Thursday, July 16, 2015

The American-Iranian Agreement: Moving Mankind Past War

In an epoch of technological development, the relative dearth of political development as concerns international relations has been evident. In June 2015, Pope Francis advocated the establishment of a global institution having governmental sovereignty with which to combat the human contribution to climate change. Such a political development would be significant, given the long-standing default of sovereign nation-states and unions thereof. In July 2015, U.S. President Barak Obama announced an agreement with Iran that would keep that nation-state from develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. Just three years earlier, war had seemed unavoidable. I submit that Obama’s accomplishment can be thought of as a step toward rendering war itself as obsolete, or at least perceiving it as a primitive means of resolving disputes internationally. More subtly, the feat makes the sheer distance between the premises of war and those of diplomacy transparent. Paradoxically, this insight implies just how difficult a shift from a war-default to one that takes war as obsolete must be.

Even if diplomacy can deliver more than war, obviating the path toward war can require a lot of time and effort. “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not—a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama declared in announcing the deal.[1] With Iraq still a trouble-spot in spite of the U.S. invasion and occupation, costing more than $2 trillion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s two years of arduous work with Iran can be viewed as superior to war as a means of satisfying U.S. interests—not to mention that of the international community.

As difficult as it was for Obama to persuade a militaristic people to have faith in diplomacy as being capable of delivering more than war—a thankless task to be sure—he found himself having to defend even his campaign promise that he would talk to America’s enemies. When he first declared he would negotiate with adversaries, it was by accident. During a 2007 presidential debate, when asked if he would negotiate with adversaries as president, he made the unprompted declaration and explained it by discrediting the antithetical, war-default premise. “(T)he notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them— which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [George W. Bush] administration—is ridiculous.”[2] Obama's premise obviating war is clearly far removed from his predecessor's war-premise.

Tellingly for what it reveals about where the American people stood at the time, the declaration that initial communication should not be conditional “set his campaign into a minor tailspin. ‘We did not expect him to say that,’ former Obama spokesman Bill Burton told The Huffington Post of that debate moment. ‘We were like, 'Oh my God. How do we walk it back? [Former Secretary of State] Madeline Albright’s attacking us!'’"[3] That a former Secretary of State would criticize the very notion of talking to adversaries is itself remarkable. Did she believe that not talking is actually punishment? What is it in American society that undergirds such an uncompromising, even childish, attitude that is so presumptuous or “entitled”? Malignant narcissism, such as can be found in spoiled children, may be behind the primitive level of social skills (which, not coincidentally, is in turn consistent with the mindset of war as the default “problem-solver”). In other words, the hypertrophic conditional regard (e.g., conditional love) may have been acceptable in American society. This point is in itself worthy of investigation.

From the not-speaking-as-punishment assumption, Obama’s mere overtures to Iran must have seemed radical, even ludicrous. “After just two months in office, Obama took the unconventional step of sending Iranians a holiday message on Nowruz, the Iranian new year. ‘For nearly three decades, relations between our nations have been strained,’ he said. ‘But on this holiday, we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.’ Shifting his focus from the Iranian people to the Iranian leadership, Obama looked into the camera: ‘My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us.’ . . . it was the first time since the dissolution of U.S.-Iranian relations [in the late 1970s] that an American leader publicly extended the offer of rapprochement.”[4] The sheer amount of time spent under the war premise would make the greeting seem radical even though from the antithetical diplomacy premise the overture could only be counted as a first step.

In conclusion, the ideational and attitudinal distance between the default—that of war as the preferred problem-solving device—and Obama’s premise that war itself can be surmounted by replacing it’s premises with those conformable to direct communication—attests to just how much time and effort is needed in political (as distinct from technological) development. That is to say, political development in the realm of international relations is not apt to come about as easily as technological development has since the early twentieth-century. Moving humanity off war is clearly no easy feat, and Obama’s accomplishment may have to withstand several relapses before the American people have sufficiently shifted their mindset to treat Obama’s premises as the default.

[1] Sam Stein and Jessica Schulberg, “How a 2007 Debate Gaffe Paved the Way for a Deal that Will Define Obama’s Legacy,” The Huffington Post, July 14, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.