What are some potential game-changers in contemporary international diplomacy? By “game-changer,” I mean a bold and risky initiative that fundamentally alters the strategic landscape, creating new possibilities and forcing others to rethink their own positions.
I’m thinking about the kind of bold stroke that the late Michael Handel analyzed in his book The Diplomacy of Surprise: Hitler, Nixon, Sadat. He was interested in how certain leaders launched faits accomplis or other unexpected maneuvers to break out of diplomatic gridlocks. Obvious examples are Richard Nixon’s opening to China, Anwar Sadat’s surprise announcement that he was willing to go to Jerusalem in search of peace, or (less positively) the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that briefly united Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and helped open the door to World War II. These initiatives often involved advance planning behind the scenes, but they were unexpected at the time and had dramatic effects as soon as they were revealed.
So I’ve been trying to imagine other steps that contemporary world leaders could take that might have equally dramatic effects. This sort of initiative can be risky, of course, and there’s no guarantee that a bold gamble will succeed. With that caveat, here’s a short list of five potential “game-changers,” in no particular order.
The United States Takes the Military Option “off the Table” with Iran
For at least a decade, U.S. leaders have repeatedly insisted that all options are “on the table” with Iran. In one sense this is a truism: as long as you have certain capabilities, you always have the option of using them no matter what you’ve said in the past. But constantly harping on the possibility of military action is not a good way to build trust — especially when the opponent is already deeply suspicious. It is also a very good way to convince an adversary that it ought to acquire some means of deterring a serious attack, such as acquiring a nuclear weapon, which is precisely what we don’t want Iran to do. In any event, keeping the military option “on the table” doesn’t appear to have achieved very much thus far.
So what would happen if the Obama administration announced that the military option was “off the table” completely? It could remind everyone that this step did not preclude military action to defend U.S. allies or retaliate against direct attacks on the United States or its forces, but that we were not contemplating any sort of preventive attack on Iran itself, and were going to rely on diplomacy instead. I doubt this would cause a sudden U.S.-Iranian thaw, but it might clear the air somewhat and strengthen the hand of Iranians who recognize that crossing the nuclear threshold may not be in their own interest.
I don’t for a minute think Obama & Co. will do any such thing between now and November 2012 (and probably not afterwards), and I certainly can’t imagine any of the GOP candidates (save Ron Paul) acting along these lines. But that just shows you how little imagination our foreign-policy establishment has these days.
Above, President Obama prepares to deliver a statement on the U.N. Security Council sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program in June 2010.
Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
Hamas Revises Its Charter
If you’ve never read the Hamas Charter, it’s worth a quick gander. You’ll find it pretty disturbing. Many experts believe that a lot of its elements (including the explicit rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, etc.) are not a true indication of Hamas’ bottom lines, but, even so, there’s a lot of offensive stuff that has nothing to do with concrete issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. Case in point: the various references to a global Zionist conspiracy (going back to the French Revolution!), along with positive references to long-discredited anti-Semitic forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Check out Articles 22, 28, and 32, for example. In addition to making it easier for opponents to justify marginalizing Hamas, such passages make the organization sound out of touch with reality. Continue reading