat of confusing white-knuckled diplomacy with waving the white flag. We are seeing this kind of mentality play out again, as the Biden administration negotiates with Russia to avert another Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some high-profile pundits continue to lash out at the very idea of engaging with Moscow diplomatically, calling it akin to modern-day appeasement, circa Neville Chamberlain in 1938. To paraphrase exiled Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russia's Vladimir Putin is a brutal thug who should be isolated and ostracized like his fellow dictators, not courted as a legitimate statesman. Even some anonymous European diplomats aren't particularly pleased with the way Washington is handling the ongoing talks with Moscow, with one griping that Biden's decision to bless Putin with a video-summit over the summer "handed a win to Putin from the get-go."

Those who sprinkle negativity over negotiations or oppose them altogether are usually the loudest ones in the room. It takes an extraordinary degree of calm, patience, discipline and fortitude for governments to move forward in this type of environment. In fact, it's not an overstatement to say that one of the most difficult parts of a negotiation is getting it started in the first place.

The penultimate question is: Why? Why is engaging in a direct dialogue with an adversary like Russia or Iran so often considered beyond the pale? And why do observers make the illogical leap from simply starting a negotiation to capitulating in it?

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir
This combination of pictures shows President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. MANDEL NGAN,MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

A big part of the reason, I suspect, lies in an assumption about state power in the international system. We assume, for instance, that the more military, political and economic power a state possesses, the more likely this very same state will be able to cow others into seeing a problem its way. To put it bluntly, the strong dominate the weak, and the weak either have to adapt in order to survive or watch as what little power they have is wiped out. In such a world, there is no need for diplomacy, because strong powers can use extreme amounts of pressure (economic or otherwise) to intimidate a weaker party into submission.

The world, however, doesn't work that way. Even weaker powers don't like to roll over to stronger ones. Iran may have an economy the size of Oklahoma and a military that spends roughly 3 percent of what the U.S. does on defense every year, but Tehran also has core security interests it isn't willing to give away (like maintaining an indigenously-produced nuclear enrichment program after decades of investment and opportunity costs). Russia may have a bevy of long-term, structural difficulties in its economy and is watching as its neighborhood is in the throes of multiple crises (the latest of which includes mass anti-government demonstrations in Kazakhstan), but the Russian government is still willing and able to project military leverage to ensure NATO doesn't expand closer to Russian borders. Venezuela may have turned from one of the richest countries in Latin America to one of the poorest, but Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's autocrat president (who the U.S. hasn't recognized in years), is no more willing to cater to U.S. political demands today than he was when Washington imposed oil sanctions on the country three years ago.

None of these disputes are amenable to a military solution. While the United States remains the world's most capable power, U.S. officials in Washington can't simply bank on more economic pressure to resolve them, either. The least-common denominator to at least managing them without unnecessary bloodshed is to do what too many on the editorial pages are petrified of doing: sitting down, staring enemies in the eye and haggling.

"You don't just talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies as well," James Baker, one of the most storied U.S. secretaries of State in modern history, once said. "You don't reward your enemies necessarily by talking to them if you are tough and you know what you are doing."

This statement is no less true today than when it was first made in 2006.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.