In a new piece today, Dominic Tierney reflected in The Atlantic on strong American public opposition (in contrast with peer nations’ citizens) to negotiating with rival or enemy countries and non-state actors and the consequences that public resistance has had on Cold War policy, the post-9/11 wars, and the current Iran nuclear talks:
[…] according to a moralistic strain in American culture, compromising with ‘evil’ opponents sullies U.S. values. Americans tend to be deeply committed to the nation’s ideals of democracy and individual rights. Rates of religiosity are also far higher in the United States than in other rich democracies. As a result, Americans are more likely to say there are absolute standards for good and evil than Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese, who are more likely to say that ethics depend on circumstances.
American moral righteousness can make the act of bargaining seem inherently suspect. “Because we fight for values and we fight for principles,” said LBJ about Vietnam, “our patience and our determination are unending.”
Sometimes it’s appropriate not to engage enemies—particularly when they’re utterly extreme or intransigent, like the Nazis or al-Qaeda. But these are rare exceptions.
The danger is that American power and moralism triggers opposition to diplomacy that undermines U.S. interests. For all its vast resources, the United States can’t usually enforce its will against enemies—especially when a dispute is in the opponent’s backyard. And refusing to compromise American values by making concessions can mean paying a larger ethical price later on. Washington may miss opportunities for a valuable deal and end up negotiating as a last resort—when its hand is much weaker.
I would also extend the current examples beyond the Iran nuclear talks to two other big ones…
The first example is the extreme opposition to the mere concept of Israel and Hamas entering direct talks for a two-state solution (assuming you could get both of them to the table). Side note: For a number of historical and cultural reasons, the Israeli approach is heavily though not exclusively influenced by American attitudes to negotiating in abstract, and official American policy (and lobbies) has a strong effect on the situation there, so it’s as relevant as the Iran example even if the U.S. is not a primary negotiating party.
I tackled that debate last July in my big article “The Case for Including Hamas in Peace Talks.” My primary argument focused on the reality that you can’t really secure a deal unless the major actors most likely to sabotage it are on board with it, whether or not you find them distasteful or abhorrent.
But my other argument was that the concept of “preconditions” before talks have long been an obsession and constant stumbling block in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Without mentioning that situation specifically, Tierney notes the belief in preconditions as follows:
Whereas in other countries bargaining is often seen as the norm, Americans frequently view face-to-face talks as a prize that the opponent has to earn through good behavior.
And in my Israel/Hamas article I observed that this “good behavior”-then-talks approach is actually inconsistent with the most successful treaties Israel has actually signed because negotiations are where major concessions to the other side usually occur:
For example, Israel did not force Egypt to formally recognize its existence before signing the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, because one of the points of the treaty was to do exactly that. It was the first time an Arab country recognized Israel diplomatically. Similarly, Israel and the PLO did not recognize each other officially until they signed secret recognition agreements, via Norway’s government, during the Oslo negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993. The insistence now on making everything a precondition of a treaty instead of a condition of the treaty itself is a major stumbling block and a needless one. Why demand your negotiating partner make a unilateral concession before coming to the table where concessions are normally traded? Negotiations typically don’t work like that.
The second example is the extreme opposition to negotiating with Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war in Syria, particularly to any scenario where negotiations won’t automatically end (or even begin!) with his departure from power.