President George W. Bush and his neo-con coterie made it a point of pride that their relationship to regimes they did not like was one of toughness, not of soft-soap diplomacy. In his State of the Union speech in 2002, Bush denounced the “Axis of Evil” — composed of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — and indicated that the United States would act to dismantle their regimes, not to negotiate with them.
Shortly thereafter Bush suspended the Agreed Framework of 1994 that the Clinton administration had negotiated with North Korea, in response to which North Korea restarted its nuclear reactor and ended its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After that, the United States refused to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, insisting that all discussions occur through the so-called six-party talks (the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia) as the only form of contact.
In 2006, North Korea officially exploded a nuclear weapon. Soon afterwards, the United States started bilateral meetings with North Korea, which they had previously refused. In June 2008, the first concrete results of these negotiations were announced. North Korea blew up a nuclear tower and the United States removed North Korea from the sanctions of the Trading-with-the-Enemy Act, and shipped food assistance. This was considered on the U.S. side “incremental progress.”
The return of the United States to diplomacy and its acceptance of incremental progress was denounced by neo-cons now outside the U.S. government, like John Bolton, as “a sad, sad day” in which the United States had been “taken to the cleaners.” Vice-President Cheney is considered to have lost the internal battle with advocates of negotiations like Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates. Supporters of the decision in the administration hailed it as a “diplomatic success.” Others pointed out that, had the United States not suspended the Agreed Framework, North Korea might never have been able to explode the nuclear weapon. Hence, they argued, non-negotiation had actually facilitated, rather than prevented, North Korea’s becoming a nuclear power.
What changed between 2002 and 2006, such that the United States went from the “tough” line to the “diplomatic” approach? That’s easy to discern. The war in Iraq was a fiasco, which (with Afghanistan) absorbed all of the U.S. military apparatus. When the North Koreans exploded a nuclear weapon, the U.S. military made it very clear to President Bush that there was no way they could also take on North Korea in military action. So, once North Korea had the bomb, diplomacy was the only real choice. Bush swallowed hard, but what else could he do? Will this “diplomacy” work, in the sense of getting North Korea to divest itself of all nuclear weapons? Perhaps not. But what else can the United States do?
Now look at Israel. Israel has always preferred the tough line to diplomacy. First, they wouldn’t admit there was a Palestine with which to negotiate. Then, they wouldn’t talk to Yasser Arafat and the PLO until they “recognized” Israel and renounced all violence. Then, when the first Intifada showed Israel that it now faced a serious problem of internal rebellion by the Palestinians, it agreed to the so-called Oslo accords, which established a very limited and constricted form of de facto control by the Palestinian Authority of some parts of Gaza and the West Bank. Then, after the second Intifada, Israel boycotted Arafat again, and only resumed desultory negotiations with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
In 2006, there were elections in Palestine. Abbas’s party, Fatah, was defeated by Hamas, whose official position was to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel. So the “tough” line was reinstituted by Israel. They would not negotiate in any way with a Hamas government, unless and until it revised its basic position. The U.S. government supported this position all the way.
In 2007, Palestine imploded. Abbas, as president, fired the Hamas prime minister. Hamas refused to accept the legitimacy of this action. The net outcome was that Hamas took over complete control of Gaza and Abbas’s forces more or less controlled the West Bank. There were now two governments. The Israelis and the United States recognized only the Abbas government and sought to isolate Hamas and therefore Gaza in every way, instituting a tight control of entrance of people and goods into and out of Gaza.
On the world scene, Israel and the United States insisted that everyone else observe their total boycott of Hamas, which the European Union and the United Nations largely did. They even insisted that individuals observe the boycott. When an advisor of Barack Obama revealed that, in his full-time job capacity, he was obliged to meet with Hamas and had been doing this, immediate pressure was placed on Obama to cut links with this advisor, which he did.
Now, all of a sudden, Israel’s tough line has ceded place to diplomacy. On June 18, Hamas and Israel entered into a formal truce, in which each side pledged to cease all military actions against the other side, and border restrictions were to be lifted. The U.S. government endorsed this action. The Israeli cabinet voted it with only four abstentions. To be sure, immediately, the hard-liners in Israel and in the U.S. Jewish community denounced this agreement for the same reasons that the neo-cons denounced the U.S. agreement with North Korea. They said the truce wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t last. Perhaps. And, on June 29, Israel followed this up with a second diplomatic deal with Hizbullah. Israel agreed to a very controversial exchange of prisoners. For two captured Israeli soldiers probably now dead, Israel is releasing a major figure of Hizbullah, responsible for murders of Israelis.
Why did Israel shift from a tough line to diplomacy? There were no doubt many electoral considerations internal to Israel. But the real reason is that the Israelis found that they were unable militarily to bring Palestinian shelling of Israeli towns to an end. And everyone was drawing conclusions from this. Abbas reopened negotiations with Hamas. The Egyptians were pressing the Israelis and the Americans to negotiate with Hamas. And, of course, the Israelis are in a weaker diplomatic position than they would have been two years ago, not to speak of in the days of Arafat. Meanwhile, the French drew the conclusion that it was now safe to be urging serious concessions by Israel. Will American politicians, inside and outside of government, be as bold? As for Hizbullah, the Israelis tried to destroy them militarily and failed completely. It was an embarrassing show of the limits of Israeli military power.
Tough lines work if you have the power to enforce them. Diplomacy is something forced upon the stronger party in a two-way conflict. The United States in North Korea and the Israelis in Gaza/Palestine and Lebanon are now learning that — a bit late. But better late than never. Will the rest of us now be allowed to advocate and engage in the same kind of diplomatic relations that the Bush regime and the Israeli government have legitimized?
Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton. Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003). This commentary was published on 1 July 2008. © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact: email@example.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the archive of Wallerstein’s previous commentaries at <www.binghamton.edu/fbc/cmpg.htm>. These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.