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What Does It Take to Stem and Transform Conflict?

Gurtov, Mel. 2018. Engaging Adversaries: Peacemaking and Diplomacy in the Human Interest. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Parsi, Trita. 2017. Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rhodes, Ben. 2018. The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. New York: Random House.

Mel Gurtov's handbook for peacemakers distills and sums up a lifetime of analyzing international relations. A sinologist retired from research at the RAND Corporation and decades of college teaching, Gurtov lays out the obstacles to conflict resolution and outlines the most promising avenues toward conflict management between the United States and adversary states--China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba. (Gurtov does not address relations between a status quo power and revisionist terrorists, drug lords, or criminal syndicates, which could be even more complicated than state-to-state conflicts.)

But can reason and empathy reduce violence in relations between states? Mephistopheles warned the Lord that the pathetic humans He created call it "reason but use it only to act more beastly than any beast." (1) Against this dark perspective, Gurtov makes the case that enlightened pursuit of mutual advantage can reduce interstate tensions and then transform confrontation into cooperation and mutual gain. How valid is his hope?

Cases of armed conflict and numbers of battle deaths have diminished since the end of World War II (Pinker 2018, 155-166). Still, there has been a cascade of violence across South Asia, the Middle East, and in other parts of the world (Braithwaite and D'Costa 2018). Implementing Gurtov's recommendations for engaging adversaries does not require saintly leaders or perfectly designed institutions. It does require farsighted, enlightened policies meant to enhance each actor's interests and human interest generally. Though far from being rocket science, peacemaking must start with common sense and an assumption that engagement can lead to win-win outcomes. Victories for such peacemaking require persistent struggle against hawks and other obstacles at home and across borders. Also, apparent wins may not last, as other leaders take power and the global context evolves.

Gurtov uses case studies to test his views on engagement: US relations with Iran, Cuba, China, Russia, and North Korea and then with two sets of actors "trapped by history"--China-Japan and Israel-Palestine. Gurtov begins with the Iran deal ("Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action") aiming to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state, signed in Vienna in July 2015. From this apparent success he extracts several lessons, including these:

* Avoid legalisms and seek solutions based on "mutually agreeable standards" that both sides can claim as a victory;

* Honor the other side's historical greatness and acknowledge past grievances;

* Clarify lines of authority; be sure to talk to the right people and present a united front;

* Understand the other side's interests;

* Respect the adversary; do not assume the other side is illogical or duplicitous.

Gurtov compares the use of carrots and sticks as several US presidents dealt with Iran and Cuba. The George W. Bush administration, pushed by his vice president ("We don't speak to Evil" Dick Cheney), rejected Iranian offers to dialogue and relied instead on sanctions and sabotage to weaken Iran's nuclear programs.

The Obama administration succeeded also in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015-2016. As with Iran, Obama saw that the previous hard line did not work for either side. Obama believed it better to engage adversaries than to try to isolate them. The president argued that transforming Cuba's political system would be easier with recognition than without, given that Cuba "is what it is."

Gurtov concludes that a government is usually better off trying to engage an adversary before deciding on sanctions or the use of force (p. 160). While sanctions did little to change the Castro regime or its policies, however, Gurtov acknowledges that removing sanctions on Iran was essential to the deal--though not at any price. Thus, Iran was able to save face because the deal permitted Iran to keep fuel rods at home and not ship them to Russia (pp. 41-42).

Beyond arms control or some other particular objective, the ultimate aim of engagement is to transform a relationship. Israel and Palestinians may never see eye to eye, but if each accepts the other's legitimacy and its interests, their relationship can be transformed. Ditto North Koreans and Americans, Chinese and Japanese, the United States and China. Transformation requires the two sides to see what they need from each other and look for ways to advance mutual gain.

Based on wide reading and deep reflection, Gurtov's book will be valuable to sophisticated policymakers as well as to college students and concerned citizens. His book could be a primer for all those concerned to reverse global trends toward narrow, "us-first" thinking. Gurtov's broad knowledge permits him to put recent events in historical perspective. His analyses are balanced, comprehensive, and up-to-date at the time of writing. Though Gurtov is an idealist, he is not a naive utopian--hence his goal of managing conflicts rather than resolving them. Though he looks for ways the United States could engage with North Korea and Russia, he is fully cognizant of the problems that result from dealing with two countries that are rated as "not-fTee" by Freedom House--with one regime that maintains an extensive gulag and another that has invaded its neighbors and absconded with some of their territory. Gurtov compares Hillary Clinton's advice to Barack Obama to not be too eager for a deal with Vladimir Putin with Clark Clifford's similar advice to Harry Truman with respect to Joseph Stalin. Gurtov's lessons are similar to the views of an American with vast experience in the Koreas, Stephen W. Linton, chairman of a medical charity, who contrasted the North's approach to negotiations with the "get to the bottom-line style" of many Americans: "From the North Korean perspective, human relations should never be made conditional on something else. Problems should be portrayed as annoying obstacles to what is most important: friendship between the highest levels of leadership." Unlike many Westerners, said Linton, Koreans do not see impersonal law as the framework for action but rather the personality behind the law. "Proof of interest at the highest level is paramount for giving the negotiating process legitimacy." (2)

From Linton's perspective, it made sense for President Donald Trump to meet DPRK (North Korea) leader Kim Jong Un at the summit in 2018. Both sides seemed to think their bonhomie exchange of views advanced their respective interests. In summer 2018, however, neither the denuclearization of Korea nor better US-DPRK relations is assured.

Two other authors, Trita Parsi and Ben Rhodes, detail the kinds of diplomacy favored by Gurtov in their reviews of US dealings with Iran and with Cuba. It was not easy to convert a vision into reality. Years of diplomacy, both behind the scenes and in a multilateral forum, led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). Both Parsi and Rhodes describe the ups and downs, twists and turns that led to the JCPA. A few of Parsi's chapter headings suggest the sometimes strange coalitions in this dynamic: "Obama and the Mossad Against Netanyahu," "The Arabs Who Brought Iran and the United States Together," "The Sheik of Diplomacy"--Hassan Rouhani, Iranian president since August 2013, gingerly supported by Ayatollah Khamenei against Iranian hard-liners. Both Parsi and Rhodes emphasize the often decisive importance of particular individuals who favor or are determined to kill an accord.

Rhodes, an aspiring novelist in his thirties, drafted many of Obama's major speeches and served in the West Wing as deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. Rhodes pondered how presidential candidate Obama could address chaos in Iraq while also calling for pursuit of Osama bin Laden, thought to be lodged in a corner of putative partner Pakistan. Later, he wrestled with how President Obama could shape the US presence in Afghanistan so as to minimize carping by hard-liners and by moderates in Congress. As for Iran, he pondered whether Obama should avoid or initiate direct contacts with its leaders about its nuclear programs. Drafting a speech meant taking a stand on deep issues to which there were no simple answers.

The difficulty of using reason to decide on and then promote policies opposed by right-wingers is illustrated by Rhodes's retelling of the Iran nuclear deal. "Right-wing ideology" is not broad enough to take in all the forces opposing the Iran accord. The opponents included Israeli prime minister "Bibi" Netanyahu, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American evangelical Christians for whom Israel could do no wrong, non-Jewish professional hawks such as John Bolton and Dick Cheney, reactionary media such as Breitbart, and American billionaires glad to spend lavishly to hurt anything backed by Democrats. As a group they had no shared ideology, and if "right-wing" meant "conservative," they did not deserve that label.

After the deal was signed in Vienna, Rhodes's team organized a team of influential individuals to persuade senators and representatives not to kill the deal. This modest but sufficient victory required not only the testimony of leading physicists, rabbis, and retired US and Israeli security officials but also polls showing that most American Jews supported the deal. Victory also got a key boost from a phone call by Rhodes to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, who could hear Rhodes's mother in the background saying in Yiddish that she would go to Schultz's district in Florida and give a piece of her mind to any of the meshugganahs who gave the congresswoman grief. But this was an ephemeral win. The anti-Iranian forces continued to fight and cheered when Obama's successor withdrew from the deal.

Like former ambassador Michael McFaul, whose From Cold War to Hot Peace was also published in 2018, Rhodes joined Obama as an idealist for peace and departed, at age thirty-nine, a battered veteran of Washington and global politics. McFaul went to Moscow hoping to "reset" US-Russian relations. Later, like George F. Kennan, he was declared persona non grata and not allowed to return. Rhodes, in contrast, could say that he contributed to tenuous achievements with Iran, Cuba, Burma, and other trouble spots.

After Donald Trump's election, Rhodes pondered Obama's question: "What if we were wrong?" The morning after Trump's win, Rhodes felt he should have seen it coming. "Because when you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we'd run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She's part of a corrupt establishment that can't be trusted to bring change. Change we can believe in... . Trump was a product of the same forces ... aligning against us for ten years." Trump saw facts as irrelevant. "A healthy majority of Republicans still did not believe that Obama was born in the United States. The Republicans had ridden this tiger, and we'd all ended up inside" (p. 403; emphasis in original). Having heard a full briefing from the intelligence agencies on the role played by Russia in the election, Rhodes observed that "our government was about to be led by the very people Putin had spent so much effort trying to put there" (p. 410).

Rhodes's ten years with Obama led him to "see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be." When Air Force One took private citizen Obama and his family to Florida in January 2017, Rhodes flew with them and then returned to Washington on the nearly empty plane, thinking about in-flight discussions they had conducted en route to hotspot challenges around the globe. He was exhausted and drained by long hours and intense deliberations since joining Obama's administration. (3) In February 2018 Rhodes cofounded the political action committee National Security Action with Jake Sullivan, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to Vice President Joe Biden. The organization sought to promote a progressive vision for foreign policy and national security solutions. Rhodes told the Washington Post, "We decided, essentially, this is an emergency moment and that there was a need to pull together the national security community on the progressive side to counter Trump's policies and put forward an alternative."

It is easier in some ways to make war than peace (Solomon 2005). The case studies by Parsi, Rhodes, and McFaul demonstrate that even the wisest and doable theories about peace-building are difficult to implement and maintain. President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the nuclear deal and has weakened US ties with Cuba. He continues to kowtow to Vladimir Putin, possibly out of some personal obligation--not from any international relations perspective on engagement.

Having served for years as editor of this journal, Mel Gurtov continues to serve as its senior editor. Though we have never met face-to-face, Mel and I have critiqued each other's works for years, and I have observed the evolution of his creativity, craftsmanship, and scholarship. Anyone who reads his blog, In the Human Interest at, will lament that his voice in Oregon seems to have little resonance in today's White House. Readers of Asian Perspective will also appreciate how Gurtov and the other editors and staff have built this journal into a major force in Asian and international studies.


Walter Clemens is associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and professor emeritus of political science, Boston University. He may be reached at

(1.) "Er nennt's Vernunft und braucht's alein nur um tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein." Goethe, Faust, I, 285-286.

(2.) Linton lecture at Columbia University, April 6, 1995, quoted and analyzed by Clemens (2016, 185).

(3.) Rhodes's book has no footnotes or list of references but seems to have no factual errors. The book has a very detailed and user-friendly index.


Braithwaite, John, and Bina D'Costa. 2018. Cascades of Violence: War, Crime and Peacebuilding Across South Asia. Acton: Australian National University Press.

Clemens, Walter C., Jr. 2016. North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

McFaul, Michael. 2018. From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Pinker, Stephen. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking.

Solomon, Norman. 2005. War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
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Author:Clemens, Walter C., Jr.
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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