The Realist Prism: Why the U.S. Always Calls for Dialogue, and Why it Always Fails

The Realist Prism: Why the U.S. Always Calls for Dialogue, and Why it Always Fails
Photo: Protestors in Kiev, Ukraine, Dec. 1, 2013 (photo by Flickr user nessa.gnatoush licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).
Whenever political violence breaks out anywhere in the world, one can predict the U.S. response without any hesitation. The State Department will: solemnly declare that the United States abhors the use of violence and sends its condolences to the casualties; promise that the U.S. will hold “all sides” accountable for their actions; demand that the government “show restraint”; and call for immediate “political dialogue” to resolve the crisis. This preset script has been followed, with minor modifications, as tensions have escalated in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand, among others; it was the initial response when violence broke out in in Syria and Egypt. Yet the repetition of this well-worn narrative every time a news camera captures scenes of protest and violence in yet another capital city’s central square seems to have little effect on conditions on the ground. It is a seemingly hollow incantation recited by Washington policymakers who simply want to show that they are involved, engaged and “monitoring the situation” and is usually dismissed as such by the participants. Or is it? The United States still retains a great deal of influence throughout the world and usually has some levers of influence either with the government, which may be an ally, trading partner or recipient of aid; or the opposition, which may receive U.S. support and funding—or even with both. Why would U.S. calls for dialogue be dismissed? Cynics reading this column are already chuckling at the apparent naivete; why would anyone take the U.S. offer of its services as an impartial mediator seriously? The view that the United States likes to move around the political forces of a country like pieces on a chessboard for its own geopolitical interests is taken for granted—an impression that the leaked phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt from last month did nothing to dispel. But these requests emanating from Washington for halting bloodshed and finding a nonviolent political solution are sincere. There can be a mix of motivations for such appeals, of course, such as the fear of instability or the creation of a situation that would force the United States to take action it would prefer to avoid. As much as many in the Obama administration and among the Republicans on Capitol Hill would be delighted if Viktor Yanukovych were to step down as president of Ukraine and a more pro-Western government took his place, the timing of the Ukrainian protests amid difficult diplomacy in Syria and Iran is not particularly welcome. A potentially fatal rupture of relations with Russia opens up the prospect of large-scale mayhem in a European theater of operations whose presumed quiet and stability is essential if the U.S. is to simultaneously carry out its pivot to the Asia-Pacific and cut defense spending. The situation in Kiev also overshadowed the North America summit among President Barack Obama, President Enrique Pena Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper—an all-too familiar state of affairs for the Mexican and Canadian chief executives, who have become resigned to the fact that the U.S. never seems to have the ability to focus all of its efforts, for once, on this crucial trilateral relationship. So the U.S. call for calm and dialogue is not merely an empty ritual. The Ukraine crisis is taking up the limited time and attention of an administration that is grappling with other major challenges. Nonetheless, the U.S. effort to bring calm to these conflicts fails because Washington has still not worked out two conundrums that have been on clear display in recent events. The first is whether a government has the right to use armed force to put down a challenge to its rule, especially when the challengers are prepared to use force, even if unequal to what the state can muster. Does the occurrence of popular protests ipso facto deprive a government of any right to claim legitimacy? At what point does a protest cease to be the expression of free speech and begin to inhibit the rightful work of government? The dispersal of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in New York and the extraordinary regulation of protest activities in Washington, especially around the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, suggests that the U.S. government is well aware of where that line ought to be drawn domestically. But the application of this standard overseas still remains quite uneven. The second is how to treat a democratically elected government that moves in an authoritarian direction—with, as a bonus, a tendency to be less interested in advancing U.S. interests—once in office, as is the case in Venezuela and Ukraine. At what point does an elected government’s efforts to change the rules of the game for the political opposition cause it to lose the assumption of legitimacy, and thus not have the right to counter challenges to its rule? The final point, of course, is that in many parts of the world, politics remains a zero-sum game. A Yanukovych who steps down from power faces the prospect of arrest and imprisonment, as happened to his rival Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and losing 2010 presidential candidate. There is no formula for successful power sharing between Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela or Bashar Assad in Syria and their political rivals. The U.S. call for dialogue, therefore, often falls on deaf ears because neither side is interested in compromise, only about arranging the terms of the other’s surrender. In such conditions, deadlock is the only outcome, and the matter can only be settled by seeing which side is prepared to fold first. And, as a result, the loyalty of police forces and the military becomes paramount in determining how the crisis will end, as we will see in coming days in Ukraine, Venezuela and also Thailand. Yet the script remains set. No matter where the next round of political violence breaks out, U.S. spokesmen will be ready to respond with pleas for calm and appeals for dialogue. Unfortunately, while those pleas will be sincere, they are likely to be ineffective. Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.

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