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When Did Talking Go Out of Style?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/roosevelt-stalin-churchill-yalta.jpgWinston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin meet at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. (Library of Congress)

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when “talking” got such a bad rep. But it clearly has one, and it is dogging the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, despite his clinching the Democratic nomination last night in a photo-finish against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. In his Minnesota victory speech, Obama called for “tough, direct diplomacy.” Not everyone will applaud.

Sen. John McCain raised the concern last night, as he has done almost daily. It started with Obama’s statement last summer that, if elected, he would talk directly with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea to bridge the impasse between these nations and the United States. Last week, McCain lectured Cuban-Americans that this would “send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators.” Shortly before, President George W. Bush told the Israeli Parliament that such dialogue is tantamount to caving in to terrorists. Negotiation is appeasement, he said, “which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Bush is correct that appeasement has been widely discredited. But no observer of foreign relations could possibly equate negotiation with appeasement. Appeasement is what happens when one side accepts another’s outrageous demands. Winston Churchill did not object to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938. Churchill objected to giving the Nazis Czechoslovakia.

Talking with an opponent is different from fraternizing with or capitulating to him. It is, in fact, the defining tool of diplomacy, humanity’s oldest substitute for fighting. Since war drains savings, interrupts commerce and kills the next generation, it’s best avoided. When talking fails to produce satisfaction, and one side starts swinging, most nations feel perfectly entitled to revert to caveman methods and do what must be done.

Negotiations may substitute for war or they may be held during a war under the white flag of truce. The critical question is whether one has savvy negotiators or stupid ones. Their job is to defang the enemy or at least pipe the cobra back into his basket. Diplomatic truce gives them the opening. As quick-witted Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean recently taught young moviegoers, “If an adversary demands parley you can do them no harm until the parley is complete.” If Walt Disney knows this, how did parley come to mean perfidy in American politics?

Some observers might reach back to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. Woodrow Wilson has been criticized for conceding too much in negotiations to appease the other side. Even if that’s true, it needs to be remembered that he was negotiating with our allies, France and Britain. The losers in the war weren’t even invited.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wilson-versailles.jpgOne might also explain the aversion to talking with dubious characters by pointing to the Yalta Conference, after which some accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of treating Joseph Stalin too leniently. Here it’s worth noting that Stalin, a dictator if there ever was one, was also an ally and the Red Army was the only immovable object Hitler ever encountered. Not to meet with Stalin in 1945 at Yalta (or 1943 at Tehran) because the U.S. did not approve of either his domestic or foreign policy would have consigned Europe to Nazism. One might fault FDR for not getting enough in the Yalta negotiations, but certainly not for holding them.

Notably, one nation did indignantly refuse to negotiate with Stalin when the opportunity still existed. The Polish government-in-exile made Soviet acknowledgment of the Katyn Forest Massacre a precondition of face-to-face meetings. The Soviets refused; the two governments broke off relations, and whatever wiggle room existed in that perilous relationship disappeared. History tragically consigned the people of Poland to the wrong side of the Iron Curtain for the next 40 years.

Perhaps the best explanation for a stiff-necked posture toward negotiation is the legacy of the Cold War. In that struggle, the United States ruled out negotiations with Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Mao Tse Tung, to mention a few of the most important Communists whom Washington treated as persona non grata.

This was a break with diplomatic precedent going back hundreds of years. The first, and perhaps most important, European diplomatic conference was that which resulted in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Protestant and Catholic kings hated one another so bitterly that they could not bring themselves even to walk the same streets, much less sit at the same table, so they convened in towns 30 miles apart. Through intermediaries they “talked” with their opposite numbers, though convinced that the other side would literally go to Hell. Yet they made a historic peace. Again, the point of diplomacy is parley: neutralizing enemies (if possible), or getting the best deal from allies.

Even during the Cold War, however, Washington ignored only those whom it thought it could afford to, like Cuba, North Vietnam and China. The United States never broke relations with the Soviet Union, supposedly the worst of them all and certainly the ringleader. Vice President Richard M. Nixon traveled to Moscow in 1959; the Soviet leader toured the U.S. the same year, and various Soviet premiers met with various presidents from Nixon onward, up until 1991. So the U.S. was not standing on any high moral principle if it was talking with one such leader while pretending the others didn’t exist.

In fact, the moments of real courage and wisdom in American history have typically come when U.S. statesmen risked censure to negotiate. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay ignored congressional warnings not to talk with the British without French approval, and negotiated directly with the nation’s enemy. They won independence and doubled our territory. Wilson was the first American president to confront European powers in their den, and engineered the first global organization for peace. Nixon risked his party’s coveted reputation for being “tough” on communism by opening talks with Mao and Leonid I. Brezhnev. Détente lifted the shadow of a Third World War that hung over two generations.

Of course, there are moments when delaying talks can have some benefit, but to postpone them for almost 50 years, as in the case of Cuba, merely delays resolution of a conflict. In this case, extending a white flag is sensible indeed. There is no conceivable reason, other than spite or pride, to clutch a policy that has produced so little. Why ostracize Cuban citizens or the Cuban government when we welcome interactions with China, a more formidable Communist country by far? Consistency in policy is the bedrock of order.

This brings us to perhaps the most important reason why talking has become an issue: the 2008 campaign. One suspects partisan posturing in the objections raised. Talking with enemies is not a betrayal of honor or decency, as implied. Conversation between the heads of two countries is not a papal audience, nor does it have anything to do with anointing one’s opposite number.

A cardinal rule of diplomacy is the principle of de facto recognition, to which President George Washington adhered when deciding he must shake the bloody hand of a representative of the French government that murdered Louis XVI. De facto recognition means that one nation does not judge how another nation rules itself internally. It recognizes whatever government wields power. There is no implication of moral approval or disapproval — regardless of how disgusted one might be by the other.

However, this underscores the principle of not meeting with terrorists, meaning non-state actors. Bush is right that the chief executive should not dignify the representatives of groups that hide in the shadows and throw bombs at passing school children. These are private individuals. They cannot be held to the Geneva Conventions or any other international accord. Accepted protocol is to leave them to Interpol or the intelligence agencies.

Osama bin Laden believes that he is God’s chosen tool, he holds all the cards and any opponent must concede to his every demand. Why ask for parley?

This is not behavior we should emulate. Though we have not always practiced what we preach, the United States has long been the preeminent champion of peaceful conflict resolution.

Talking and negotiation tend to be disparaged by people who aren’t very adept at either. This should not be a problem for the two candidates poised to win nomination, but the voters will have to decide who can speak best for our country. Deft diplomacy can win America’s most important battles and, historically, is always the first step toward peace.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is the Dwight Stanford Professor of American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University. She is the author of “Major Problems in American History: 1865 to the Present” and “All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the 1960s.”

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