Day By Day

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Limits of Engagement

Obamaphiles talk as though constructive engagement with Iran is all that is needed to smooth over differences and forge common bonds. Well, the historical record would suggest otherwise. Michael Mandelbaum, head of SAIS at Hopkins, notes that in the three most commonly cited examples of engagement policy [Cuba, China and the Soviet Union], the historical experience has not been what liberal Democrats say it has been.

Regarding Cuba:
The experience with Cuba is often cited as evidence of the futility of non-engagement. For five decades the United States has shunned formal ties with, and indeed has maintained an economic embargo on, Cuba. Yet the Castro brothers remain in power. [But] the Cuban case does not demonstrate the general utility of engagement, because Cuba has not been isolated from the world, but only from the United States. Other Western countries have long maintained diplomatic and economic ties with the Castro regime—there has been, that is, plenty of engagement—without noticeably expanding the freedoms or enhancing the economic welfare of the average Cuban.
China, on the other hand is cited as an example of the wonders that engagement can achieve. Prior to the Nixon administration the US had shunned Communist China, but after Nixon's 1972 visit, strong economic ties between the two countries have developed and China has liberalized its economy. As a result, both countries have benefited. But, as Mandelbaum points out, Nixonian engagement had little to do with the shift in China's position. He writes:

The pattern of Sino-American relations does not... illustrate the virtues of engagement so much as it reflects the power of circumstances. Mao Zedong was willing to put aside his ideological aversion to the United States in the early 1970s because his country was severely threatened by the Soviet Union. The two communist giants fought a small-scale, two-stage border war in 1969 and in the second round China was the clear loser. Moscow proceeded to deploy a huge army on its border with China and suggested... that it was seriously contemplating a strike on China’s then-small stockpile of nuclear weapons.

In these dire circumstances, China behaved the way classical international relations theory would predict: it moved closer to the United States to offset Soviet power....

This was, in other words, an alliance of convenience, not a real engagement based on principle, and as such ephemeral.

As for the close economic ties between the United States and China, these have their roots in economic decisions made by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, primarily for reasons of domestic politics rather than international security—decisions of a kind the rulers of the Islamic republic show no sign of making. The American experience with China has, therefore, little or nothing to teach us about the prospects with Iran.

Finally, regarding the Soviet Union, he notes that our relations with them demonstrates the ephemeral nature of alliances of convenience. As soon as the German threat was removed, the Cold War started.

And regarding engagement -- there was a lot of it.
Throughout the Cold War, however [theU.S.and U.S.S.R.] maintained regular diplomatic contact, arranged cultural exchanges and athletic contests, staged summit meetings, and conducted elaborate and protracted negotiations about armaments, particularly nuclear weapons. All this contact comes under the general heading of engagement....
But engagement did little to lessen the hostility between the two countries.
Yet the cumulative impact of all that engagement on the overall relationship between the two nuclear superpowers was, while certainly not trivial, at best marginal. Two separate features were central to the relationship: post-1945 Soviet-American relations may be divided into two unequal parts, each with a single defining feature: from the mid-1940s to the late 1980s, deterrence; from the late 1980s to December, 1991, regime change.
And what can we conclude from this?

The relationships that develop between nations owe little or nothing to policies of constructive engagement. Rather they are determined by the perceived interests of the nations involved. Regardless of whether or not America seeks engagement with Iran, the only results possible for the foreseeable future are the same as those that prevailed toward the Soviet Union -- deterrence and regime change. It is unlikely that good relations can be restored under the current Iranian regime.

Read the whole thing here.

Mandelbaum is no neo-con idealist; he's a hard-headed realist. He should be listened to, but the covey of incompetent clowns currently running America's foreign policy establishment still think that international relations can be managed the way interpersonal relations can be.

The fools!