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Let's Try Some Real Diplomacy

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
It sounds a little funny, but it's true — last week the Bush administration announced a new National Space Strategy, which called for unilateral American military hegemony over outer space. Yes, that's right. Having failed to kill Osama bin Laden, or stabilize Iraq, or resolve issues relating to Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, the administration is preparing to tackle the pressing issue of Martian invaders. That, and also the extremely hypothetical chance that someday in the future some other country — Russia or China or India, one assumes — will find itself engaged in a struggle for space supremacy with the United States.

It's a laughable story, but it's actually at least somewhat important — and extremely telling.

Let's take this step by step. Remember North Korea and Iran? They're building nuclear weapons. The United States doesn't want them to build nuclear weapons. In both cases, the American strategy for getting them to stop involves securing assistance from Russia and China, both of whom have more leverage over Pyongyang and Tehran than we do. One would think it should be possible to get Moscow and Beijing to help us, since they don't really want to see widespread nuclear proliferation either. They're not, however, as concerned about these matters as we are.

So, probably, to get them to do what we want them to do, we're going to have to offer some kind of concessions or reassurances that they want. This is what used to be called "diplomacy." Alternatively, we could — without warning and for no real reason — just announce a new national space strategy designed to cope with far-fetched scenarios but that can only be viewed as a major affront to the interests and sensibilities of other major powers like Russia and China.

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This is precisely the sort of thing the Bush administration doesn't seem to think about. And they don't think about it because they don't really understand what diplomacy is. To them, it's simple. Diplomacy means talking. The alternative to diplomacy is coercion. If you want a country to do something, you might try to get it to do that thing through threats — either of military force or of economic sanctions. In situations where coercion is impossible or undesirable, they resort to their version of "diplomacy," talking — saying what it is you want the other country to do, over and over again, in hopes that they will do it.

Unsurprisingly, this doesn't work very well. Jawing at the Iranians about how they need to stop enriching uranium hasn't gotten them to stop. Nor has jawing at China and South Korea about the need to stop propping up North Korea's economy gotten them to stop. Nor has saying — repeatedly! — to Russia and China that we want them to sanction Iran and North Korea and help us get Security Council support for action against Sudan's war crimes in Darfur gotten them to change anything.

Surveying this record, many conservatives are concluding that Bush's failures are just proof of what they already believed: Diplomacy doesn't work. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol has even made the stunning accusation that Bush is stuck in an "all-U.N.-all-the-time defensive crouch." Kristol's proposed alternative, however, is fantastical: "to work with Japan, rather than kowtowing to China, on North Korea; to institute an interdiction regime around that country; to act with a coalition of the willing to bomb airfield and aircraft assisting genocide in Sudan; to help the democrats in and near Russia; to insist on real sanctions and pressure on Iran, backed by the threat of force."

This is insane. The needed alternative to Bush's fake diplomacy is not deranged belligerence but actual diplomacy — not talking, but searching for cooperation and compromise. The fundamental fact about international affairs is that it isn't a zero-sum game. Cooperation usually benefits both sides and conflict usually damages both parties. In outer space, the basic reality is that we don't face any space-based threats at the moment. Were a space arms race to break out, we could probably win it, but we'd be no better off than we are under the status quo. Meanwhile, such a race would be expensive. If we're worried about space at all, the thing to do is strengthen agreements among the major powers to avoid an arms race — that will make everyone happy.

With Russia and China, we need to decide what our real priorities are — Iran and North Korea, presumably — and be prepared to give ground on issues that are less important to us, but more important to them. Then, with Russia and China providing sticks, we can tackle the "rogue states" in this same spirit of offering cooperation — they don't build nuclear bombs, and we stop trying to overthrow their governments and strangle their economies. This won't get us everything we might like to have in the world, but it will get us the most important things, and that's what matters. Kristol is fundamentally correct to see that Bush's version of diplomacy — talk, talk, talk — is not a real alternative. But his all-coercion-all-the-time policy would be a disaster — to make it work we'd need to fight two or three wars simultaneously (on top of ongoing ones in Iraq and Afghanistan) and do so in the teeth of opposition from the world's other major countries. It's a non-starter, which is why Bush is doing what he's doing even though he shares Kristol's instincts.

Going for everything, however, is just going to get us nothing. Which is, indeed, what we've been getting.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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