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by Ambassador (ret.) H. Allen Holmes

The writer asks: Which nation is really being punished by   our withholding diplomatic relations from a country with which we have strong disagreements?

In recent years, many American officials have regarded withholding diplomatic relations as a way to punish countries for actions ranging from human rights abuses, to failure to abide by international law, to specific treaty violations and acts of war. But state-to-state relations among nations provide an essential framework for the conduct of foreign relations. Having no relations, and the resulting prolonged absence of a diplomatic presence in a country, seriously handicaps America’s ability to achieve major foreign policy and national security goals. Diplomatic relations should therefore always be maintained, unless security requires closing the embassy.

Those who argue that withholding relations can be used to correct a nation’s undesirable behavior do so under the belief that the boost in image and standing that comes from relations with the United States will lead the targeted nation to make the necessary sacrifices to regain recognition by the U. S. government. The problem with this line of thinking is that it usually doesn’t work.

In the meantime, the absence of diplomatic relations with a country of interest to the U.S. represents an almost-crippling obstacle to the successful pursuit of foreign policy goals. Why? No senior diplomatic presence on the ground means that important policy initiatives are sent through third parties or contacts in international organizations such as the U.N. Such indirect contact deprives the U.S. government of the capability for a resident ambassador to intervene in a crisis, to question and to listen — all so critical to diplomatic persuasion by a chief of mission speaking with the authority of the President.

Another serious disadvantage of shuttered embassies is that the U.S. government has no lower-ranking, language-proficient officers in the country, meaning no valuable eyes and ears moving around the country, observing and talking to its citizens. This core diplomatic skill can provide invaluable opportunities to develop trusted relationships, often the basis for informed reporting to Washington. One can imagine how useful it would have been in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election to have had even a modest cohort of Farsi-speaking diplomatic officers in an embassy or American-staffed interests section in Tehran. Such a presence today would also allow U.S. consular visits to imprisoned American citizens.

What’s more, re-establishing diplomatic relations is no simple matter for the Department of State. U.S. administrations have a great track record for painting themselves into a corner by curtailing relations with considerable brio, with the result that when it is in the national interest to resume normal relations, the path is blocked. Members of Congress or special interest groups have little difficulty finding reasons to insist that the culprit country first earn back recognition by renouncing past positions and unfriendly posturing.

The underlying view seems to be that if the subject country does not share American positions, and is unwilling to abandon hostile attitudes toward U.S. policies, then clearly it is not a country worthy of diplomatic relations with the United States. That appears to have been the prevailing U.S. attitude toward Iran in recent years.

But we don’t have to like a country or admire its form of government to have diplomatic relations. The United States certainly did not respect the Vichy French government in unoccupied France in 1940. But maintaining an ambassador allowed American consular officers to assess the loyalty of the French army to the puppet government, resulting in the largely unopposed U.S.-British landing of 100,000 troops in North Africa in November 1942.

Similarly, a Baghdad embassy in 2002 would have seen how much of a Potemkin village Iraq was. Reporting by seasoned American diplomats on the scene might have changed the U.S. government’s assessment of Iraq’s WMD ambitions and capacity.

Today, the contested results of the Iranian presidential elections make it impractical to resume normal diplomatic relations. But after 30 years of having no trained American diplomats on the ground in Iran, U.S. authorities are even more clueless of Iranian dynamics today than they were in the 1990s when Iran quietly began its nuclear program. This kind of diplomatic vacuum is clearly contrary to U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. We need to revert to a more practical approach to diplomatic relations.

During the Cold War, we fought Soviet efforts to subvert countries trying to develop themselves free from Moscow’s influence. But despite our bedrock opposition to the Soviet system and foreign policy, we maintained relations with the U.S.S.R., had diplomats in each other’s countries, tracked each other’s espionage activities, talked to each other’s governments and ordinary citizens, and gathered vast quantities of information on each other’s attitudes and activities at home and abroad. We operated in a practical manner and negotiated historic breakthroughs in arms control. Our diplomatic relations never signified approval of the Soviet regime, but rather recognition of a state with which we had business to conduct in our national interest, as well as in the collective interest of our allies.

Reprinted by permission of World Politics Review where it first appeared on September 10, 2009.

Ambasador H. Allen Holmes is a former career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Portugal, as an assistant secretary of state and as an assistant secretary of defense. He is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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