How Enemies Become Friends

In a talk at the Carnegie Council earlier this month, Georgetown University professor of international relations Charles Kupchan walked attendees through the findings of his latest book, “How Enemies Become Friends.” The cross-cultural study spans centuries and examines the normalization process by which bitter enemies can develop friendly relations. The hope is that by analyzing past successes and failures, we might be able to identify the key elements necessary to orchestrate the right conditions for peacemaking.

Although the unification of the Swiss Cantons, the normalization of U.S.-British relations, the formation of the Iroquois Confederation in upstate New York and the demilitarization of the Franco-German border may seem like a random grouping of historical events, Kupchan uses them to make a compelling case for a three-tiered process through which enemies reconcile:

1.One party must be backed into a corner with limited resources. When Britain chose to reach out to the United States, they were faced with conflicts in Japan, Germany and South Africa. “You choose one enemy to move into the friend column,” Kupchan said.

2.Parties test the budding relationships by acts of reciprocity. A grand gesture, which is really where normalization moves forward, must come from the stronger of the two sides if its shift is to be seen as genuine, rather than desperate.

3.Normalization moves from the negotiating tables to the streets. A cultural exchange between societies starts to change their national psyches and begins to shift their view of the other from “them” to “us.”

Even if adversaries manage to tiptoe through these steps, though, peace is not guaranteed. Kupchan says that for enemies to truly become allies, other factors must also line up. If these elements are mismatched, attempts at peace are most likely doomed. He says that the delicate process requires institutionalized restraint by both players, compatible social orders, and cultural commonality to truly succeed. Japan and Britain’s failed friendship in the early 1900s exemplifies these factors. “The British never felt comfortable with the Japanese in the same way they felt with their Anglo-Saxon brethren on this side of the Atlantic,” Kupchan said.

Kupchan’s research fits in nicely with the Obama administration’s emphasis on engaging enemies, so it’s not surprising that Kupchan has advised the administration on foreign policy. Obama has often been criticized by human rights groups for not pressing countries like China on human rights issues, but Kupchan cautions against placing too great an emphasis on democracy as a criterion for judgment.

“Let’s be careful about judging other countries on the basis of their domestic institutions and spend more time focusing on the way they behave externally and the nature of their foreign policy,” Kupchan said.

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