Costs and benefits of engagement

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Charlie Kupchan, author of How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, and American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin, author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, crossed swords the week before last in a good discussion of costs and benefits of engagement. The result was more light than heat, so if you want to hear the whole event here it is:

If you prefer to save 88 minutes, I’ll try to summarize.

Michael’s main point is that engagement has costs, especially if not properly prepared. It can give recognition and prominence to bad actors, some of whom are irreconcilable because their motives are ideological (Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Baader Meinhof).  Engagement can be counter-productive.  Involving Iran in talks on Syria, for example, can encourage Iranian involvement in Syria.  Engagement may also free bad actors to commit abuses (witness Burma’s behavior towards its Muslim population).  We should pay much more attention than we do to shaping the environment so that engagement produces the right results and to talking with and pressuring only people who can deliver results (Pakistan rather than the Taliban).  We should use all the elements of power in combination, not in sequence.  Force should not be relegated to a last resort.  When engagement fails we shouldn’t repeat an effort that has already been tried (e.g. negotiations with the Taliban).

Charlie’s main point is that engagement often works, regardless of the type of regime, and the costs can be managed, even if any serious rapprochement takes time.  Breakthroughs start with fear of the alternative, but longer-term success requires substantial agreements implemented in good faith, which increases trust and gives former enemies common interests.  There are certainly some rogues with whom engagement would be foolish–al Qaeda for example–but when rogues have nuclear weapons (North Korea), engagement still has to be tried, in order to avoid truly terrible outcomes.  The costs are not as high as Michael imagines and can be managed.  It is often better to risk overdoing engagement than to pass up the opportunities it offers.

So no definitive conclusion, but some significant clarification of an issue that often divides Americans.

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