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Desperate for Diplomacy
A precarious inflection point
The world is at a precarious inflection point. War rages in the Middle East, Ukraine, and other parts of the globe. Amid rising tensions in Asia, government leaders — including President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping — are gathering in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Current conflicts and the threat of new ones exploding are real and present dangers to our future. And to the futures of our children and grandchildren.
The tension between war and peace is among the fundamentals of human existence. We are a species capable of great violence and imposing our will through force. But we are also a species of words, reason, and negotiation. We can ask ourselves to consider the implications of our actions beyond the immediate time frame of our instant gratification.
War is a foray into action, and once unleashed, it is difficult to control it and almost impossible to predict its long-term implications. It has been afforded a poetic gloss throughout the ages — an inspiration for epic poems and great literature. But these tend to be heroic smokescreens for its basic barbarism.
The waging of peace, by contrast, is often unheralded and conducted in secrecy. It is, by definition, the repression of the actions of war. It is the bombs that aren’t dropped, the tanks that don’t roll, and the people who don’t die. But these tallies are impossible to measure. We ultimately can’t know what would have been the effects of the things that didn’t happen.
We can see in the fruits of peace, however, that diplomacy can be just as decisive as war.
Peace isn’t always possible. The failure of the appeasement approach to Hitler stands as one powerful example. But there are many times when peace is within reach, or at least a version of it that would yield a better outcome than all-out conflict.
Right now, new forces of war have been unleashed in the Middle East with widespread devastation and death. The immediate crisis was the result of the murderous terrorism of Hamas, but now we have a level of civilian casualties and terror in Gaza that is its own moral catastrophe. Meanwhile, the currents of conflict continue to radiate outward to the broader region. They have been long standing, and they stretch beyond Israel and the Palestinians. There is warranted fear that war could spread to envelop Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the United States. That would be a disaster. Already, American armed forces and Iranian-backed militants are engaging in a low-intensity back and forth, but with casualties and high potential for escalation.
One certainty is that Israel’s safety and security depends on diminishing the murderous power of Hamas. But beyond that, what are the paths that would lead to long-term stability? Some argue that achieving this objective will require a Palestinian state, peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and a counterbalance to Iran’s dangerous regional ambitions. But how do we get there?
Ever since this particular conflict began, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been hopscotching among Middle Eastern countries, hoping to find ways to protect Israel while avoiding a broader crisis. It is a delicate balancing act in a part of the world where the currency of trust is low and the cross-currents of religion, history, geopolitics, economics, and power are particularly confounding and complex.
President Biden and his administration were quick to offer unequivocal and full-throated support for Israel in the aftermath of the widespread terrorist attack on its soil. But as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has escalated, the Biden leadership has tried to balance its embrace of its Israeli allies with calls for restraint. Many feel these calls are not nearly strong enough. News broke recently of a letter sent to President Biden from more than 500 political appointees and staff members within his administration, criticizing the official U.S. approach to the conflict.
Meanwhile, lest we forget, tensions between China and the United States have been intensifying over recent years. Where once war between a current and a rising superpower seemed distant and theoretical, that is far less true today. China has taken a more belligerent stance throughout Asia, especially in its threats to Taiwan. And it is looking to exploit the war in the Middle East to undermine America’s standing in that turbulent region, as it has looked to do throughout the world, and especially in the Global South.
At the same time, we cannot overlook the war in Ukraine. It has been knocked off the front pages, which is a boon for Putin, who is also looking to build support for Russia in the fractious Middle East. Plus there’s the ongoing threat of nuclear North Korea and diplomatic crises not making headlines, such as those in Yemen and Sudan.
These are especially taxing times for American diplomats, who must respond to the crises of the present without forsaking entrenched challenges like a global response to climate change. The State Department budget is but a fraction of what the United States spends on defense. But that is not a measure of its importance. President Biden has been in public life long enough to know that.
War has an illusion of boldness and decisiveness. But as it escalates, so too do the uncertainties around it. Diplomacy can seem like a lack of action. It requires compromise and often takes place in secret conversations. What is revealed to the public is usually only a sliver of what is taking place behind closed doors. Diplomats must frequently withstand pressure and criticism from those who aren’t in the room in order to protect delicate negotiations from unraveling.
We don’t know what is being said right now between Biden, Blinken, and the leaders of Israel and the Arab states. We don’t know what is being discussed with our allies and relayed to our foes. We don’t know all that is taking place in and around Ukraine.
One of the joys in covering the world as a journalist is that you often meet those serving American diplomacy in all types of nations and circumstances. They are, as a rule, an impressive lot dedicated to making the world better, safer, healthier, and more just. Time and again, throughout our history, they have prevented war through words and negotiations. In other times, once wars did start, our diplomats were able to eventually fashion peace. Their skills and their service to our country are as invaluable today as they have ever been.
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