The Limits of Rice’s Diplomacy

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

January 17, 2006

In her confirmation hearings a year ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that “the time for diplomacy is now.” How well has she fared in the year since making that declaration?

There are plenty of indications—ranging from North Korea to Iran and from the Middle East to the Balkans—that diplomacy has reemerged at the center of American foreign policy.

On North Korea, Rice gave her negotiators the flexibility necessary to make a deal by providing broad guidance and allowing them to deal directly with their North Korean counterparts. Within months of this change, the six party talks produced a framework agreement that would end the Pyongyang’s quest for nuclear weapons in exchange for economic and energy assistance.

Similar flexibility has attended efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Last February, Rice persuaded the president to support European efforts to negotiate a resolution to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and offer some economic and other concessions in case Iran agreed to forego developing the capacity to produce fissile materials. Since that time she has worked along side her European colleagues to fashion a broad coalition of major countries willing to stand up to Iran in the event Tehran balked at negotiating a deal.

In the Middle East, Rice has re-engaged American power and prestige—as well as its presence—in trying to forge a way ahead in the peace process. Last November, after an all-night session of shuttle diplomacy, she succeeded in negotiating a final agreement on access to and from Gaza.

And in the Balkans, the secretary of state used the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war to reassert a strong U.S. diplomatic role in the region. This helped produce an agreement to revise the Bosnian constitution and restart negotiations on the future status of Kosovo.

What has made the return of diplomacy in American foreign policy possible is the close relationship between Rice and the president. In contrast to her predecessor, who many in the White House distrusted in part because of his extraordinary popularity and in part for his support of policies that were more in keeping with the administration of Bush 41 than of Bush 43, Rice has proven far more effective in getting the president to back her diplomatic initiatives. So much so that many of her accomplishments this past years were initiatives that Powell had long trumpeted but been unable to convince the president to pursue.

Yet, there are real limits to Rice’s diplomacy—and these too have become evident in the past year. One is the fact that diplomacy involves compromise—which isn’t exactly this administration’s strong suit. For all the success in reaching a framework agreement with North Korea, the admiistration’s public disavowal of a key compromise immediately after it was signed meant that talks on implementing the agreement have yet to start. Its minimal concessions on Iran may have been sufficient to avoid being blamed for any breakdown in negotiations, but were enough to seriously test Tehran’s true intentions. In the Middle East, Rice failed to follow-up on her limited success in Gaza with kind of intense diplomatic effort that all of her predecessors engaged in. And while the recent focus on the Balkans is to be welcomed, it comes after five years of diplomatic neglect during which time positions have hardened and the task of reaching lasting solutions has become all the more difficult. Diplomacy is hard work—and too often this administration has failed to put in the necessary effort.

Even when it does, though, the effectiveness of Rice’s diplomacy has been limited by the damage inflicted by the blustering unilateralism of Bush’s first term. As a result of its earlier disdain for diplomacy, many countries—including close friends and allies—no longer trust the United States to do the right thing. That’s a profound, and deeply worrying change.

America’s power and influence in the previous century was built not just on its military and economic prowess, but especially on the belief of many that it would use its power to the benefit of all rather than of the United States alone. But that view of the United States as a benevolent power is now gone. America’s image in the world has been tarnished by launching an unnecessary war of choice, flouting international law, and its appalling abuse of detainees. Polls indicate that large majorities in Europe have an unfavorable opinion of America and, shockingly, that a majority of Europeans now believes the United States poses the greatest threat to international security.

When trust is broken, a commitment to diplomacy can only do so much. When an American secretary of state has to spend an entire week in Europe to argue that the United States does not torture people—and leave without having convinced anyone that she’s speaking the truth—you know something profound has changed in America’s relations with the world. In such circumstances, a willingness to talk, to negotiate, even to compromise is not enough. It will take a new administration, fully committed to restoring trust in an America rededicated to the rule of law, to begin to reverse the damage that has been done.