Great Power Diplomacy: Big Stick or Good Will…What works?

It is legitimate in foreign affairs to employ both the carrot and the stick.  Both policies can secure a nation’s interests; the trick (and difficulty) is to employ the strategy a given situation warrants.  In spite of partisan name-calling, whereby stick-wielders are called warmongers and carrot-salesmen weak, all Great Powers, all statesmen (and women), must be prepared to use both.  In the United States, at least since Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, these two camps have savaged each other in the political arena.

The emotional name-calling is unfortunate.  It distorts policy.  President Obama has suggested he will utilize American goodwill around the world far more effectively than did his predecessor.  Maybe he will.  But, George W. Bush had a point – that America could utilize its overwhelming military superiority to further its interests.  Notwithstanding the critique of Bush’s point by the Democrats, it wasn’t Bush or Cheney who said to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”  It was Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright, during America’s unipolar moment. 

Further, President Obama, as candidate Obama, vilified Bush for his big stick policies.  He decried neo-con tactics in the war on terror, but has now adopted many of them.  In a blog last month, I noted that Daniel Byman of Georgetown University in a March 18th Foreign Affairs piece, referring to a U.S. Predator strike against militants in Pakistan in early March, wrote, “The strike, the fifth drone attack in Pakistan since late January, demonstrates that the Obama administration is not jettisoning the policies of the Bush administration regarding targeted killings; in fact, it appears to be ramping them up.”  Even those that advocate goodwill on the campaign trail will wield the stick in the Oval Office.

Likewise, in another era, another Obama-esque candidate, Ronald Reagan, vilified a sitting president for weakness, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.  Exaggerations of Soviet strength were put forth, with Reagan offering us “morning in America,” which was, we the American electorate decided in 1980, change we could believe in.

With regard to Iran, it seems unclear to me today which will work, the carrot or the stick (if either).  Can the threat (or use) of military force or diplomatic engagement stop or slow Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, or can either succeed in changing the nature of the Iranian regime?  Both options have merit.  While Bush wasn’t able to further this objective, the jury is still out on whether Obama, with a mix of engagement and crafty horse-trading with powers such as Russia, will be more effective.  It is not worthwhile, however, for partisans to call each other names. 

And, just as during the Cold War when Soviet capabilities were exaggerated, politics can prevent an accurate assessment of Great Power strengths today.  Secretary of State Clinton’s awkward remark that the engagement of China and Iran in Latin America is “disturbing,” represents just such an exaggeration of the threat of these Rising Powers, not to mention how condescending this must sound to Latin ears (Monroe Doctrine redux) and how belligerent to Chinese and Iranian ears.  Let us not exaggerate the threat of these two nations, especially in regions where it may be difficult for them to project power.  Such exaggeration is just as much folly as was the neo-con overestimation of American power.

On the other hand, the Middle East is somewhere the Iranian threat is real.  If you want to raise emotions over the carrot vs. stick debate, initiate a discussion of Israeli foreign policy.  It appears that the Netanyahu government, fronted in foreign affairs by tough guy Avigdor Lieberman, is reassessing its foreign policy approach (see article in this Sunday’s NYTimes).  The Israelis will raise with their American and European partners the notion that the carrot of Palestinian statehood and land-for-peace has not worked at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last thirty years, since Israel gave back the Sinai to Egypt.  Netanyahu and company instead believe that Iran is currently fomenting trouble in the region, including by emboldening (and arming) Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria to reject accommodation with Israel.  Ahmadinejad cancelled his worrying trip to Latin America this week in order to go where?  Syria.  Iran is a regional power, a dangerous one, but very unlikely to project power extra-regionally to places like Latin America, though don’t rule out mischief there.

Likewise, the Netanyahu government will argue that Palestinian economic, civic and political institutions must be upgraded before real peace can be negotiated.  This view will seem “war-mongering” to some.  While this blogger is not advocating such a change of direction in Israeli policy – the jury is still out — I believe that considering a new approach, wielding the stick where carrot sales have failed, is worth discussing.  Let the name-calling begin…

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