The nuclear deal with Iran now being debated in Congress represents a rare victory for diplomacy. Americans don’t care much for diplomacy these days. With so much power at our disposal, we prefer threats, economic sanctions, military posturing and coercion to the quiet cultivation of allies and influence. Chas Freeman Jr., a 30-year career diplomat who wrote the entry on diplomacy for the Encyclopedia Brittanica, remarked in an interview a few months back that even many in our diplomatic corps fail to grasp the necessity for diplomacy or understand its basic principles.
Ambassador Freeman has had a long and distinguished career, which includes being the chief U.S. interpreter during President Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972 and serving as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He has had a front-row seat at significant junctures in our history, and when he says, as he did in June in a speech to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters, that “Judging by results in the complex post-Cold War era, diplomacy is something the United States does not now understand nor know how to do,” it seems important to learn more.
In his speech “Too Quick on the Draw: Militarism and the Malpractice of Diplomacy in America,” Freeman ascribes Americans’ disregard for diplomacy to our atypical experience of war. Many wars are fought for limited objectives, which end in a negotiated agreement that reconciles the defeated to a new status quo that, it is hoped, establishes the basis for a better, lasting peace. But the Civil War, World War I and World War II were wars of subjugation and conquest, in which the United States demanded unconditional surrender from its opponent. Peace terms were imposed, not negotiated, and what followed was a complete restructuring of the defeated side’s society.
Our more limited wars in the 20th century did not change that departure from diplomatic norms. In Korea an armistice signed in 1953 has still not been translated into a peace. Our first war against Iraq did not end in an agreement negotiated with Saddam Hussein but with the United States using the U.N. Security Council to impose onerous conditions on Iraq that he never accepted. In Grenada and Panama, and in Iraq in 2003, the United States imposed regime change. “Our military interventions have nowhere produced a better peace,” Freeman says. “Americans do not know how to conclude their wars.”
The unexamined assumptions underlying our national security strategy lead American leaders to regard belligerence rather than persuasion as the key to peace. Smashing the enemy militarily, not resolving the issues that lead to conflict, is regarded as the desired objective. During the Cold War, the United States relied on military deterrence to contain the Soviet Union. With nuclear war at stake, freezing situations in place seemed a safer course than taking steps to adjust to them, alleviate them or take advantage of them. Preserving the status quo took priority over diplomatic agility or answers.
The Cold War is over, yet Freeman says the United States has yet to adapt to the new conditions confronting it. It has discarded efforts to lead by example or persuasion, but its embrace of militarism has not made Americans safer nor advanced U.S. interests. To the contrary, it has been disastrous.
Freeman’s speech deserves reading both for its own sake and for its relevance to the debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran. Critics in Congress argue that the accord is not tough enough, but what measures would be tough enough to satisfy them and still win Iranian acceptance? A negotiation is an agreement, not an ultimatum, and that fact is what seems to frustrate them. We have not pulverized our enemy; therefore the agreement must be inadequate.
Listening to the discussion, one might think we are all militant amnesiacs. Americans should keep in mind that Iran is not a threat to the United States and its threat to Israel has been exaggerated, that the extent of Iran’s nuclear program has been consistently overstated by our politicians and that any addition to the world’s nuclear club is undesirable. But a situation in which states with nuclear weapons make no attempt to get rid of their own weapons while denying them to others is ultimately unsustainable.