America Must Talk to Its Enemies

America Must Talk to Its Enemies

In recent years, many American officials have regarded withholding diplomatic relations as a way to punish countries for actions ranging from human rights abuses, to failure to abide by international law, to specific treaty violations and acts of war. But state-to-state relations among nations provide an essential framework for the conduct of foreign relations. Having no relations, and the resulting prolonged absence of a diplomatic presence in a country, seriously handicaps America's ability to achieve major foreign policy and national security goals. Diplomatic relations should therefore always be maintained, unless security requires closing the embassy.

Those who argue that withholding relations can be used to correct a nation's undesirable behavior do so under the belief that the boost in image and standing that comes from relations with the United States will lead the targeted nation to make the necessary sacrifices to regain recognition by the U. S. government. The problem with this line of thinking is that it usually doesn't work.

In the meantime, the absence of diplomatic relations with a country of interest to the U.S. represents an almost-crippling obstacle to the successful pursuit of foreign policy goals. Why? No senior diplomatic presence on the ground means that important policy initiatives are sent through third parties or contacts in international organizations such as the U.N. Such indirect contact deprives the U.S. government of the capability for a resident ambassador to intervene in a crisis, to question and to listen -- all so critical to diplomatic persuasion by a chief of mission speaking with the authority of the President.

Another serious disadvantage of shuttered embassies is that the U.S. government has no lower-ranking, language-proficient officers in the country, meaning no valuable eyes and ears moving around the country, observing and talking to its citizens. This core diplomatic skill can provide invaluable opportunities to develop trusted relationships, often the basis for informed reporting to Washington. One can imagine how useful it would have been in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election to have had even a modest cohort of Farsi-speaking diplomatic officers in an embassy or American-staffed interests section in Tehran. Such a presence today would also allow U.S. consular visits to imprisoned American citizens.

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