Stand and Deliver!

In his column this morning Tom Friedman bemoans the plight of diplomacy in the modern age of piracy:

A secretary of state can broker deals only when other states or parties are ready or able to make them. In the cold war, an age of great powers, grand bargains and reasonably solid client states, there were ample opportunities for that — whether in arms control with the Soviet Union or peacemaking between our respective client states around the globe. But this is increasingly an age of pirates, failed states, nonstate actors and nation-building — the stuff of snipers, drones and generals, not diplomats.

Hence the déjà vu all over again quality of U.S. foreign policy right now — the sense that when it comes to our major problems (Afghanistan and Pakistan and North Korea and Iran), we just go around and around, buying the same carpets from the same people, over and over, but nothing changes.

“We are dealing with states and leaders who either cannot deliver or will not deliver,” notes the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum. “The issues we have with them look less like problems that can be solved and more like conditions that we have to manage.”

He expands on this noting that regardless of the promises of their diplomats some countries, e.g. Afghanistan and Pakistan, aren’t able to deliver what you want and some, e.g. Iran and North Korea, won’t deliver what you want.

I think there are a couple of problems wiith Mr. Friedman’s formulation. First, diplomacy requires that one state have another state as a correspondent. Representatives of states don’t negotiate with Bob or Ralph who represent only themselves. That way lies madness.

Treating the great swath of territory around the world not comprised of states in any meaningful sense as though the areas on the map were states doesn’t make them into states. We need a litmus test for identifying what is and what is not a country and we need a consensus among actual countries on how to handle problems when dealing with non-states. And that brings us to the second problem.

As I’ve said many times over at my place, government requires consensus, world government requires world consensus and the sad reality is that there isn’t enough consensus right now for world government.

Consider, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At least half of the present members of the United Nations reject significant portions of it. It’s even possible that all of the world’s countries reject some or all of the Declaration although it received overwhelming support from the original United Nations delegates.

I don’t believe there’s world consensus on either means or ends and under those circumstances you can’t expect even a rump world government, necessary for the sort of measures that could bring an errant country that won’t deliver to toe. That doesn’t mean that international institutions are useless. I believe they’re useful as a means of reducing the cost of negotiation. But we’ve got to recognize their limitations.

A couple of additional notes on Mr. Friedman’s column. He’s concerned about looking for the “middle ground”:

Instead, I fear that we are adopting a middle-ground strategy — doing just enough to avoid collapse but not enough to solve the problems. If our goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan is nation-building, so they will have self-sustaining moderate governments, we surely don’t have enough troops or resources inside devoted to either. If our goal is changing regime behavior in Iran and North Korea, we surely have not generated enough leverage from outside. North Korea’s defiant missile launch and Iran’s continued development of its nuclear capability testify to that.

Sometimes it’s hard to identify the middle ground. For example, if West Erewhon wants to develop 50 nuclear weapons and Greater Superpower doesn’t want them to develop any, the middle ground isn’t for West Erewhon to develop 25 nuclear weapons. Finding the middle ground requires a more perceptive approach than that.

Finally, are Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan the countries that present our greatest foreign policy challenges? That leaves me dumbfounded. I don’t believe that any of those are even in the top five. Nor do I believe that China, Russia, or Israel are our greatest challenges.

How would you prioritize our greatest foreign policy challenges? I think piracy, the jumping off point for Mr. Friedman’s column, is pretty far down on the list.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    Treating the great swath of territory around the world not comprised of states in any meaningful sense as though the areas on the map were states doesn’t make them into states.

    If more of the people making foreign policy grasped this seemingly obvious concept, the world would be a better place.

  2. Anderson says:

    Finally, are Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan the countries that present our greatest foreign policy challenges? That leaves me dumbfounded. I don’t believe that any of those are even in the top five. Nor do I believe that China, Russia, or Israel are our greatest challenges.

    I guess this presents the obvious question, what *are* our greatest foreign-policy challenges?

    Iraq and Afghanistan seem to present themselves, but I don’t see how Iran and Pakistan don’t tie naturally into those issues.

    So, bring on Schuler’s Top 5!

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I’m close to agreement with Anderson, but with the countries reversed. Iran and Pakistan present our greatest foreign policy challenges because they constitute nuclear regimes controlled by unstable, radical or easily radicalized governments in a volatile part of the world in which few unadulterated options exist. Afghanistan is important because of Pakistan; Iraq is linked somewhat to Iran.

    I don’t believe piracy in and of itself is a significant foreign policy issue at all.

    Inquiring minds what to know Dave’s top 4-5 foreign policy challenges. I can’t believe nukes, given their destructive capacity and America’s inherent double-standard on who can have them, aren’t worth top 5 treatment.

  4. Top 10 greatest foreign policy problems:
    10. The European Union (The triumph of hope over experience)
    9. Iraq (Huge resource drain, still far from stable)
    8. Venezuela (Fortunately, Chavez isn’t terribly bright)
    7. Noth Korea (Nasty, brutish and short — but still effectively a proxy of China)
    6. Afghanistan (Bombing them into the stone age was supposed to be funny, not factual)
    5. Mexico (Crumbling right before our eyes, and on our border)
    4. Iran (At some point, their empty threats will cease to be empty, and then what?)
    3. Pakistan (In afterburner reverse right now)
    2. Russia (It’s a long game)
    1. China (It’s a very long game)

  5. Brett says:

    Five biggest foreign policy problems:

    1. Midwifing a new international-level system of energy and technological use away from the traditional petroleum use and politics in order to avoid severe climate change issues.

    2. Minimizing our exposure to the problems of other states in an increasingly hyper-connected era.

    3. Determining a plan for dealing with the combination of massive international migration flows and a worldwide religious re-awakening (particularly in the Islamic countries, but also in the Christian populations of the Global South) with regards to ourselves and the rest of the Developed World.

    4. Maintenance of regional hegemony in Latin America.

    5. China – in the sense that we need to figure out how we’re going to balance any rising Chinese claims to regional hegemony in East Asia, as well as determine what role the US ought to play in response to what will probably be an inevitable effort on their part to build global political connections, including into our relative backyard (Latin America).

  6. Boyd says:

    Mr Friedman confuses me. Are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea problems to solve or conditions to manage? He argues both mutually exclusive positions.