Mellman: The limits of diplomacy
While President Biden has done a remarkable job of building a coalition and executing a plan to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression, the far left of the Democratic Party has shown a wavering and inconsistent policy towards the Russian invasion.
Their problem stems in part from a broader misunderstanding of the role of diplomacy – a flaw that also infects attitudes towards other conflicts.
A now-deleted tweet from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) sums up the issue. “The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is deeply worrying. But military conflict is not the solution. We must seek a diplomatic solution rather than aggravate tensions and avoid sanctions that harm the Ukrainian people.
Such sentiments reveal a profound misunderstanding of the role of diplomacy and negotiation. While these tools are always preferable to war, diplomacy does work, negotiation is only effective when the parties’ objectives can be reconciled.
During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR had similar interests in preventing nuclear war, creating many opportunities for creative and effective diplomacy. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s recognition that Israel could not be destroyed and that his country would also benefit from peace created opportunities for diplomacy.
But when the goals of nations are both central and irreconcilable, diplomacy is of little use.
How do we know when such a situation occurs?
If Russia stopped shooting, there would be peace. If the Ukrainians stopped defending themselves, there would be no Ukraine.
Until the calculation is changed on one side or the other, no negotiation will be fruitful.
The head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office compared what is happening there to the situation in Israel. If the terrorists stopped attacking Israel, there would be a two-state solution and peace. If Israel stopped defending itself, the terrorist armies of Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah would put an end to Israel.
In such circumstances, diplomacy is simply not enough, although we have used it as a “cover”.
Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing “peace” to Vietnam through negotiation.
But, in fact, after suffering horrific loss of life in support of a corrupt dictatorship, the United States withdrew with a “peace treaty” in hand. Two years later, Saigon falls and the country is forcibly united under the control of a slightly less corrupt, slightly more dictatorial regime in the north.
If Russia’s goal was to expand its security perimeter, the negotiation might find a way to succeed – for example, an agreement to refrain from further NATO enlargement.
But as long as their goal remains the destruction of Ukraine as a sovereign nation, diplomacy will fail.
Military facts on the ground could cause Russia to change its objectives, in which case diplomacy has a role to play, but until then, expecting negotiation to resolve the issue is naïve.
It is a naivety which is also reflected in the treatment of other international problems.
If Iran only wanted nuclear power and nuclear medicine, as they claim, a deal could be forged within hours. But, in fact, they want to be a nuclear weapons threshold state and have the ability to deploy nuclear weapons on short notice.
This is why it is so difficult to reverse Donald Trump’s mistake in leaving the JCPOA.
Yes, diplomacy is always better than war, but when the differences are fundamental and irreconcilable, we have solved the problem, at great expense, with total military victory and unconditional surrender.
Hitler didn’t just want the Sudetenland. So giving it to him only delayed, but did not prevent, World War II, after which the allies occupied Germany for years and rebuilt its politics to our liking.
One million Allied soldiers occupied Japan for seven years after their surrender, during which time we restructured Japanese politics and society.
We tried the same thing in Iraq, with much less success.
We are not going to defeat and occupy Russia, but neither will they change their goals just because of nice diplomatic talks.
If this conflict is ever resolved, it will be thanks to the heroism and tenacity of the Ukrainian people and the help and murderous sanctions designed by President Biden.
Mellman is chairman of the Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 US senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman was a pollster for Democratic Senate leaders for more than 20 years, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and Democratic Majority Chairman for Israel.