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The urgency of diplomacy

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A ‘Stop The War’ demonstration over Ukraine in London has a clear message — no to Russia’s invasion, no to Nato escalation of the war. Now is the time for talks that will bring us closer to peace and away from a deadly and destructive war with no end in sight, the writer says. Picture: Guy Smallman / Socialist Worker (UK) / June, 2023

By Jeffrey D Sachs

There has been a complete collapse of diplomacy between the US and Russia, and a near-total collapse between the US and China. Europe, which has made itself far too dependent on the US for its own good, simply follows the Washington line. The absence of diplomacy creates a dynamic of escalation that can lead to nuclear war. The highest priority for global peace is to re-establish US diplomacy with Russia and China.

The state of affairs is encapsulated by President Joe Biden’s incessant personal insults of his Russian and Chinese counterparts. Instead of focusing on policy, Biden focuses on the personal vis-à-vis President Vladimir Putin. Recently, he referred to President Putin as “a crazy SOB”. In March 2022, he stated that “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”. Just after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last fall, Biden called him a “dictator”.

This crude personalisation of complex superpower relations is inimical to peace and problem solving. Moreover, the crudity of this rhetoric and absence of serious diplomacy has opened the floodgates of shocking rhetorical irresponsibility. The President of Latvia recently tweeted “Russia delenda est” (“Russia must be destroyed”), paraphrasing the ancient refrain of Cato the Elder in calling for the destruction of Carthage by Rome prior to the Third Punic War.

At one level, these utterly puerile statements all recall the admonition of President John F Kennedy, who drew the most important lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the need to avoid humiliating a nuclear-armed adversary: “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

But there is an even deeper problem at hand. All of US foreign policy is currently based on asserting the motives of the counterparts rather than actually negotiating with them. The US refrain is that the other side can’t be trusted to negotiate, so that it’s not worth trying.

Negotiations today are denounced as pointless, untimely, and a show of weakness. We are repeatedly told that Britain’s Neville Chamberlain tried to negotiate with Hitler in 1938, but that Hitler tricked him, and that the very same would happen with negotiations today. To underscore the point, every US adversary is branded as a new Hitler – Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and others – so any negotiation would be in vain.

The problem is that this trivialisation of history and of today’s conflicts is leading us to the brink of nuclear war. The world is closer to nuclear Armageddon than ever before – 90 seconds to midnight according to the Doomsday Clock – because the nuclear superpowers aren’t negotiating. And the US has actually become the least diplomatic of all UN member states, comparing the states according to adherence to the UN Charter.

Diplomacy is vital because most conflicts are what game theorists call “strategic dilemmas”. A strategic dilemma is a situation in which peace (or, more generally, co-operation) is better for both adversaries but in which each side has the incentive to cheat on a peace agreement in order to take advantage of the foe. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, peace was better for both the US and the Soviet Union than nuclear war, but each side feared that if it agreed to a peaceful outcome, the other side would cheat – for example through a nuclear first-strike.

The keys to peace in such cases are mechanisms for compliance. Or as President Ronald Reagan said of negotiating with the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, repeating an old Russian maxim, “Trust but verify”.

There are many mechanisms for building trust. At a basic level, the two sides can remind each other that they are in a “repeated game”, meaning that strategic dilemmas are regularly arising between them. If one side cheats today, that kills the chance for co-operation in the future. But there are many additional mechanisms for enforcement: formal treaties, third-party guarantees, systematic monitoring, phased agreements, and the like.

JFK was confident that the agreement to end the Cuban Missile Crisis that he negotiated with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in October 1962 would stick – and it did. He was later confident that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that he negotiated with Khrushchev in July 1963 would also stick – and it did. As JFK noted about such agreements, they depend on negotiating an agreement that is in the mutual interest of both parties: “Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours — and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.”

Game theorists have studied strategic dilemmas for more than 70 years now, most famously the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They have repeatedly found that a key path to co-operation in a strategic dilemma is through dialogue, even non-binding dialogue. The human interaction dramatically raises the likelihood of mutually beneficial co-operation.

Was Chamberlain wrong to negotiate with Hitler in Munich in 1938? No. He was wrong on the specifics, reaching an ill-advised agreement that Hitler did not intend to honour and then naively proclaiming “peace for our time”. Yet even so, Chamberlain’s negotiation with Hitler ultimately contributed to Hitler’s defeat. By plainly exposing Hitler’s perfidy to the world, the failed Munich agreement paved the way for a resolute Winston Churchill to take power in Britain, with deep vindication and with deep wellsprings of public support in Britain and worldwide, and then ultimately for the UK-US-Soviet alliance to defeat Hitler.

The repeated analogy to 1938 is in any event utterly simplistic, and in some ways even backward. The war in Ukraine requires real negotiation among the parties – Russia, Ukraine, and the US – to address issues such as Nato enlargement and mutual security of all parties to the conflict. These issues pose true strategic dilemmas, meaning that all parties – the US, Russia, and Ukraine – can come out ahead by ending the war and reaching a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Moreover, it has been the US and its allies that have broken agreements and refused diplomacy. The US violated its solemn pledges to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and to Russian President Boris Yeltsin that Nato would not move one inch eastward. The US cheated by supporting the violent coup in Kiev that toppled Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. The US, Germany, France, and the UK, duplicitously refused to back the Minsk II agreement. The US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and from the Intermediate Force Agreement in 2019. The US refused to negotiate when Putin proposed a draft Russia-US Treaty on Security Guarantees on December 15, 2021.

There has in fact been no direct diplomacy between Biden and Putin since the beginning of 2022. And when Russia and Ukraine negotiated directly in March 2022, the UK and US stepped in to block an agreement based on Ukrainian neutrality. Putin reiterated Russia’s openness to negotiations in his interview with Tucker Carlson last month and did so again more recently.

The war rages on, with hundreds of thousands dead and with hundreds of billions of dollars of destruction. We are coming closer to the nuclear abyss. It’s time to talk.

In the immortal words and wisdom of JFK in his Inaugural Address, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Prof Jeffrey D Sachs is Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed The Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He is also president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development. He has been advisor to three United Nations Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG advocate under Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

This article was first published on Common Dreams