Diplomacy - not as some claim, journalism - is the second oldest profession. As such, a lot can go wrong. The upheaval in the Middle East, and the heightened drive for an Islamist Ascendency which it has propelled, require a reassessment of this art for the new century.
The "Embassy to Achilles" in the Iliad is an ancient example of the complexity of a diplomatic mission. Three envoys were dispatched to try to persuade Achilles to fulfill his responsibilities to the Greek army: Odysseus dangerously failed to follow his instructions; Phoenix took what we would call a "track two" approach; and Ajax conveyed the moral argument. All failed. Achilles could not be moved.
Such problems arise across diplomatic history from Homer's time to ours. But diplomacy took on enhanced meaning when it became one of the foundations for the modern international system, as explained in Garrett Mattingly's Renaissance Diplomacy, Sir Harold Nicolson's Diplomacy, and Henry Kissinger's far-ranging work of that title.
The fact that we now must speak starkly in terms of "talking" indicates that a reappraisal, perhaps agonizing, is necessary. In four main categories of diplomacy today, recent U.S. approaches define what should not be done:
Diplomatic relations with our allies have been strained, beginning with the calculated symbolic snubs of Israel (no White House dinner for the Prime Minister) and Britain (the rude return of the bust of Churchill). Since President Obama was blaming America for most of the world's problems, then it followed that our friends and allies shared that blame and the new U.S. administration would distance itself from them. Early Obama blunders effectively stalled Israel-Palestinian progress for his term in office. Now trying to repair the relationship, President Obama promises, if re-elected, to actually visit Israel. Governor Romney highlighted the unprecedented lapses in our diplomacy with allies by visiting Israel, Poland, and Britain.
Our multilateral diplomacy as conducted through the UN, has gone through weeks of frustrated failures, led by ex-Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to stop the rebellion in Syria and start negotiations between the Assad regime and the rebels. But first, no civil war ever ended in a government of national unity. Second, the UN-centered doctrine of collective security always fails the hardest tests. And third, current multilateral efforts detach diplomacy from strength, making "talking" a futile exercise. Thus has our diplomacy only prolonged the violence while naively proposing what would have been a rescue package for the dictatorial regime.
Diplomacy with adversaries is essential. Modern diplomacy, however, has assumed that negotiations would be between legitimate states in the international system, and that the two state parties, however adversarial, would accept the rules of diplomatic practice with the intention of working in good faith to solve the conflict.
But Iran, since the Islamist revolution of 1979, has rejected these rules by situating itself at one and the same time inside the international state system and as the system's enemy. The first major act of Islamist Iran was its calculated violation of diplomacy's first principle - diplomatic immunity - when it stormed the embassy and took US officials hostage. Since then every American administration has reached out to Iran only to be rebuffed or manipulated as Iran has illegally proceeded with its nuclear weapons program while using "negotiations" as a stylized game and time-buying cover for its multifaceted efforts to gain regional hegemony while disrupting international order. American diplomacy continues to enable this Islamist project.
With non-state enemies, the U.S. until recently has had no official "talks." Various Islamist groups have openly set themselves against world order and therefore beyond the reach of diplomacy. This has been the case with the Taliban of Afghanistan. At present it appears that the radical side of the Taliban under the absolutist vision of Mullah Omar can only be regarded as America's deadly enemy.
However, another sector of the Taliban may hold the potential for becoming a political party within the new Afghan state. "Talking" is therefore warranted if, and only if, US and Afghan military forces act to make that option the only realistic one for the Taliban, and the US fulfills its recent promise to maintain a strong, continuing presence there.
In Egypt the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood - a declared enemy of the international system - has as a result of a legitimate election come into shared authority with the military, which has always supported Egypt's place in the system. The Muslim Brotherhood has been expressing - whether sincerely remains to be seen - its intent to fulfill Egypt's obligations under diplomatic agreements, such as the peace treaty with Israel. Thus the U.S. not only should "talk" to the Muslim Brotherhood, but engage diplomatically with the president of Egypt who emerged from that Islamist movement. So this is a time and place for talking while testing.
Charles Hill is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale University and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution.