Enemies Into Friends

How the United States Can Court Its Adversaries

In his inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama informed those regimes "on the wrong side of history" that the United States "will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." He soon backed up his words with deeds, making engagement with U.S. adversaries one of the new administration's priorities. During his first year in office, Obama pursued direct negotiations with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs. He sought to "reset" relations with Russia by searching for common ground on arms control, missile defense, and Afghanistan. He began scaling back economic sanctions against Cuba. And he put out diplomatic feelers to Myanmar (also called Burma) and Syria.

Over a year into Obama's presidency, the jury is still out on whether this strategy of engagement is bearing fruit. Policymakers and scholars are divided over the merits and the risks of Obama's outreach to adversaries and over how best to increase the likelihood that his overtures will be reciprocated. Debate continues on whether rapprochement results from mutual concessions that tame rivalries or rather from the iron fist that forces adversaries into submission. Equally controversial is whether the United States should pursue reconciliation with hardened autocracies or instead make engagement contingent on democratization. And disagreement persists over whether diplomacy or economic engagement represents the most effective pathway to peace.

Many of Obama's critics have already made up their minds on the merits of his outreach to adversaries, concluding not only that the president has little to show for his efforts but also that his pliant diplomacy demeans the United States and weakens its hand. Following Obama's September 2009 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he called for "a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect" and "new coalitions that bridge old divides," the conservative commentator Michelle Malkin charged that the president had "solidified his place in the international view as the great appeaser and the groveler in chief."

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