The American government recently held face-to-face talks with the Taliban, in an effort to find a resolution to the long-running war. This should come as no surprise: from the moment the U.S. (and Canada) began fighting in Afghanistan in 2001, these talks were inevitable.
This little episode reveals a truism about foreign affairs: the only sure thing to emerge from international conflict is that the surviving parties will eventually speak. The talks may take time, they may be covert and they may even fail, but they will surely happen.
It’s for this reason that the oft-cited mantra of never speaking to terrorists should be abandoned. Declaring that you’ll never, ever speak with someone is how emotional teenagers deal with their friends. It’s not how policymakers should deal with international relations.
And yet, we constantly succumb to the temptation. In Canada, the Harper government severed relations with Iran because of its support for international terrorism. And in Israel, it is an article of faith that there be no negotiations with terrorists (until there are).
All these positions allow politicians to advance their domestic political interests and provide some sense of moral leadership, while making them feel self-righteous. But they don’t make any sense.
The simple reality is that refusing to speak with your adversaries is as shortsighted for nation states as it is for teenagers, since it addresses today’s emotional needs at the expense of tomorrow’s strategic objectives. And strategic objectives must always be at the heart of diplomacy.
Cutting off relations is always self-defeating, because it confuses ends and means. States should first identify their strategic objectives (ends) and then how to achieve them (means). The moment a government declares that it will never speak with some hostile player, it unilaterally eliminates nearly all its tactical means, even as its strategic ends remain unchanged.
It also serves to paint a country into a corner, since reversing course becomes really hard. Over time, people forget the underlying strategic ends and instead focus on the ostensible virtues of the tactical means. Think: the Cuban embargo.
This confusion afflicts both the right and the left. On the right, for instance, many in our community cheered the Conservative’s 2012 decision to sever ties with Tehran, particularly given Iran’s murderous hostility toward the State of Israel and world Jewry.
But there were tragic consequences to this decision. Earlier this year, Kavous Seyed-Emami, a Canadian-Iranian who was quietly working to save Iran’s endangered species, was arrested. Two weeks later, he mysteriously died in the notorious Evin Prison.
We’ll never know if a Canadian presence in Tehran could have saved his life, but we do know that the best our government could do was offer token support from Ankara, which is some 2,000 kilometres away.
And with an eye to the future, there are still thousands of Jews in Iran who surely would feel more secure with a Canadian embassy nearby.
On the left, successive Israeli Labor governments virtually invented the policy of not speaking with terrorists. But they had to eat their words when they determined that Israel’s best interests required negotiating with the PLO. Sure, the outcome had mixed results, but the decision to elevate strategic interests above emotions reflected an admirable maturity.
In fact, despicable as it may feel today, one day an Israeli government will authorize discussions with Islamist terrorist groups for the same reason – that such talks will advance Israel’s strategic interests. And it will be easier for the Jewish state than for Hezbollah, whose approach to Israel at least gets ends and means correct: “A stance is a weapon and a handshake is an acknowledgement.”
Of course, sometimes we must fight our enemies. That is frequently the case for Israel. But we must also speak to our enemies when it advances our interests, and refrain from speaking to them when it does not.