Heritage Makes a Weak Case Against Engagement

The Heritage Foundation unveiled their “Solutions for America” last month. This document, which “recommends 128 specific policy prescriptions for Congress to consider,” made the following point on national security:

Engagement Is No Strategy. The administration’s policy of engagement assumes that we must appease the anxieties of dictatorial states and international institutions as well as friendly nations. It has not worked. Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, and Venezuela have become more aggressive since President Obama took office.

This engagement critique is absurd for a variety of reasons.

First, it equates diplomacy with “appeasement.” But throughout its history the United States has shown itself fully capable of working with nondemocracies like Russia and China on key national security priorities and at the same time pushing back on disagreements. What’s more, over time engagement creates conditions that allow us to address our concerns about these countries’ actions more effectively. In some cases it can also help open up authoritarian political systems.

It’s not capitulation to engage with countries that pose a threat in order to address that threat—like the administration has tried to do with Iran. On the contrary, it is a tactic worth trying to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability. And the effort had value even though it did not produce immediate results: It demonstrated to international partners that harsher measures such as sanctions were necessary.

Second, the notion that the named countries have become more aggressive under Obama’s watch is simply false. In fact, it was during the Bush administration’s isolation of North Korea when Pyongyang developed and tested its nuclear weapon—the ultimate act of aggression. Similarly, Russia’s invasion of Georgia and most significant rollback of freedoms since Leonid Brezhnev put an end to Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw occurred when President George W. Bush was in office. And on Bush’s watch, Iran went from having zero centrifuges to an estimated 3,850 centrifuges and secretly created a massive second enrichment facility.

Third, the Obama administration is not going out of its way to appease any of these countries. Just ask them. The Russians certainly are not thrilled with the United States’ near doubling of bilateral defense cooperation with Georgia or the massive NATO military exercises this summer on the Baltic Sea. And the president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and the declaration of a “national interest” in the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea are all giving Beijing major heartburn.

Fourth, lumping international organizations together with “dictatorial” states as entities that need appeasing is just bizarre. Though far from perfect, international organizations regularly act in the U.S. national interest. The International Monetary Fund bailed out a host of countries—including critical ones like Pakistan, Turkey, and Ukraine—during the world financial crisis, which prevented an even wider catastrophe. The World Health Organization was on the front lines in battling swine flu earlier this year. The United Nations is immunizing children, resettling refugees, and coordinating elections in Afghanistan. Americans understand this better than Heritage seems to. Just under two-thirds of Americans polled this year think that the United Nations should have a “leading” or “major” role in world affairs.

Fifth, grouping Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, and Venezuela under the label “dictatorial” is at once incorrect, disrespectful, and dangerous. Despite Russia’s rampant corruption and poor human rights record, it is not a dictatorship like North Korea. To put the two in the same category cheapens the term and therefore minimizes the suffering of the Hermit Kingdom’s inhabitants. Plus, lumping all these countries together as a single kind of problem—as neoconservatives seem to be in the habit of doing when it comes to China and Russia in particular—would lead to a simplistic set of policies that could give them cause to unite against us when they are currently far from allies.

Finally, the fact is that Obama’s engagement strategy is working. Obama’s outreach with China allowed for coordination of its huge stimulus package that helped prevent the world economy from falling off a cliff, and led to a new clean energy partnership. His “reset” with Russia has yielded a laundry list of deliverables, from support for new U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran to the first serious arms control treaty in nearly two decades.

Iran did not respond to the administration’s engagement. But the very act of its not doing so provided legitimacy for the so-called “pressure track” and ensured an unprecedented level of international consensus on the need to tighten the noose on Tehran.

Heritage uses the word “appease” because it immediately conjures up images of Hitler’s troops marching across Poland. The greatest foreign policy challenges facing Americans today, however, are not aggressive dictators invading their neighbors. They are threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, pandemic disease, food security, and economic crises that require nations to work together, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminded us in her major foreign policy speech yesterday. And therein lies a central and new challenge for American foreign policy: How can we cooperate with large, powerful countries that are not allies in order to effectively counter these threats?

Heritage seems content to vent at the Obama administration for doing so rather than grappling with the problem themselves.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow and Samuel Charap is Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia and a member of the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress.