Foreign Policy Lessons Applied to Iran

Harvard Professor of International Relations Stephen M. Walt has an excellent article at Foreign Policy, entitled “The Top 5 Foreign Policy Lessons of the Past 20 Years.” I’ve included some short excerpts after my signature line, and encourage you to read the rest.

With next Monday being the deadline for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, there is real danger that we will, once again, violate Prof. Walt’s admonitions and find ourselves in yet another military quagmire. With Iran being much more powerful than any of the regimes we’ve taken on in recent years, that could turn out to be “the mother of all quagmires.” Unfortunately, my post of a year ago on Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 10: Iran is still timely.

Martin Hellman

BEGIN EXCERPTS FROM PROF. WALT’S PAPER

The Top 5 Foreign Policy Lessons of the Past 20 Years

No. 3: The only thing worse than a bad state is no state.

U.S. foreign-policy elites routinely blame foreign-policy problems on the supposedly evil or illegitimate nature of other governments. In this view, international politics isn’t a clash of competing interests; it is a morality play between good states — America and its allies — and bad states, or anyone who disagrees with us. … The obvious solution to the rogue-state problem, of course, was regime change: get rid of these very bad rulers and create governments that treat their own populations better and cooperate with the United States.

But as the sorry results of regime change in Libya and Iraq suggest, getting rid of really awful leaders isn’t an improvement if the result is anarchy or a weak, corrupt, and highly divisive regime. One might add Yemen and Somalia to the list as well, and that’s where Afghanistan is likely to be once the international community stops propping it up. … What’s the lesson for all you unrepentant regime-changers out there? Be careful what you wish for.

No. 4: “Take it or leave it” is bad diplomacy.

Over the past 20 years, the United States has also shown a regrettable tendency to issue demands and make threats but not to engage in genuine diplomacy, which is properly understood as the mutual adjustment of competing interests for mutual benefit. Because they saw their opponents as evil and believed the United States held most if not all of the high cards, Americans tended to view any concessions on their part as a form of surrender, even if they ended up getting much of what they wanted. Instead of real bargaining, the United States tended to tell others what it wanted them to do and then ramped up the pressure if they didn’t comply.

This take-it-or-leave-it approach produced a war over Kosovo in 1999, and it also took us from zero Iranian centrifuges in 2000 to over 11,000 operating today. It also appears to be driving the Western response to Ukraine: The basic EU/United States/NATO position is that Russia should cease all of its activities in Ukraine, withdraw from Crimea, and let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it ever meets the membership requirements. In other words, we are asking Moscow to completely abandon every single one of its own interests in Ukraine, full stop. That outcome might be highly desirable in the abstract, but given Russia’s history, its proximity to Ukraine, and its own long-term security concerns, it is hard to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin capitulating to the West’s demands without a long and costly struggle that will do enormous damage to Ukraine itself. Like that infamous village in Vietnam, both sides appear to be prepared to destroy Ukraine in order to save it. …

No. 5: Beware hubris.

The ancient Greeks warned about hubris — that fatal combination of arrogance or overconfidence that leads foolish mortals to challenge the gods — and we’ve seen ample reminders of its pernicious consequences ever since. It was hubris that drove the United States to expand NATO with scant regard for its long-term consequences. It was hubris that has led U.S. diplomats to think their personal charm and powers of persuasion were sufficient to produce a two-state solution in the Middle East. Hubris took George W. Bush into Iraq … Hubris lay behind then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grandiose hopes that Turkey would become the linchpin of a new Middle East order while having “zero problems” in foreign policy. There was even a hint of it in Obama’s belief that he could overcome intractable problems with a single well-delivered speech. It remains to be seen whether Putin has overreached in Ukraine, but if it ends in disaster for Russia, hubris will have played a role there too.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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