David Adler: Effort for diplomacy is always worthwhile

September 26, 2013 

Hope springs eternal. For the Brooklyn Dodgers, in times past. For the Chicago Cubs, since the beginning of time. For the United Nations, since its birth seven decades ago.

As President Barack Obama said in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, there remains hope that the U.N. “is capable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.”

The beleaguered United Nations, like its short-lived predecessor, The League of Nations, represents the dreams of those who in full view of two devastating world wars turned toward the idea of collective, worldwide action to stem the tide of the 20th century’s version of the Four Horsemen.

While it has yet to fulfill its high promise, it took center stage on Tuesday as the presidents of the United States and Iran took turns delivering brief and somewhat cryptic messages of hope for a framework process that might end the hostility that has prevailed between the nations since 1979, when Iranian zealots seized the American Embassy in Tehran.

President Obama was more conciliatory in his remarks than his Iranian counterpart, but he could afford to take the higher road. Each carried the burden of domestic political imperatives, and Obama’s were lighter. Obama rightly emphasized that significant “roadblocks” might bar diplomatic success, by which he meant Iranian agreement to end its effort to develop nuclear weapons. Still, the president declared, the road of diplomacy “must be tested.”

Of course. Diplomatic achievements might be measured in baby steps over the long haul, but if diplomacy succeeds, for example, in dissuading the Syrians from once more unleashing chemical weapons, then it has produced demonstrable success. If it succeeds, moreover, in persuading the Iranians to abandon their goal of creating nuclear weapons, then it has enjoyed measurable achievement.

For those who see the world in black-and-white terms and reject even the notion, not to mention the wisdom, of talks with those whom they characterize as “untrustworthy,” there is only the tactic of military force and its certain end — death for someone. The impulse of impatience, and its call for the use of arms, rails at the diplomatic subtleties and nuances that move at a snail’s pace, which, conceivably, might fall short of satisfaction and achieve nothing but failure.

But the effort is worthwhile — always — even if it has chances of success as remote as those of the Chicago Cubs. The worst-case scenario is the continuation of life.

It is ironic that the Obama presidency is increasingly dominated by foreign affairs, even though his stated interest as president, when he was a candidate for the Oval Office, was to focus on domestic problems. But he inherited two wars in the context of the “War on Terrorism,” and we might have guessed that his tenure would be consumed by international affairs, a policy realm far more difficult to manage.

Other chief executives — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush, to mention but a few — have seen their domestic agendas overtaken and, to borrow from Lincoln, their presidencies “controlled by events.”

In fact, given the grim reality of the prominence of terrorism and the fragile nature of the Middle East, a region vulnerable to geopolitical earthquakes from which it and, perhaps, the world, might never recover, it is likely that future American presidents will find their time dominated by foreign affairs.

That’s why it was wise for President Obama to utilize the U.N. stage as an opportunity to search for new ways to open a dialogue with Iran, a nation at the center of so much Middle Eastern mischief and drama.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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