Try a Little Kindness: The Politics of Engagement

I was walking with a good friend about a month ago and another white supremacist rally was in the news. “Joe, what can we do about these people?” I asked. “How do we change their hate filled values?”

“We love them,” Joe responded. “Engage with them. Stop demonizing them. That was Martin Luther King’s approach to such people.”

I had two immediate thoughts regarding Joe’s answer. First, Jesus would have agreed with him. Second, such a strategy reminded me of one of my favorite books, Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will D. Campbell.

Campbell was born and raised in rural Louisiana. After graduating from Yale Divinity School in 1952, he returned to Louisiana to become a Baptist minister. Two years later he was sent to the University of Mississippi to become the Religion-in-Life Director with instructions to assist in the integration of the school. Brother to a Dragonfly begins there. Though it is an autobiographical story with several dimensions, the part I found most intriguing was his civil rights work in the South. After a year or two at Ole Miss, he decided he could make his most lasting contribution by ministering to the Ku Klux Klan. That experience both enriched and changed his life.

Forty-five years ago, while a graduate student at Tulane University, I heard a story that speaks to this issue. The football program recruited a kid from rural Louisiana whose father was a prominent white supremacist. The recruit was reputed to share his father’s values. In order to minimize tensions on the team, one of the coaches asked two African American players to befriend the recruit. They did, and it changed the recruit’s life. He acquired new friends and very different values.

Engagement works in the realm of international politics too as was evident when Nixon went to China on February 21, 1972. Nothing had changed in China. It remained a repressive, Communist regime under Mao. Instead the Nixon administration decided to end its policy of demonization and isolation, both diplomatic and economic, to pursue a policy of engagement.

The results have been impressive. Bilateral trade between the two countries has grown from 18 billion dollars in 1989 to 536 billion dollars in 2012. More important, China has been integrated into the liberal international order the United States has been building since the end of World War 11. China has become a member of the World Trade Organization and accepted judgments against them. They have become supportive members of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and are the second largest funder of United Nations peacekeeping operations. Finally, they played an important role in the negotiations surrounding the recent Climate Change Treaty.

Not all issues have been resolved in this new American/Chinese relationship, however. China is currently violating international law as she seeks to gain control over several tiny islands in the East China and South China seas. There are also issues relating to trade. The Chinese government continues to force US companies to transfer proprietary technology as a condition of doing business in China. The government also regulates foreign firms doing business in China in a way that benefits domestic companies. A repressive regime remains in place with conditions getting worse under the current administration of President Xi Jinping.

However, when all is considered, a dangerous, confrontational relationship has been transformed into one defined by both cooperation and competition. The big winner has been the global community which has become a more interconnected and safer place.

Iran poses a different set of circumstances. When the Shah of Iran was removed from office in 1979, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran, a situation that remains in place today. A revolutionary Iran has been a difficult country to deal with as was seen with the hostage crisis from November 1, 1979 to January 20, 1981 and her “seeming” rush to create a nuclear weapon more recently. Harsh rhetoric, economic sanctions, cyber attacks, and diplomatic isolation were unable to convince Iran to change course with regard to those weapons.

The Obama administration added negotiations to the above mix and was able to reach an agreement to stop, at least temporarily, Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The deal was signed on July 14, 2015, and there is a universal consensus that Iran has lived up to the terms of the agreement. The deal is not a permanent fix, however. There are several parts to the agreement which expire at different times. Iran will have no incentives to continue with the agreement after those expiration dates unless a different tone develops in our relations which leads to reduced tensions between the two countries and concrete economic gains for the Iranians.

History tells us that revolutions moderate. The generation following a revolution grows tired of ideology and sacrifice and yearns for a more normal existence that centers around a good job and a stable family life. With regard to Iran, the second generation is now middle aged and exhibiting those characteristics. In addition, Iran has the largest middle class in the Middle East. It has large numbers of women with professional level educations. It’s elections for President, Parliament, and at the municipal level have issue significance, pitting reformers against deeply conservative religious ideologues. Under such conditions, a policy of engagement would reap significant benefits.

How does one engage another country diplomatically? The first step is to end the harsh rhetoric which often expresses half truths at best. The second step is to increase trade and investment between the two countries. Over time exchange programs should be encouraged. In the case of Iran, apologizing for our role in organizing the coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 which led to the autocratic rule of the Shah would be electric in its effect. Unfortunately, nation states never admit mistakes of that kind. A policy of engagement, however, does not mean you ignore issues causing tensions between the two countries. With regard to Iran, her support of terrorists groups in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen (the Houthi rebels) is disturbing. These issues are dealt with quietly, diplomatically, behind closed doors with the hope of steering the country in a different direction over time.

Sadly, the current administration in Washington has chosen a different course.

President Trump’s harsh rhetoric and his decision to refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement have energized conservative ideologues in Iran according to a recent article in the Washington Post (11/5/2017). The result has been a crackdown on the reform movement by all those forces that oppose President Hassan Rouhani. By refusing to engage Iran, the Trump administration will succeed in confronting the revolutionary troublemaker their one-sided rhetoric describes.

Most foreign policy analysts cringe when they think about the possibility of applying a little kindness to the real world of international politics. Reinhold Neibuhr, one of the great theological thinkers of the twentieth century who wrote about these issues, would agree with them. Although Neibuhr began his career as a pacifist, the coming to power of Hitler in the 1930s caused him to change his mind. Neibuhr was a strong supporter of both the war effort to defeat Hitler and the policies to contain the Soviet Union during the early period of the Cold War. He was part of the political realist camp that criticizes the use of morality in managing international relations.

In arguing in favor of engagement, the injection of a little kindness into international relations, I am not necessarily disagreeing with Niebuhr. The times are different. The threats to our national security have changed. There is no Hitler on the horizon. The challenge posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War is different from the current challenge posed by Putin’s Russia. The landscape of the international system has changed dramatically. We live in a highly connected world. There is no need to control territory to attain resources when you can acquire them more cheaply through trade. With the exception of a few states possessing nuclear weapons, no other state threatens our national security. As a result of our superior nuclear arsenal, those few states with nuclear weapons are successfully deterred from attacking us.

Because the threats have diminished, fear is reduced which allows more space for God’s vision of love and goodness to make itself known in our awareness. Let’s trust it and see what happens. Let’s reach out to white supremacists, listen to what they have to say, and find ways to meet their needs which do not compromise our values. Let’s engage with states like Iran, Cuba, and North Korea to see if we can help to integrate them more firmly into the family of nations. We have so little to lose and so much to gain.

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