Diplomacy is an expensive, long-term effort of which it often takes generations to see the results. With peace at stake, is it possible for us all to get along?
The daily headlines are filled with news of violence and conflict in the Middle East, Russia and China: “A caliphate emerges in Iraq.” “Ukraine and Russia strengthen positions on Crimean border.” “China tensions choke off tourism to Vietnam.”
Among these news stories are the underlying concerns about diplomacy — the effectiveness of it, when to abandon diplomatic efforts and use force, and how the use of sanctions might complement diplomacy.
The United States often takes a lead in these conversations. But it’s another country — one in our proverbial backyard — that could benefit the most from improved diplomatic relations with the United States. That country is Mexico, says Anne Foster, associate professor of history at Indiana State University.
“It’s not very glamorous, but it’s probably what we citizens living in the U.S. would notice the most,” said Foster, who is also co-editor of “Diplomatic History,” a “first-tier journal with a terrific and international reputation,” according to Indiana State history department chair Christopher Olsen.
“Not that the relationship (between the U.S. and Mexico) is necessarily bad, but there are issues with immigration and the drug and arms trafficking that are hugely and tragically affecting Mexico,” Foster said.
In the past year, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed into America illegally. Immigration legislation, once hailed as “once-in-a-generation reform” and championed by Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and his colleagues in the bipartisan Group of Eight, is dead.
“If the world is a city and you live in a gated enclave, and the rest of the city is poor, that’s probably going to affect you eventually. They will find their way into our country; we have porous borders,” she said.
If you’ve boarded a commercial plane in the past 10 years, you’re familiar with the screening procedures that have developed because of terrorism threats. The problems in Mexico, however, are more immediately dangerous to Americans than terrorist activity abroad, Foster said.
“The effects are so stark. Drug gangs (in Mexico) are much more a risk to everyday Americans than terrorists … and they’re getting more and more armed,” she said.
Part of the problem with fixing the problems in Mexico, Foster says, is not everyone sees the daily affects. Texas feels the repercussions immediately. Terre Haute? Not so much.
“For people who approach it from the standpoint of talking about drug violence, this may become a way to sell it to Americans,” she said. “Americans tend to not want to recognize their role in it. The drug violence is there, because Americans are buying the drugs.”
‘No babies at the table’
The political capital of foreign policies can be expensive, Foster says. Most presidents tackle these issues in their second term, because voters typically don’t react in positive ways to the efforts.
“No one would say, ‘Oh I’m going to vote for the Democrats because of that.’ For most Americans, they don’t feel the impact of all of these issues directly,” compared to local issues, such as bad roads between Bloomington and Terre Haute or the closing of a factory, Foster said.
A country’s diplomatic efforts are examined from three categories — national interests, ideology and economics. For example, “the U.S. has perceived part of its national interest is to promote certain ideologies — democracy and capitalism.
Germany’s, on the other hand, is to protect its borders,” Foster said. However, what “democracy” and “capitalism” mean to other countries, how they’re implemented and whether they’re compatible with another culture are critical semantics.
“We have a notion of what ‘democracy’ means — human rights, equality for women, free foreign investments,” Foster said. But these definitions “don’t line up with how other countries view it. There’s always a conflict. The devil is in the details, right?”
Despite our founding fathers’ warnings against “entangling alliances,” the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following World War II formed the United States’ first permanent alliances — and our “core besties,” Foster said.
Again, even an organization such as NATO is perceived differently, depending on the country.
“We don’t think of NATO as threatening, but Russia does. If you ask someone in Washington, NATO is a defensive alliance, but that’s not how it looks in Moscow,” Foster said. Indeed, one of NATO’s biggest roles nowadays is protecting former Sovietbloc countries from Russia, she added.
So, why do we get along with countries such as China, but not Cuba or North Korea?
“Historians and political scientists will talk about the national interest,” she said. “In one sense, there are one billion people in China, and they’re strategically located. On the other hand, China wants the relationship with us.”
She added: “The country that is the most important to have a careful relationship is with China. China clearly has ambitions to be a super power.”
In Foster’s class, she explains diplomacy to her students by using this scenario: A family sits down to have a “tasty dinner,” but the definition of what dishes that meal consists of differs between parents and their children and, therein, can create conflict.
In diplomatic relations, “there are no babies at the table. Everyone gets to express their desires and put food in their mouth,” she said.
It’s no surprise that the countries the United States has been most politically aligned with for the longest — England, Canada, France — are those whose ideologies are most similar. Journalist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in his book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” that no two countries with a McDonald’s would go to war. While the statement is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and isn’t entirely accurate, it does present a valid point.
“It’s easier for countries to get along if they can agree on what’s important. That’s why the McDonald’s example seems to fit,” Foster said.
Economic interdependence, therefore, fosters a two-way street of playing nice.
“We buy and sell a lot of things in the world, and if the world is not friendly with us, that process won’t go as well,” she said.
So, is peace possible? “At some level, the immediate response is no. It’s like any relationship — there isn’t any end point. They’re constantly evolving,” Foster said. “There’s no peace in the sense of having a perfectly
happy relationship. It is possible, though, to move from a tense relationship to a more peaceful relationship with a country.”
But that’s not to say we aren’t making progress. For example, we have fewer international conflicts, which previously occurred every generation and killed millions and millions of people, Foster said.
Before nuclear weapons, a country would simply obliterate another until that country caved; now with nuclear weapons, that scenario isn’t as likely. “So now we have to be diplomats and come to the best decision possible,” Foster said.
The international community cares more about human rights nowadays, too, Foster said. Prior to World War II, sex trafficking existed, but governments weren’t talking about it. Now, they are.
Awareness of agricultural and environmental issues is higher, as are efforts to improve international public health, education and women’s rights. “There’s still a lot to be done, but every girl who gets to go to school is one who may not have gotten to go to school before,” Foster said. “It’s a hard sell for Americans. We have to keep trying something that’s really hard, sometimes expensive and will never be truly resolved.”
‘A moveable feast’
Tomorrow’s leaders, scholars and diplomats are at Indiana State today. And through the university’s focus on experiential learning and community engagement, these students are being taught there are multiple approaches to problem solving and different ways to see the world.
“What we can do at Indiana State University is issue an appealing invitation to engage with the world,” said Chris McGrew, director of the university’s Center for Global Engagement.
Cross-cultural opportunities come in many forms — be it a faculty-lead trip, a semester studying abroad or taking a minor in International Studies, a curriculum designed to complement traditional majors in almost any academic field.
Ideally, the connection for these cultural experiences would come through the student’s major, McGrew said, because it offers the opportunity for the experience to be more lasting. For instance, if a mechanical engineering technology student studies abroad at a technical school in Germany, he or she will learn about that country’s standards and processes and be able to compare them to those in the States. The student could also make professional contacts or experience personal development there that could last a lifetime, McGrew said.
Such was the case for Brian Bunnett, public services chair at Indiana State’s Cunningham Memorial Library. After graduating from Austin College in the early 1980s, he was driven by the desire to see the world in a deeper way than being a tourist and joined the Peace Corps.
“It was a defining experience for me. Everything that has happened subsequently to me, I see through that lens that the trip created,” he said.
Bunnett taught welding to teens, who were on a vocational education track, in a Moroccan village with 5,000 people and 13 phones, located about 30 miles from Marrakesh.
“I’d never been out of the country before. The first time I went to the village, I pretty much spent all day looking for a place to live,” he said. “Nobody spoke English, and I couldn’t speak French back then. The only lingua franca we had — or the only language we had in common — was Arabic, and my Arabic wasn’t that good then. I remember how exhausted I was fending for myself, all alone.”
The experience also broke down many preconceived notions he had. “The students I had, the friends I made, the people I got to know in my village, the same thing was happening for them on a lesser scale (since they weren’t able to come to the States). All of a sudden, in this village — it’s pretty isolated — there’s an American there who only speaks Arabic. It probably busted a lot of stereotypes for them,” he said. “I was very well-liked and respected in my village.”
Thirty years later, Bunnett is relishing the opportunity to share his professional expertise with Indiana State’s sister school, Hassan I University in Settat. As you might expect, Morocco has a special place in Bunnett’s heart.
“Sometimes we’d go hiking around in the mountains — as many as eight of us — and we’d see somebody, a shepherd perhaps. ‘Oh come have tea at my house, all of you,’ he would say to us. He might live in a hut but would do anything for his guests. He’d deny himself to provide for his guests, even if he’d just met them,” Bunnett said of his time in the Peace Corps.
Bunnett said a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” still resonates with him: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
That sentiment is how Bunnett said he views international travel as a whole, not just Paris. The experience is with you forever.
McGrew agrees: “As much money as the country spends on weapons systems, I’d like to see what would happen if we spent 10 percent on study abroad scholarships.”
Who knows what the long-term effect would be? Perhaps during a time of conflict or discord, McGrew mused, someone might say, “ ‘We can’t attack them — we just had our Indiana State reunion!’”
Diplomatic changes afoot In Middle East
Continued and growing unrest in Iraq is underscoring the need for the United States to reevaluate its diplomatic relations in the Middle East.
Three years after Osama bin Laden’s death, fighting in Iraq rages between government troops and Sunni insurgents known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with ISIS claiming in July territory from western Syria to the suburbs of Baghdad.
Historically, American diplomats have looked to Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s government has pro-Western tendencies, and the two countries have been active trade partners.
“Even though the U.S.’ interests in the Middle East haven’t changed that much, the actions of the actors have changed so much that they’re not reinforcing those original objectives,” said Bassam Yousif, associate professor of economics at Indiana State. “The U.S. needs to figure out who are its friends, what are its interests.”
With the instability in Iraq, it’s Iran who is emerging as a country with more aligned interests than the U.S.’ old ally.
“Ironically, Iraq might bring the U.S. and Iran closer together,” said Yousif, who grew up in Iraq until he emigrated to the United Kingdom when he was 14. “This won’t help them with their nuclear (discussions), but it might bring them together diplomatically. There is this commonality of interests.”
The biggest point of contention between the U.S. and Iran is nuclear weapons. “If you take away that nuclear issue, someone from Mars couldn’t tell who is a U.S. ally and who isn’t, because it looks like U.S. allies aren’t acting in a way to benefit U.S. interests,” Yousif said.
Growing sectarianism is feeding the region’s discord, with Saudi Arabia — a conservative Sunni government — funding radical groups, including ISIS, Yousif said.
“Where does that instability come from? Saudi Arabia is a huge part of that instability,” Yousif said. “(ISIS) is actually looked at with alarm by Saudi Arabia, but its their tiger that they let out of the cage. They let that tiger out a long time ago when they started funding radical Sunnis back in the 1970s to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan.”
Iran’s Shiite majority could offer stability in Iraq, according to Yousif.
“A stable democratic system in Iraq means a Shiite government there, because they’re the majority party. So, there’s going to be Iranian influence, whether you like it or not,” Yousif said. “Ironically, it’s America’s enemy, Iran, whose interests in Iraq are parallel to America’s. They do want a stable Iraq; they do not want an unstable Iraq on their border.”
So what’s the diplomatic future for the region?
“I don’t see it resolving itself. Regardless of whether ISIS is defeated quickly or not, I don’t see the whole antagonism getting any better,” Yousif said. “If you ask your average person (in the Middle East), ‘What is your beef with the other side?’ They could not tell you. You don’t have to be very religious to be very sectarian-minded. So, this is being fueled by politics.”
Today’s escalating war of words is fueled by anyone with access to the Internet or social media.
“In the past 15 years, there has been this greater antagonism — deadly antagonism between sects and that wasn’t there before,” Yousif said. “People are looking at this like it’s the old Sunni-Shiite antagonism; nothing could be further from the truth. This is not normal. There has been Sunni-Shiite antagonism for thousands of years, and there have been riots and people have been killed — this is true. But whether there were riots or whether people got killed or not depended a lot on politics.
It depends on political actors and what they’re doing to overcome that crisis or to aggravate that crisis. Feed the fire or put it out — politics are key.”
How do sanctions work?
Economic sanctions are commonly offered as a diplomatic response when trying to adjust another nation’s actions without the use of military force. However, implementing sanctions can be a tricky proposition.
Take, for instance, the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Using economic levers was a popular choice among many American politicians and pundits, and limited sanctions against Russia were imposed by the European Union and United States.
The outcome, however, is yet to be seen. The economies of the European Union — especially Germany — are heavily intertwined with Russia’s economy, said Richard Lotspeich, professor of economics at Indiana State.
“If we sanction Russia and hurt their oil and gas industry, we hurt Europe at the same time. The act of sanctions cuts both ways,” Lotspeich said.
First, coordination of the efforts is necessary for sanctions to be effective, and it is difficult to coordinate European countries that have varying degrees of pain as a result of the sanctions against Russia.
For example, pressure has mounted against France to scrap plans to sell two warships to Russia, especially after Russian separatists were blamed in the crash of a Malaysian passenger jet in Ukraine. But without a way to compensate Paris for the loss of a multi-billion dollar deal, there’s little incentive for the French to comply, Lotspeich said.
Secondly, “The way sanctions are supposed to work is you put pressure on some groups in the society, and they put pressure on political leadership to change the political action,” Lotspeich said.
“That’s an unlikely prospect … especially with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s quite successful shift in Russia’s politics. I think the prospect for sanctions to reverse Russia’s actions in the Crimea is bleak.”
Russia has been using its own economic leverage through natural gas price discrimination, and in June, the Russian gas giant OAO Gazprom suspended natural gas deliveries to Ukraine.
“The rate for E.U. member countries is about 50 percent more than what is charged to former Soviet republics that are supportive of the Putin administration, like Belarus,” Lotspeich said. “For Ukraine, however, the rate proposed is double that charged to those republics — and double what Ukraine used to pay, which puts that price for natural gas about 30 percent higher than what Germany and Italy pay.”
The overall diplomatic uncertainty surrounding Russia is affecting investment decisions there.
“Some potential foreign investment projects into Russia have been delayed or even cancelled. Capital flight from Russia has increased dramatically,” Lotspeich said.
“These private reactions indeed may have substantial impact on the Russian economy in the near and medium terms. I think the willingness of the E.U. and the U.S. to act even in this limited fashion has influenced those investment decisions.”
Perhaps the less popular option of nation-building for the remaining part of Ukraine could offer stabilization.
“We need to look to the long term and do what we can to keep the rest of Ukraine healthy — or healthier than it is — with long-term aid and promotion of democratic values,” Lotspeich said. “It should be a long-term project. It shouldn’t just be America; it should be the European Union, as well.
To some degree, we missed the boat by not doing this early on.”
Terrorism: Diplomacy with no illusions
How the world perceives America and its actions on the international stage can undermine diplomatic efforts.
Post-World War II, the United States has seen itself as a beacon of human rights and has cut off international relations with other countries after their humanitarian crimes. However, America’s legacy of waterboarding in the early 2000s and missteps at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib continue to haunt us, said Mark Hamm, terrorism expert and professor of criminology at Indiana State.
“I’ve seen firsthand how those incidents play out and have been asked, ‘On what basis do you have to make any recommendations, given how your country has acted?’” Hamm said.
The United States’ treatment of some prisoners has become a recruiting tool for radicalism. In countries such as Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, “they crank (terrorists) out like a factory,” Hamm said.
The definition of terrorist, too, can be up for debate.
“As the old saying goes, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’” Hamm said.
Irish nationalist Bobby Sands, for example, was elected to the British Parliament while imprisoned. His death during a prison hunger strike prompted a surge of recruitment and activity by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), and some city streets are still named in Sands’ honor.