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Do Liberals Believe in Diplomacy or Not?

November 10, 2021

When I first started teaching introduction to international relations, I included a lecture on the use of force in my foreign policy unit. We talked about Art’s four uses of force, Schelling’s diplomacy of violence, etc. But I worried I was downplaying the importance of diplomacy. So beginning last year I’ve changed the use of force lecture to the “use and non-use of force,” covering both force and diplomacy. The takeaway is that, as liberal internationalists have argued, diplomacy is not “weakness.” It can be just as effective, if not more effective, in advancing interests than coercive force.

This is all to explain why I was a little surprised to see the news this week out of the Middle East. The UAE foreign minister met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, part of a broader regional détente following tensions over Assad’s horrible treatment of his people during the Syrian civil war. The US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, denounced this as “efforts to normalize or rehabilitate” a “brutal dictator.”

On the one hand, yes, pretending the horrors of the civil war never happened would be bad. On the other hand, shouldn’t liberals (like the Biden Administration) believe in the power of engagement and diplomacy even with unsavory characters?

Why do we have to talk to “bad guys?”

In the United States, the Democratic Party has been primarily associated with liberal internationalism.

The idea that diplomacy and negotiation are the best way to approach contentious issues and hostile state is well-grounded in liberal international relations theory.

Early liberal idealism believed the spread of democratic ideals and open forums like the League of Nations would solve world conflict. That obviously didn’t work out. But later neoliberal institutionalism noted the ways that states can advance their interests through negotiation and participation in international organizations. Some studies–such as a book by my undergrad advisor–demonstrated that even the much maligned “appeasement” can actually work.

We can also find this argument in constructivism. While not technically liberal, much of constructivism does focus on the ways states can escape the security dilemma and work together. One way they can do this is through repeated interactions and reassuring beliefs and practices, which can undermine hostility.

This argument is also present in liberal internationalism as a foreign policy approach. States can best secure their interests by talking with others and working through the United Nations and other forums. Cutting a hostile state off, through economic sanctions or diplomatic isolation, will only make things worse.

US Democrats had been the champion of this approach

In the United States, the Democratic Party has been primarily associated with liberal internationalism. During the Cold War, prominent liberals like Adlai Stevenson skillfully used the United Nations to push back on Soviet aggression. After the Cold War, the Clinton Administration championed engagement with “rogue states” such as North Korea. More recently, Democrats have argued that negotiation is the best way to prevent tensions with both Russia and Iran.

The Obama Administration (of which Price was a member) very openly discussed its desire to engage with hostile states, in contrast to George W. Bush’s more contentious approach. Obama said the US’ former “clenched fist” is now an “open hand.” He even specifically reached out to Syria.

Democrats were also critical of the Trump Administration’s decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council. Trump argued this was due to the authoritarian states that controlled it, but the Biden Administration–when it reversed this move–claimed participating in the Human Rights Council would “deepen American engagement with the world.” I argued similarly in a piece here.

So what happened?

The Biden Administration has a chance to fashion a new liberal internationalism. But that requires thinking through its approach to the world before it makes statements like this.

Given all this, it’s hard to make sense of the Biden State Department’s criticism of Middle East states’ engagement with Syria.

One could argue that Democrats are abandoning liberal internationalism. Or that Obama’s desire for engagement was poorly thought out, and they are re-thinking their approach to the region. If that were the case, it’d be in the direction of realism and restraint, though. These would caution against getting too involved in regional diplomatic efforts.

One could also argue that the Syrian civil war taught Democrats the errors of their ways. Engaging with Assad didn’t prevent him from slaughtering his people. Fair enough. But wouldn’t that extend to Iran and Russia? Shouldn’t we despair over the effectiveness of New START and the JCPOA in promoting cooperation?

Finally, one could argue this reflects a distrust of the UAE. That is, the problem isn’t diplomacy, it’s diplomacy by states with questionable commitments to human rights. That’s a fair critique to be made from outside the government. It’d be tough to credibly establish it as US policy, though. America is hardly consistent in its engagement with other states. And it’s a bit imperious to tell regional states they can’t engage with each other without America’s blessing.

Is there any consistency here at all?

I may be overthinking this, and expecting consistency where there is none. But that is a problem. The Biden Administration has a chance to fashion a new liberal internationalism that escapes the over-commitment and hawkishness of earlier iterations. That, however, requires thinking through its approach to the world before it makes statements like this.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.