New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman rarely disappoints when it comes to inane, or even spurious arguments and ideas, but in his latest column, he demonstrates such a lack of understanding of not just diplomacy, his subject of the day, but also of how the world has changed (beyond its now flatness), that one has to wonder if his peripatetic lifestyle has taught him anything about the way all those foreigners he meets actually think.
Continuing to view the world through the myopia of his all too Western eyes, Tom's brilliant new concept is that "this is not the great age of diplomacy." Why? Because, Tom tells us, we (the West, or America to be specific), can no longer reliably instruct allies and enemies to do as we say, or, to use another of his folksy analogies, "to pull a lever." Presumably Mr. Friedman's idea of the great age of diplomacy was when the great powers, for example Britain, France, the Soviet Union or the United States, could do as they wished; install and remove governments at will, negotiate crippling treaties with their clients, and all but steal the natural resources and wealth of underdeveloped countries with few or no consequences. Tom bemoans the fact that today is an age of "snipers, drones and generals, not diplomats" but he forgets that without generations of rifles, tanks, and omnipresent navies, the great powers' diplomats could never have succeeded in maintaining, as he puts it unashamedly, "solid client states." I'm sorry, however, to report that most people on the planet are no longer particularly keen on their countries being or becoming "client states" of the United States, no matter how benign our intentions are towards those countries. Nor are most people on the planet eager to see their leaders ask how high when told to jump, whether by a U.S. diplomat, general, or admiral. It is no longer the "great age of diplomacy," it seems, not because diplomacy is ineffective but because diplomacy, as Mr. Friedman and many others in the establishment define it, is not (and never was) diplomacy at all.
Mr. Friedman states in his column that of the four countries that are our "major problems," Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, two are client states that "cannot deliver" and two are enemy countries that "won't deliver." Well, perhaps the two client states would rather not be client states who must deliver to us what we demand of them, and the two enemies won't deliver because what we demand of them, getting them "to change their behavior along the lines we seek," is, as evident from the tone of a statement such as that, demeaning, insulting, and carries with it a whiff of moral superiority that in a flat world, Tom, reaches every corner of the planet. North Korea's "defiant missile launch" is bad behavior, our development of new generations of weapons isn't; Iran enriching uranium to a low level suitable for reactor fuel as is their right under the NPT is bad behavior; Western nuclear programs, including developing new nuclear weapons which is not their right under the same NPT, isn't. Our threats of and actual military action across the globe, excuse me, flat world, is not bad behavior, but other countries that defy our will need to change their behavior. That moral superiority, exhibited even in President Obama's much vaunted recent video message to the Iranian people and government, a message that the U.S. media largely praised (and characterized the Iranian response to it as a rebuff), was invisible to the likes of Mr. Friedman, but all to obvious to the Iranian government (whose response was actually anything but a rejection of goodwill on the part of the U.S.) Mr. Obama quite rightly delivered a respectful message to Iran, changing the tone of American rhetoric, but while he reached out to Iran with praise for its culture and history, he also suggested that Iran would have to behave according to Western standards, according to our determination of what is good behavior, actually, before it could take its rightful place among the family of nations. Iran's response? It is best summed up at the end of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's long speech in Mashhad the day after Mr. Obama's message was aired: "If you change, our behavior will change too. If you do not change, our nation will not change, as it has only become more and more experienced, patient, and powerful in the past thirty years." Just as we would like to see other governments change their behavior, many of those other governments would like to us change our behavior. How hard is that to understand? Mr. Friedman's simplistic belief that our "problem countries" such as Iran have survival strategy that depends on hostile relations with America is belied by Ayatollah Khamenei's statement that Iran is willing to engage and negotiate, and yes, even change (something Iran has rarely, if ever conceded). It is further belied by arch conservative President Ahmadinejad's statements that Iran is interested in relations with the U.S. but only on the basis of respect. (Pulling levers on demand, I imagine, does not qualify as a basis for respect in Mr. Ahmadinejad's mind.)
If, in Mr. Friedman's imaginary school of foreign service (where he has fantasized about placing President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton as students), diplomats are taught that their job is to persuade a foreign leader "to pull this or that lever" (much like a laboratory animal in behavioral studies) and then "figure out what to do next," we will never be able to protect our national and strategic interests with any measure of success, which is, after all, the point of diplomacy. If instead the students at Friedman's school are taught that it's not about pulling levers or demanding things of foreigners, but about negotiating according to the culture and customs of both parties, of understanding that problems cannot be solved in this "flat world" without considering the vital interests of all parties, then we might have a shot. It's not, as Mr. Friedman fears, about adopting a "middle ground," it's about fundamental change, as Mr. Obama promised in his campaign and as he is slowly, but surely, delivering. Iran, for one, appears to be patiently waiting.
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