How to Engage Without Really Trying

Scott Lasensky
Scott Lasensky Visiting Fellow - Israel Institute of National Security Studies

March 30, 2000

As the drive for personal legacy looms ever larger over the Clinton presidency, the White House is focusing on two policy projects all presidents know intimately: the Middle East peace process and the Korean peninsula. In Geneva, Clinton tried in vain to jumpstart the teetering Israeli-Syrian peace talks, and in April, the president is expected to host the first high-level visitor from North Korea. But the president will reap few diplomatic laurels unless Syria and North Korea begin to understand the art of public diplomacy.

Official visits, public handshakes and abandoning tired rhetoric can be as important as substantive policy changes. No policy of engagement can be maintained indefinitely without the symbolic acts of public diplomacy that characterized earlier détentes with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, Anwar Sadat’s Egypt or Yasser Arafat’s PLO. This lesson was clearly lost on the Syrian leader when he met President Clinton in Geneva.

Engagement, not estrangement, is a hallmark of American foreign policy in this era of globalization. Since the end of the Cold War, unrivaled American leadership and power have turned Washington into a diplomatic magnet—attracting and pulling in former adversaries, enemies and “rogue states.” From Damascus to Pyongyang, Havana to Gaza, and Tehran to Ho Chi Minh City, there is a growing understanding that a relationship with the world’s only superpower is a necessity, not a luxury. Still, only some of these former adversaries understand the significance of public diplomacy.

As it negotiates peace with Israel, the United States should not reward Syria if it continues to be so penurious in its public diplomacy. Assad should not expect the U.S. Congress to underwrite a peace deal when his foreign minister refuses to shake hands with Israeli leaders at the White House, and his government fails to prevent mob attacks against the American Embassy in Damascus, as occurred in December 1998. If, as the conventional wisdom says, “Assad expects what Sadat got,” then the Syrian leader should steal a page from Sadat’s playbook and promote peace and reconciliation in both word and deed, in both Washington and Jerusalem.

Assad is acting like a momentum investor on Wall Street, hoping to get a free ride with minimal risk. But making peace with Israel and building a positive relationship with the United States takes more than momentum. Without meaningful public diplomacy, Assad will not win the hearts and minds of the U.S. Congress or the Israeli people. He should remember the latter will judge the merits of any settlement in a public referendum. Even a relatively minor step like moving the peace talks to the region—perhaps Amman—would resonate positively in Israel and the United States. If there is an Israeli-Syrian “IPO” in 2000, Congress and the Israeli public will do their due diligence and read the “prospectus” very carefully. But without public diplomacy, this IPO could be rejected.

No prize for showing up

As North Korea prepares to send a senior official to Washington, Pyongyang also needs a lesson in public diplomacy. For five years, Kim Jong Il has maintained the fiery rhetoric and chest-beating of his father, the late Kim Il Sung. Unlike Assad the momentum investor, Kim Jong Il avoids public diplomacy and keeps his stock afloat by threatening self-inflicted bankruptcy. The Clinton administration has been able to pursue limited engagement with North Korea because the policy has partly reduced tensions—and because, despite a lack of enthusiasm in Congress, no one has a more attractive plan.

However, the current policy is not sustainable and Beltway skepticism will only increase the longer North Korea avoids public diplomacy. This much-heralded visit is a positive step, but Pyongyang should also know there will be no door-prizes just for showing up. The North needs to leave its old rhetoric aside and take steps that would expand constituencies for engagement—such as announcing an unconditional extension of its moratorium on missile tests.

Sadly, as they approach a critical point in their relationships with the United States, both Syria and North Korea are practicing the art of “how to engage without really trying.” Assad and Kim Jong Il have demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of the need for public diplomacy, not only with the United States, but also with America’s allies. President Clinton is not an autonomous actor; public and congressional support is essential.

How to gut engagement without really trying

Both Assad and Kim Jong Il want to reap the economic, security and political rewards of joining the U.S. “club,” and both want to build ties with the United States as a way to manage relations with their neighbors. But both have been unwilling to engage the American political system and public in a way that makes broad engagement possible. Engagement entails risks for all sides, and part of that risk is sticking your neck out in public.

No one expects Assad or Kim Jong Il to make a dramatic gesture like Sadat did when he visited Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli parliament, and later visited the United States and charmed the American public. But by being particularly parsimonious in their acts of public diplomacy, the Syrians and North Koreans are only helping those in Israel, South Korea and the United States who oppose engagement.

Public diplomacy is the psychological underpinning to engagement and peacemaking, not only with the United States and our allies, but with all democracies. At this moment of unrivaled American strength and hegemony, our foreign-policy decisions are more about choice than survival; they are elective, not existential. Therefore, if Syria and North Korea continue to dim the prospects for engagement by avoiding public diplomacy, the United States may choose to cool its own move toward détente.