It looks like the possible meeting between president Obama and Iranian president Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings will not happen after all, apparently because it was “too complicated” for the Iranians.
But despite that setback, Stephen M. Walt makes the obvious point, that talking to foreign leaders whom one disagrees with should not be seen as so momentous.
Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it’s dumb.
Did it really help U.S. diplomacy when we refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1934? Were U.S. interests really furthered by our refusal to recognize the People’s Republic of China for more than two decades after Mao’s forces gained control there? Has keeping Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the deep freeze since 1961– that’s nearly 53 years, folks — brought his regime crashing down, helped the lives of Cubans, or even advanced the political goals of Cuban-American exiles? Has our refusal to conduct direct talks with Iran slowed the development of its nuclear research program and helped us explore possible solutions to the problems in Afghanistan, Syria, or the Persian Gulf itself?
Hawks at home and abroad are always harping about U.S. credibility and the need for presidents to show their strength. But refusing to talk to those with whom we differ isn’t a sign of confidence and strength; it’s actually a sign of timidity and weakness. It tells the world that we’re afraid that shaking hands, sitting down, and talking with someone might rock the foundations of our power. Are we really so worried? Having a conversation with an adversary doesn’t require us to agree with them; indeed, sometimes talking exposes just how sharp the differences are and reveals that compromise isn’t possible at that time. By itself, talking to another sovereign government gives away nothing, especially when it is just a normal part of one’s diplomatic practice.
If the report is correct that the US offered a meeting, that is a good sign that it may happen soon, when the time is ‘ripe’.
But I think the Iranians should have accepted the invitation to meet at the UN. But apparently the Iranian leader faces the same kinds of idiotic pressures back home about talking with an adversary that US leaders face.