Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Diplomacy’s Darkest Hours

MADRID – Diplomacy is not having its finest hour nowadays. Quite the contrary: resistance to diplomatic solutions is a common thread in most of today’s major conflicts.

Afghanistan will continue to bleed until the allies finally recognize that only by engaging the Taliban do they stand a chance of ending the war. But the West will also have to recognize that conflicts with a potent cultural and religious component are simply not susceptible to a military solution – a realization that points toward ending the ostracism of political Islam – Hamas and Hezbollah, for example.

Meanwhile, Iran’s unstoppable rush to develop nuclear weapons could prove to be a monument to the international community’s failure to stem the atomic tide in the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be the diplomatic charade that it has been for many years now. And nothing has attenuated the tensions between Israel and both Syria and Lebanon.

History teaches that diplomacy all too frequently produces results only when backed by overwhelming power. Such was the existentialist worldview of US President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Theodore Roosevelt, a major advocate of American expansionism: “A just war is, in the long run, far better for a man’s soul than the most prosperous peace.” A century later, another American president, Barack Obama, immersed in two hopeless wars in the Middle East, received his Nobel Peace Prize with an apology for “just wars.”

Indeed, the list of Nobel Peace Prize laureates is not lacking in men – Roosevelt, George Marshall, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Henry Kissinger – who either ended up recognizing the limits of military power or were simply following Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. 

Conflicts start to be ripe for diplomatic solutions only when the parties get trapped in an unbearably painful mutual deadlock. Without such a deadlock, neither United Nations resolutions, nor premature peace initiatives can cut short the dynamic of war. It is only then that formulas for power-sharing – such as those in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Guatemala, or Iraq – emerge as a realistic alternative.

It was NATO’s robust military intervention, not European diplomacy, that created the conditions for the end of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Martti Ahtisaari fully deserved his Nobel Peace Prize for articulating a diplomatic solution to Kosovo’s drive for independence. But this could not be achieved before Serbia was militarily humbled. However encouraging, Czechoslovakia’s peaceful “velvet divorce” into two states has not been the norm in Europe or elsewhere.

If it were not for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel and Egypt would never have reached a peace settlement. And it was the first Gulf War and Palestinian Intifadah that created the conditions for the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the subsequent Oslo Accords. After Rabin’s assassination, the notion has been gaining ground that any Israeli-Palestinian accord would be the “peace of the exhausted,” not Rabin’s “peace of the brave.”

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nonetheless sui generis: either the parties’ six-decade mutual deadlock is not unbearable enough, or they prefer to pay the price of conflict rather than compromise their national ethos. Such is now the loss of hope in a negotiated solution that those who advocate an internationally imposed solution seem to be gaining ground.

Internal conflicts that end not with mutual deadlock but with an overwhelming victory by one of the parties hardly ever produce diplomatic solutions. Long years of mediation and endless peace proposals in the Sri Lanka conflict failed to end the war and the devastation of entire Tamil communities. “Peace” came about only with the total and unconditional defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Likewise, the failure of Chechnya, Biafra, Tibet, or the Kurdish areas of the Middle East to reach independent statehood is attributable entirely to their military impotence. By contrast, Eritrea, East Timor, and parts of the former Yugoslavia achieved independence by exhausting their occupiers and/or their internal rivals.

There are few cases where diplomacy actually succeeded in preventing war. Almost invariably, the greatest diplomatic successes have followed, rather than preceded, bloodshed.

In 1919, John Maynard Keynes told the statesmen of post-World War I Europe to abandon their vindictive patriotism for the sake of building a future of peace based on European integration. Alas, it took another world war to convince European leaders of the validity of Keynes’s approach. The European Union – an empire built through diplomacy and consensus – emerged out of the ashes.

One should, however, resist falling back on fatalism. Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, showed genuine courage in cutting short a march to war with Venezuela and calming down the entire Bolivarian axis (Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia) by reviving the region’s diplomatic channels. His was a truly revolutionary shift from the politics of saber-rattling to the hard work of establishing regional peace.

To be sure, much hope still lies in popular diplomacy, in civil society mobilizing for peace. Frequently, governments need to be coaxed into accepting the inevitability of compromise, thanks to pressure from below. Civil society’s support for bridging the psychological gap between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland helped pave the way to peace. And Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, after 18 years of useless military occupation, largely reflected the immense impact of the “Four Mothers’ Movement” on Israel’s government.

But popular diplomacy alone never forces political leaders to end wars and make peace. Official diplomacy begins where the battlefield ends. Unfortunately, in today’s most consequential militarized conflicts, that boundary is still nowhere in sight.

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