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Why ‘Reset’ Failed: Diplomacy with Rogues Rarely Works

Meeting her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton famously presented him with a red, plastic “reset” button. “We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together,” she explained, adding, “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” “You got it wrong,” Lavrov responded.

The problem, in hindsight, was less a botched translation than it was a misunderstanding of the Russian mind. Like too many presidents and secretaries of state before them, President Obama and Secretary Clinton assumed that the problems hampering relations lay more with their predecessors than with America’s adversaries. Obama and Clinton were more willing to blame President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for what Obama caricatured as knee-jerk hostility to diplomacy with Russia than President Vladimir Putin himself. Putin took full advantage of this mistake.

Obama has made diplomacy with adversaries a cornerstone of his foreign policy. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them . . . is ridiculous,” he declared in July 2007, soon after launching his presidential campaign, promising that, if elected, he would sit down with any adversary that was willing. As secretary of state, Clinton embraced the same philosophy. “You don’t make peace with your friends. You have to be willing to engage with your enemies,” she explained.

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Many Republicans agreed. Former Secretary of State James Baker dismissed criticism from some Republican circles that America sacrificed its principles when it engaged enemies. Citing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s World War II cooperation with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he declared, “Talking to hostile states . . . is not appeasement. It is good foreign policy.” Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, agreed. “We ought to have enough confidence in our ability as diplomats to go eye to eye with people—even though we disagree in the strongest possible way—and come away without losing anything.” Nicholas Burns, a top diplomat during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, agreed too. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” he told a 2009 Senate hearing examining Obama’s diplomatic outreach.

The idea that diplomacy with rogue regimes is cost-free is a relatively new idea, one that may sound good in the abstract but is less durable in reality. Policymakers often advocate diplomacy with rogue rulers and even terrorist groups because other options seem unattractive. As our recent experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, war extracts a tremendous price not only in terms of blood and treasure but in terms of national morale as well. The American public is exhausted by these conflicts and wondering if their price was worth paying.

In such a situation, grasping at sanctions is perhaps understandable as well, particularly when more war seems to be the only alternative, but they are hardly a sure thing. Few dictators care about the discomfort of their citizenry. Saddam Hussein may have charged that half a million children were dead because of sanctions—revealed as a vulgar propaganda claim by the liberation of Iraq—but in fact he cared little about the deprivations sanctions caused the Iraqi people. Even when effective—against apartheid-era South Africa, for instance—sanctions are at best slow. When they are too narrow, targeting only a handful of individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear program, for example, or Russian businessmen benefiting from Putin’s kleptocracy, they are ineffective. To sanction two dozen individuals in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation in Animal House—a response that mostly just makes those imposing it feel good. Just because military and economic coercion come at a high price does not mean diplomacy is a panacea. While diplomacy with Brussels or Burundi or Brunei (i.e., the kind of partners who uphold the norms of diplomacy) might be the bread-and-butter of statecraft, talking to rogues is different.

 

Barack Obama might have been a relative foreign policy novice when he entered the Oval Office, but not so Hillary Clinton when she became his secretary of state. It was during the administration of Clinton’s husband, in which she was an active participant, that top strategists popularized the concept of “rogue regime.” With war fears on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf, and terrorism beginning to stir across the globe, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin raised the specter, in 1993, of “a handful of nuclear devices in the hands of rogue states or even terrorist groups.” Secretary of State Warren Christopher repeatedly referred to Iran and Iraq as rogue regimes in a Georgetown University address later that year. Clinton himself described Iran and Libya as “rogue states” during a 1994 Brussels sojourn. Both William Perry, who succeeded Aspin, and William Cohen, who succeeded Perry, spoke about rogues’ imperviousness to traditional deterrence.

Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security adviser, sought to tie all these themes together in “Confronting Backlash States,” an article in the March/April 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs. Examining five rogue regimes—Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya—he found what they had in common was “aggressive and defiant” behavior, a resistance to globalization, domination “by cliques that control power through coercion” and “suppress basic human rights and promote radical ideologies,” and, most importantly, “a chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world.” Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s second-term secretary of state, elaborated: “Dealing with the rogue states is one of the great challenges of our time . . . because they are there with the sole purpose of destroying the system.”

Russia may have been too weakened to go rogue in the 1990s, but with the economy rescued by a quintupling of oil prices and a leader in the Kremlin steeped in Soviet statecraft (which was itself quite obstinate), Russia today arguably fits this bill.

Whether in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, or Pyongyang, rogues view the outstretched hand of American presidents with disdain. That is not to say they are unwilling to talk, but American administrations, especially Obama’s, consistently confuse dialogue with sincerity. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bragged in 2005 that the key to Iranian success against the United States was to lull Americans into complacency and then do the unexpected. Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, an aide to former President Mohammad Khatami, also bragged about such deception. “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building,” he explained, “and a covert policy, which was continuation of the [nuclear] activities.” Nor are the Iranians the only ones who practice this strategy. The Taliban, likewise, were willing to sit down with American officials on more than thirty occasions between 1995 and 2000, promising repeatedly both to close terror training camps and detain Osama bin Laden.

 

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union was also perfectly willing to engage. It understood and sought to take advantage of the fact that American policymakers saw agreements as sacrosanct. While Western diplomats might understand agreements as symbols of conflict resolution, rogues just as easily see deals as a tactic of asymmetric warfare, tying opponents’ hands or encouraging them to let down their guard while maximizing the strength of their own position. Indeed, that was exactly the finding of the CIA’s Team B analysts examining Soviet negotiating behavior in a report released in the last days of the Ford administration.

While revisionists have since questioned Team B’s findings, the broader Soviet track record exemplified consistent deceit. (It was in this culture of strategic Soviet deception and zero-sum struggles for dominance that Putin, then a young KGB recruit, learned statecraft.) The greater the enthusiasm for dialogue with Moscow, the greater the Russian temptation to cheat. Donald Rumsfeld recalls how, after Ford lost his bid for reelection, he was briefing Jimmy Carter and his national security team. Carter excitedly said that he had an “unprecedented” communication from the Soviet Union expressing interest in new arms-control talks. The subsequent Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT-II) were so one-sided in Moscow’s favor that even the Democrat-controlled Senate refused to ratify the deal.

Concerns expressed on the Senate floor at that time, however, went beyond Carter’s bizarre refusal to address European concerns by including Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the deal. Rather, for many senators, the problem was growing evidence of Soviet cheating on its diplomatic commitments. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, reports persisted that the Soviet Union was using chemical and biological weaponry in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Tribesmen in Laos described colored gas emerging from bombs or rockets that exploded at treetop level. Dutch journalists filmed a Soviet helicopter dropping canisters emitting a yellow cloud on a village outside of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan. The American intelligence community was able to collect tissue samples, blood, and urine from refugees exposed to the “Yellow Rain,” and in February 1982, a special national intelligence estimate concluded that the Soviets were mass-producing and weaponizing a toxin. Many academics and diplomats pushed back on publicity about the new information for fear that President Reagan would abandon talks on new treaties in the face of incontrovertible proof of Soviet deception. Yellow rain was not a biological or chemical weapon, they argued somewhat risibly, but rather a naturally occurring mixture of pollen and bee feces, never mind the fact that it appeared only on battlefields.

Soviet cheating was more a rule than the exception. In early 1980, reports surfaced of an “outbreak of disease” in Sverdlovsk, today’s Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. American intelligence suspected an anthrax outbreak emanating from a suspected biological weapons facility. The Soviets blamed tainted meat. American assessments, however, suggested the disease was spread by inhalation rather than consumption. Witnesses reported a military quarantine, and satellite imagery showed that a building in the suspect complex was abandoned after the incident. Nevertheless, the desire to talk at any price led diplomats, and even some intelligence analysts, to bury evidence of Soviet guilt. In the end, it was the Soviet press who undercut the American denial, exposing the cover-up in 1990. Two years later, President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had maintained an offensive biological weapons program.

Nor was the Biological Weapons Convention the only agreement Soviet officials violated. In 1983, an American spy satellite detected a Soviet radar complex near Krasnoyarsk, in the middle of Siberia. Its configuration suggested a military purpose, and its sheer size underlined the scale of Soviet subterfuge of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Arms Control Association dismissed Krasnoyarsk as insignificant and the Federation of American Scientists suggested that suspicion was unfounded, but Reagan thought otherwise. “No violations of a treaty can be considered to be a minor matter, nor can there be confidence in agreements if a country can pick and choose which provisions of an agreement it will comply with,” he explained. Even those willing to excuse Soviet cheating had difficulty finding a credible non-military purpose for the Krasnoyarsk complex. In 1989, after years of denying accusations, the Soviets finally admitted that the radar violated the ABM Treaty.

 

Just as Carter pushed ahead with SALT-II despite evidence of Soviet deceit, so Obama’s enthusiasm for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (“New START”) has apparently led his administration to bury reports of Russian cheating. Senators balked, for example, at the nomination of Brian McKeon, a member of Vice President Joe Biden’s staff, to a senior Pentagon post because of suspicion that McKeon had buried reports that Russia had been violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty so as to remove an impediment to the New START ratification. In effect, getting Putin’s signature on a treaty trumped concerns that the Russians were unwilling to abide by what he signed.

American policymakers, under the influence no doubt of fashionable multiculturalism, also seem to forget that different people can think in different ways. While the US often sees diplomacy as a search for compromise, regimes in Russia, Iran, and North Korea tend to see it as a zero-sum game for influence.

Obama sought Russian cooperation in Syria, for example, to resolve a horrendous human rights tragedy, but for Putin, the only question was how to achieve an outcome that diminished American influence. After forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently used chemical weapons to kill fourteen hundred civilians in a suburb of Damascus, Putin brokered a deal in which Assad agreed to forfeit his chemical weapons, not as a humanitarian gesture, but as a way of derailing American military action that might have benefited anti-Assad forces. Months later, Assad’s compliance with the Russia-brokered agreement petered out. Reports and video of a new chemical weapons strike in Kfar Zita, near Hama, on April 11, 2014, underscore Putin’s diplomatic cynicism.

It is ironic that while Americans take pride in their supposed multiculturalism, rogues often use American naïveté against broader US interests. North Koreans have mastered the art of bluster in pursuit of American conciliation, while the Iranian government often demands apologies not to bury the past, but to set the stage for reparation. Putin has consistently feigned grievance to extract concession. Claiming that Russia was being unfairly targeted, he convinced Obama to renege on a commitment to base an anti-ballistic missile project in the Czech Republic and Poland; at the same time, as subsequent revelations showed, he was simultaneously cheating on his INF obligations and upgrading his own military forces. Blinded by his own mantra that the Cold War is over, Obama chided Mitt Romney, his 2012 Republican challenger, for identifying Russia as a strategic threat, largely because it contradicted his naive tendency to take Putin’s assurances of non-competition at face value, even as the former KGB operative was planning Russia’s resurgence.

Rogues also exploit the US tendency, as Jeane Kirkpatrick famously said, to blame America first. Many American diplomats and analysts suggest that Putin was pushed into “defensive aggression” in Georgia and Ukraine by encouragement of those countries’ efforts to tie themselves to Europe, and by NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Their subtext might be called Reconciliation Lost. Putin happily encourages such diplomatic illusions because they obscure his realpolitik. Russia’s invasion and annexation of first Georgia and then the Crimea were not spontaneous acts in reaction to Georgian assertiveness or Ukraine’s fatal attraction for association with the West. Russian special forces, known as Spetsnaz, executed a carefully planned seizure of airports, ports, and key buildings. They could be there for months, if not years. This represents an active strategy, not an outburst of aggrieved amour-propre.

Too often, American officials and diplomats give greater credence to what they hear at the bargaining table than to what adversaries say to their own people. Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat was particularly good at talking out of both sides of his mouth, speaking peace with Bill Clinton, but preaching violence in Arabic to his constituents. The Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has promised “heroic flexibility” in nuclear negotiations to an external audience, only to explain to his constituents the following day that this meant a change in tactics, not policy. Russian officials might talk cooperation and diplomacy abroad, but at home they celebrate domination.

Putin is a modern-day Machiavelli, unapologetic about saying and doing whatever is necessary to regain the glory and respect he believes the Soviet Union enjoyed. With his tireless efforts to engage and pour emollients on fundamental disagreements, Obama has acted as a modern-day Chamberlain. Simply declaring the Cold War over does not make it so unless both parties seek a new beginning. Obama sincerely wants peace, but so long as Putin seeks the restoration of an imperial Russian past, peace will never occur. Hitting the reset button should not mean allowing an opponent to use diplomacy to wage war by other means.

Michael Rubin is the author of the new book Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes.

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