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To engage more and conflict less




August 1, 2001

LONDON - It was a well-kept secret during the Clinton Administration that his one great foreign policy success was when he chose to engage rather than confront. It was the agreement negotiated with North Korea that led to this "rogue" country putting on ice its nuclear weapons programme in return for an American pledge to help it build a civilian nuclear power industry and, in the interim, to give it a reasonable supply of crude oil.

The alternative, war, had been counselled against by the brass at the Pentagon because 1) of the uncertainty that the U.S. air force could locate and destroy the North's nuclear weapons, if indeed it had them.2) if North Korea did have a nuclear weapon it could attack back with it and 3) of the high cost in dead American and South Korean soldiers if the North's army did cross the border.

In nearly every other situation, Clinton's instincts were to opt for confrontation or, at least, a lack of engagement: the expansion of Nato almost up to Russia's borders; the tussle with China for most of his term over human rights to the point of sacrificing increased trade and the political binding that goes with it; the embargo and air patrols against Iraq; the embargo of Iran; the introduction of American military advisers and much increased military aid to Colombia; and the maintenance of the quarantine of Cuba.

George Bush came into office with his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, quickly going on the record as saying the new Administration wanted to see rather less of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy and by implication suggesting that engagement was a better way to work. Interestingly, it was the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan which coined the phrase "constructive engagement" when it decided to drop the confrontation of its predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and adopt policies that were meant to sweeten South Africa into renouncing apartheid. It gave engagement a bad name and it was eventually sabotaged by Congress, which overwhelmingly voted to override Reagan's veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.

A better-crafted form of engagement lived on, not as an embrace of the power structure, which had existed before, but which introduced economic penalties that sought only to harm the interests of the elite. A widely followed investment code gave the private sector, both in South African and abroad, an active role in agitating for reform. This alongside the underreported work of the churches pushed South Africa down the road towards reform.

Engagement has many virtues over confrontation and sanctions. Sanctions have a poor record in achieving success. Often applied across the board they have tended to hurt the poor rather than the better off. Besides, they are unpopular with commercial interests at home that do not wish to see valuable markets put in cold storage. Moreover, whilst sanctions have only one tool, engagement has many: its incentives range from export credits, investment insurance, access to technology and trade, tariff reductions, aid, help with entry into the global economic arena and the institutions that govern it, diplomatic recognition, the scheduling of summits between leaders, military training, the funding of non-governmental organisations and the exchange of students and, if sanctions are already in place as they were in North Korea, the promise of their removal.

It's a long list but of course it opens itself, once in place, as much of it is now with China, to being pocketed and then what? Is it not simply appeasement? And don't deals like the one fashioned with North Korea merely encourage other countries to embark on the same awful policies in the hope that they too might be bought out by the U.S. or the EU? Critics, moreover, can point to the nineteen eighties when there was a period of engagement with Saddam Hussein's Iraq which went badly wrong when he pushed all other concerns to one side and invaded Kuwait. Yet in this case it was the type of engagement that was wrong, not simply generous agricultural credits but the provision of sophisticated arms by the U.S, Britain and France and encouragement for the regime in its war against Iran. This deservedly gives engagement more of a bad name. Engagement undoubtedly can be a risk and it doesn't solve all and every case but, if done without the lure of arms sales, it certainly raises the threshold for conflict and war and that, as the North Korean example shows, is worth its weight in gold.

Engagement, because it is a slow process, depends on the cultivated support of a well-prepared domestic base. When Jimmy Carter tried to normalise relations with ex-enemy Vietnam he came up against the antagonism of Congress and the vociferous criticism of veterans' lobbies. Years later Clinton had more success because he had carefully solicited influential congressional leaders and with the judicious use of American aid and the incentive of lifting sanctions persuaded Hanoi's leadership to comply with U.S. demands, not least full scale help on finding the remains of American servicemen killed in action.

Today there are four important candidates for engagement - Iran, Iraq, Cuba and Libya. All of them are characterised as being the leftovers of yesterday's battles, even if in the case of the latter three the same leaders are in power. But Cuba has long ceased to export revolution, Iraq's military remains in a decimated condition compared with its heyday and Libya has both dropped its attempt to take over Chad and has cooperated with the special court set up to try those accused of blowing up Pan Am flight 103. Iran, now a democracy, if an uncertain one, is not likely to return to the confrontational days of Ayatollah Khomeini and its nuclear ambitions have been both distorted and overstated. Whatever the arguments in terms of a punishing regime of sanctions in the past, the carrot of dismantling sanctions in return for a more cooperative relationship makes more and more sense as time goes on. It would surely strengthen, particularly in Iran, the power of the reformers.

Punitive policies sometimes are unavoidable, but engagement, particularly by the U.S., remains a poorly understood tool. It's early days yet, but if General Powell can follow through on his initial aspiration this Bush Administration could leave important parts of the geo-political map in a better condition than it found it.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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