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August 12, 2013

On the Importance of Relationships -- The Artie Fufkin Doctrine
Posted by David Shorr

Artie fufkinThe current rough patch between Presidents Obama and Putin sent me back to a figure who placed a lot of stock in relationships: Artie Fufkin (Polymer Records). When no fans showed up for an in-store appearance by Spinal Tap, Fufkin had little patience for the store owner's weasel words about business being slow and it not being a personal thing:

Forget personal thing. We had a relationship here, forget personal thing, what about a relationship?

But to be more serious, Obama's cancellation of the summit is a good opportunity to ask what is achieved through bilateral dialogue with other governments -- not just Russia, but nations that matter to the United States for one reason or another. For instance, where does this leave the idea of engagement and the importance of talking to regimes with whom we have serious differences? In short this idea has its limits, just like anything else. 

The original critique of refusal to engage still stands. It just doesn't do any good to say "we don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." In retrospect, though, the term engagement an imperfect watchword for the alternative approach because it implies that US reasonableness offers a short, sure path to diplomatic resolution. Of course engagement doesn't come with a guarantee any more than square-jawed resolve does. Either way, it depends how the other side responds; as they say in the military, the adversary gets a vote.

So there are a couple key points about the real purpose of engagement. First, being reasonable and seeking mutually acceptable outcomes is the only way diplomatic solutions are even possible. Second, there's the advantage that a reasonable party can gain over another party that's clearly being more stubborn. Which is precisely the basis for the Obama administration's success in building a united international front of pressure on Iran. (Actually, I've always liked the way President Obama prefers operating from the position of the provoked rather than the provoker.)

Now returning to the case of Vladimir Putin, bilateral dialogue is vital when it has the prospect of reaching agreement but not as a fig leaf for dysfunctions in a relationship. Maybe the Snowden affair wouldn't have been worth a cancellation if there were possible agreements on other matters such as arms control or human rights, except that there aren't. Nevertheless, Snowden isn't worth a serious rupture in US-Russian relations. The challenge now is to keep tensions from escalating or friction from getting out of hand. And that's why they call it statecraft.

Meanwhile, as this situation was percolating I noticed a couple of very smart pieces by experts looking at other high-stakes relationships. The Wilson Center's Michael Kugelman offers an interesting post mortem on Secretary Kerry's recent visit to Pakistan and offers some general context for strategic dialogue and relationships:

Washington has few strategic relationships — wide-ranging, foolproof partnerships overflowing with so much trust that intelligence-sharing is taken for granted. Those relationships that do exist (the US-Israel and US-UK interactions) can easily withstand any bilateral bumps.

The US-Pakistan relationship, by contrast, is not blessed with a large reservoir of goodwill to weather crises. Cursed with unrealistic expectations, divergent interests and mutual mistrust, US-Pakistan relations are volatile at best and dysfunctional at worst. It wouldn’t take much to bring a resurrected strategic dialogue to a screeching halt.

This isn’t to say the strategic dialogue isn’t worth restarting; both nations are certainly better off with a deeper relationship. It would be folly for Washington to take lightly a nation that a) controls critical supply routes to and from Afghanistan b) exerts influence over the Afghan Taliban and c) in the long-term, is one of the world’s most youthful, populous and strategically placed countries. Likewise, it would be silly for Pakistan to shrug off a superpower that provides so many essential things — from export markets to economic assistance to military hardware.

A good clear-eyed argument for why we have to try meeting mutual interests -- and why it won't be easy. If I have one qualm, it's with using the relationships with Israel and the UK as paradigms. Kugelman is right about the high degree of trust and affinity (only Canada, Japan, and Mexico come close as intimates of the United States). But relations with our closest allies are hardly a fair standard by which to measure other efforts at strategic dialogue. 

With America's frenemies dialogue is a matter of accomplishing as much diplomatic business as possible. For a case study in wide-ranging attempted cooperation, just look at the US-China strategic and economic dialogue. In fact, leading China hand David Shambaugh of George Washington University has done just that over at China-US Focus. There's no guarantee that all this dialogue will bear fruit, but it's a fascinating picture of what many call -- with good reason -- the world's most important bilateral relationship. 

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