Reconciling with Reality
Pragmatic Problem Solving on the World Stage
General Foreign Policy
- As a rule, there is no such thing as a hardliner of the sort DC describes. In every country, there are more liberal actors who are more open to dialogue and more conservative actors who are also open to dialogue but tend to drive a harder bargain. Those conservatives often remain in power longer and tend to be better able to deliver.
- Dealing with countries like Iran, China and Russia is often akin to dominoes, push one in a certain direction and others follow. Simply put, regime change in those sorts of places is not going to happen and any attempt to do so would almost certainly result in a vacuum that creates more problems and solves none, preventing DC from focusing on bigger issues like building domestic infrastructure, developing the domestic economy and countering legitimate threats such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. On the other hand, smartly, strongly and pragmatically addressing issues with places like Tehran would have better than even odds of prompting a constructive, albeit perhaps gradual and uneven, domino effect as Caracas, Pyongyang, Gaza, Damascus, Beirut, Sana’a, Gaza and others see that DC is willing to play ball.
- North Korea is the most transactional of the US’ ostensible adversaries, although the Iranians are not far behind. It is almost inevitable that tensions with Pyongyang will return to the headlines at some point, especially since Kim is having an annus horribilis between the collapse of his economic ambitions and the three consecutive typhoons that slammed into his country right before the crop harvest.
- It is possible that Kim could try to change the narrative and stoke nationalism with a missile test before mid-2021, which would also match with their MO of occasionally trying to draw the world’s eyes back to them and their demands.
- In general, Pyongyang is unlikely to completely ditch its nukes after seeing what happened to Gaddafi, which was a button Bolton unwisely poisoned the well by pressing. Some sort of middle ground will have to be found, and doing so is not impossible, but Pompeo’s folks stubbornly insisting on complete denuking is a non-starter for Pyongyang and that is highly unlikely to change come what may.
The Middle East
- Tehran has gotten a reputation as an ideologically-driven actor on the world stage, which is quite comical given the extent to which the opposite is true. Tehran simply does not see Pompeo and his team as being serious about talks and they are also pretty sensitive about nationalism, which is a legitimate matter of pride, so many of the things Pompeo and his team have said have legitimately pissed them off. That said, they would not take any action unless they perceived an imminent threat since their overarching approach at this point is to ride out the year while laying out their wares and starting to make opening bids.
- It is unrealistic to speak of preconditions, as most successful negotiations do not start with preconditions. Tehran, Pyongyang and Caracas have made no secret of the various off-ramps that they view as being available, with sanctions relief, prisoner swaps and unfreezing of funds held abroad being three avenues that are low-hanging fruit.
- Once the table is set for constructive dialogue with Tehran in particular, the regional picture could begin to change in a manner that would ultimately be less costly and more sustainable for all parties concerned than the alternative.
- A full return to the pre-2018 Iran nuclear agreement status quo is impractical. The situation has changed drastically, none of the parties would be satisfied with such a scenario and some would not tolerate it. Rejoining the agreement, or at least starting to adhere to some elements of it again, could be one building block, but rewinding the clock to 2015 or even 2018 is simply not practical.
- Talks with Caracas, Havana and Sana’a are the lowest hanging fruit. There are well above even odds that pragmatic engagement with the latter in particular would be a straightforward and low cost method of starting to open doors to resolving other related issues in the region.