Shunning as Diplomacy?

In the New York Times Magazine, Noah Feldman asks the question that everyone asks.

What’s the point of not talking, especially when others are talking for us? If politics is the art of compromise, then surely conversation is one of its methods. Of course, some enemies — a Hitler or a Pol Pot — may be so repugnant that the mere prospect of reaching a compromise with them would violate our deepest moral principles. The only time it would be right to hear them out is when they are proposing to surrender. There are radical jihadists who see us in similar terms: they find us repellent and see little point in speaking unless it is to warn us of our downfall if we don’t submit to their demands. Given their principled unwillingness to compromise, there is little point in talking with them.

And yet even intractable interlocutors may be worth engaging. Perhaps the conversation serves as a strategy of subterfuge and delay, maintaining a holding pattern or cease-fire until the time is ripe to restart hostilities. Talking can also reveal information about an adversary’s leaders — their preconceptions, their blind spots, their fixed beliefs.

Ultimately, however, the most fruitful negotiations are based on a different premise: under certain conditions, the motives that drive people and regimes can be changed. Properly carried out, diplomacy creates new incentives that alter countries’ underlying interests — and thus their behavior. Over 50 years, a slow and painstakingly negotiated process of economic integration has taught Western Europe’s traditional enemies to look upon one another as allies, then friends and now almost as parts of one big country. If there is ever to be a meaningful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will involve something similar: putting both peoples in a position to gain more the closer they come together.