In Defence of Diplomacy: A Case for Dialogue

Amidst the reeling shock of Tuesday’s night’s election result, the ‘Trump Doctrine’ is a looming concern for pundits and media alike. Regardless of whether or not he chooses to pursue his more ambitious proposals, Trump’s global ambitions seem certain to herald considerable change. It remains to be seen whether he will ‘rip up’ the Iran Deal, ‘bomb the sh*t out of ISIS’, slap a huge tariff on imports from China, recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cosy up to Putin, among others. Consistently however, the 45th President has premised his foreign policy position (and campaign more broadly) on the need to “Make America Great Again”. The popular charge, that the United States’ foreign policy reflects decay and weakness, propelled by Trump, has captured the breadth of America’s political compass. Whilst the President-Elect perceives this as symptomatic of bad leadership, for a scholar like Ian Bremmer, Chairman of Eurasia Group (no friend of Trump), an ‘incoherent’ foreign policy doctrine following the end of the Cold War is the culprit.[1]

This article however, seeks to reframe the debate entirely. In the run-up to the 8th of November, a persistent failure to acknowledge the changing nature of international order, which warrants an entirely different benchmark for the success of foreign policy today, has plagued the discourse. It shall thus be argued that the major strategic-diplomatic breakthroughs achieved in President Obama’s second term, particularly with Iran, but also Cuba and Myanmar, have been a resounding success when measured against the changing nature of global power today. These hard-fought gains are, without doubt, under considerable threat.

The Changing Norms of the International Sphere: A Survey

Writing in 1994, Dr. Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, noted in his seminal Diplomacy, that ‘power has become more diffuse’.[2] Indeed, over twenty years later, President-Elect Trump faces a changing world. With China and India’s rapid growth rates, a revanchist Russia spreading its influence over Crimea and the Levant, and a divided Europe, power seems to have diffused even further. Whilst it may be premature to declare the onset of a multi-polar world, there is ample evidence of growing regionalization and a changing international order. With sluggish economic growth in the Western Hemisphere oft contrasted with rapid growth and advancement in Asia, the question of rising regional influence by China and others is pressing. China’s achievement in reaching regional and even global consensus independently from Washington through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank illustrates these changing dynamics in action. As a separate piece recently published by King’s Think Tank focusses in depth on the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise, we propose instead to focus on a more pressing and polarizing election issue. Namely the Iranian Nuclear Deal, which Trump has threatened to scrap on day one.

Tehran, Havana and Naypyidaw

The achievement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran,[3] alongside the Cuba Thaw and lifting of sanctions on Myanmar, certainly demonstrates a strong willingness towards constructive dialogue and diplomacy. Let us begin with the Iranian case. Whilst the JCPOA offers limited sanctions relief in exchange for compliance with restrictions and monitoring, its significance represents more than a one-time agreement. That Iran represents a country with a growth rate projected to swiftly increase,[4] with a relatively youthful and large population of over 80 million,[5] [6] certainly implies it is one with great economic potential. This, combined with the fact that the country is a significant regional actor, with interests across the Levant and the Gulf, means that the deal was struck by no mere minor player. By seizing the opportunity presented by the election of the reformist-minded Rouhani, and crafting a compromise agreement that steadily ushers Iran back into the international order, the Obama Administration has sought to bring a slowly Rising Power back into its rules based international framework, after years of isolation. This is the typically ignored facet of the agreement with Iran, and the international agreements shelled out by the United States as a whole. Left isolated, the Islamic Republic is arguably more likely to pursue regionally destabilizing policies, or continue its support for terrorist groups unabated, as it remains outside the sphere of international norms. Whilst opponents presume that consistently punishing a growing country like Iran with sanctions alone will eventually force it into submission, Iran has continued its support for said policies in spite of the various sanctions regimes placed on it. Moreover, this neglects the long-run growth potential of such a country, which certainly may not succumb so easily to the coercive force of sanctions in the future, as recent Russian Foreign Policy has demonstrated.

The ‘Cuba Thaw’ and the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar likewise suggest a consistency in the Administration’s policy of constructive dialogue. Cuba, which looks set for a leadership transition in 2018, and Myanmar, which seems poised for greater openness amidst high-level growth,[7] are themselves facing times of great change. Whilst human rights concerns are often cited as reasons to refrain from any form of engagement, the United States’ largest trading partner is China,[8] oft-criticized for its own human rights record. The argument therefore, that human rights concerns justify a continuing trade embargo or sanctions seems hypocritical, from a national standpoint, if inconsistently applied. Instead, this punishes ordinary citizens by preventing access to vital goods, which in the case of Cuba, is a stance which the entire world recently reaffirmed its condemnation of. Taken together, and the three reflect a policy-strategy that seeks to build cooperative relations, that includes these states into the mainstream global economic and political order.

The Future

Nonetheless, we must grapple with the impending change in Administration, which appears poised to undo at least the Iranian process. See Fig.1.


(Fig 1.)

As of 2017, it would appear that the Trump pathway, triggering Iranian refusals to proceed further seems the most imminent. Following this course, and it is likely that the opponents of the deal will react to Iran’s refusal to proceed further as underlying evidence that Iran was acting in bad faith all along. Thus, an easy political shot for blaming the Obama Administration’s bad diplomacy. Nonetheless, the possibility that Europe, and probability that Russia and China will indeed perceive this as the US not ‘playing by the rules’ is ever present.[9] Hence it is entirely possible for the deal to remain in force through active Iranian cooperation with the other parties involved in negotiations, and as a result, the United States would be the one perceived as acting in bad faith.

Though some of these factors indeed occur independently today (for instance, support for the various Shi’i factions), it is important to stress how, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has met its JCPOA commitments.[10] As a recent Chatham House discussion in fact highlighted, fear of penalties from the Department of Justice have put several major companies off doing business with Iran. Uncertainty surrounding the deal at present therefore, emanates mainly from the US side, and refusal to proceed further will undoubtedly shatter the trust that is steadily building on both sides.[11] Though the fruits of such an agreement would take time to appear, we must be cautious to distinguish the source of any deal collapse, and whether this be down to regional, or American intransigence. At present, the latter appears most viable, and the fruits look poised to spoil.


The Administration’s strategy is thus significant, insofar as it reflects a tacit acknowledgement that power is diffusing, and that America’s relative position will inevitably diminish alongside this. Through crafting far-reaching, and inclusive agreements, thereby encouraging partnership within a rules-based framework, the policy has reflected a long-term recognition of changing global order, and an effort to preserve and develop absolute political and economic influence. These achievements risk being jeopardized by a short-sighted policy position, that fails to acknowledge changing global order.

Whilst it is not necessarily the case that said diplomatic approach will work in every case (nor should it in instances of blatant and aggressive disregard for international order and standards) this post does not seek to advocate for a universal approach. Rather, it calls for a form of diplomatic entrepreneurialism – a combined approach seeking opportunities of dynamic change, and new leadership, and exploiting the chance to work with those who are more open to constructive dialogue, as the Obama Administration has done. Indeed, we have yet to see whether Trump is ‘All Talk, No Action’ or as ambitious as he claims. From his claims however, the next Administration appears poised to pursue an ill-defined slew of befriending revanchists and neglecting rising powers, as per proposals to immediately scupper the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and a huge tariff on imports from China. Whilst dialogue occasionally requires a simultaneous show of strength and commitment as practiced with the deployment of the stuxnet virus and sanctions against Iran’s nuclear capabilities, dialogue fundamentally provides a forum to increase mutual understanding and empathy, enabling states to refrain from the economic and all too human costs of war.

 Rohan Khanna is editor of the Defence and Diplomacy Policy Centre.


[1] Ian Bremmer, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (New York: Penguin, 2015)

[2] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)

[3] “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” European External Action Service. July 2015. Accessed July 2015. Available:

[4] “Iran’s Economic Outlook- Spring 2016.” World Bank. Spring 2016. Accessed October 30, 2016.

[5] The median age in Iran is 29.4 years. Half of Iran’s population is below this age. By way of comparison, the   United Kingdom’s is 40.5, and the United States’ is 37.9. See “CIA World Factbook.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed October 2016.

[6] “CIA World Factbook – Iran” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed October 2016.

[7] “Myanmar: Economy.” Asian Development Bank. September 2016. Accessed October 2016.

[8] “Top Trading Partners – August 2016.” United States Census Bureau. August 2016. Accessed October 2016.

[9] Cornelius Adebahr. “What Would Happen If the U.S. Congress Killed the Iran Deal?” Carnegie Europe. August 6, 2015. Accessed October 2016.

[10] “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015).” International Atomic Energy Agency. September 8, 2016. Accessed October 2016. Available:

[11] Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Sina Toossi. “U.S. Torpedoing the Nuclear Deal Will Reaffirm Iran’s Distrust.” The Huffington Post. April 29, 2016. Accessed November 2016.

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