Blinded by engagement

The international crises over Iran and, North Korea have made the fallacy of the "engagement" theory of international relations starkly evident.

The international crises over Iran and, more recently, North Korea have made the fallacy of the "engagement" theory of international relations starkly evident. At first glance, this theory seems truistic: A country that provides aid and trade to another will obviously thereby acquire leverage over it. The catch, however, is that this leverage stems from the implicit threat of aid or trade cutbacks in response to bad behavior. If the recipient knows that aid and trade will keep flowing no matter what it does, then engagement provides no incentive for it to modify its behavior. And that, unfortunately, is the case today: Because no provocation appears sufficient to goad apostles of engagement into reducing aid and trade, rogue states have no qualms about continuing their provocations. The Iranian crisis offers a perfect example of this process. When it first emerged that Iran had been deceiving the International Atomic Energy Agency about its nuclear program for 18 years, Britain, France and Germany, all ardent proponents of engagement, promptly offered Teheran a substantial package of benefits if it would permanently halt uranium enrichment. Over the ensuing months, however, Iran rejected the package, sharply restricted IAEA monitoring of its nuclear program and demonstratively resumed enrichment, which it had earlier halted temporarily. At that point, the time had seemingly come to play the other side of the engagement card: not merely rewarding good behavior with aid and trade, but also punishing bad behavior by reducing aid and trade. And since the European Union is Iran's biggest trading partner, it had considerable leverage to exercise. HOWEVER, the EU refused to employ this leverage without Security Council approval - a euphemism for refusing to employ it at all, since two veto-wielding council members and fellow engagement advocates, Russia and China, made it clear that they would not countenance sanctions. Instead, the Europeans pressured the United States to offer Iran even more carrots, including direct talks with Washington, state-ofthe-art nuclear technology and even eventual acquiescence to uranium enrichment on Iranian soil - something the earlier offer had ruled out, given Iran's long history of nuclear deception. Moreover, this blatant reward for bad behavior was not even accompanied by clear commitments from Russia and China to back UN sanctions should Iran reject the new offer. On the contrary: Their few public statements on the matter, though vague, seemed to indicate that their all-embracing opposition to sanctions remained intact. The message to Iran was thus crystal-clear: Not only could it scoff at the EU without suffering any negative consequences; it would even be rewarded for doing so. It thus contemptuously announced that it would reply to the new offer only two months after the EU's requested response date. UNSURPRISINGLY, North Korea also got the message. As the Sydney Morning Herald aptly put it, having seen Iran's defiance so richly rewarded, "it is not astonishing that North Korea … reached the risky conclusion that nothing succeeds like excess." Pyongyang therefore decided to grab world attention with a provocative missile launch last week. And, once again, engagement proved its weakness: China and Russia, two of the few countries with ties to North Korea, promptly announced that they would neither impose sanctions themselves nor allow the Security Council to do so, thereby assuring North Korea that it had nothing to fear from continued bad behavior. South Korea, in contrast, initially applied the engagement theory properly: It used its engagement as a lever, announcing the suspension of planned shipments of rice and fertilizer until the missile crisis was resolved and rejecting North Korea's bid to begin military talks. However, it then undercut the message by scolding Japan for making a "fuss" about the launch and assuring Pyongyang that it would "propose a date" for military talks later, thereby allowing North Korea to believe that Seoul would also soon relent on the food aid, and that its bad behavior would result in only temporary inconvenience. AND IN fact, Pyongyang has good reason to believe this, given the precedent set by the EU in a different case: its decision to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority unless the new Hamas government meets certain conditions. That decision initially seemed like a classic use of engagement: As the PA's largest donor, the EU had significant leverage, and it was exercising this leverage to influence Hamas's behavior. However, not long afterward, the EU announced that due to "humanitarian concerns" (which, incidentally, are far more pressing in North Korea), it would substitute a new aid program for the one it had just canceled: Instead of giving the PA money with which to pay salaries, it would pay most PA employees itself, and it would also make welfare payments directly to needy Palestinians, to replace the welfare allowances (or wages) that they no longer received from the PA. This, however, effectively negated the impact of the original sanctions. If ordinary Palestinians suffered no more than a brief hiatus in their usual salary and welfare payments, they would have no reason to be unhappy with the Hamas government: It makes no difference to them who signs their checks. And that, in turn, means that Hamas would have no reason to fear being voted out should it fail to change its policies. By deciding that "ordinary Palestinians" - the very people who elected Hamas - must be spared the consequences of their choices, the EU effectively obligated itself to keep the aid flowing no matter what Hamas does. And it thereby forfeited all the leverage that engagement theoretically provides. This, in a nutshell, is why engagement has become an empty vessel: Its leading practitioners - the EU, China and Russia - all appear to have forgotten that it was supposed to be a means of influencing other countries' behavior; instead, they treat it as an end in itself, with which no amount of bad behavior can be allowed to interfere. And as long as rogue governments know that aid and trade will flow no matter what they do, engagement provides no incentive for them to change their ways.