Category: NELC

The Politics of Engagement

Stuart Thorson proposes scientific exchange as a practical way to avoid “demonization.”

Stuart Thorson proposes scientific exchange as a practical way to avoid “demonization.”

Last spring, several experts on Asian countries came together at IU to talk about “Engaging Enemies.”   The issue on the table was how to keep countries out of conflict now and in the future, and the test cases were North Korea, Iran, and Burma.

The word of the day was engagement.  Mel Gurtov laid the foundation of the discussion. Paraphrasing his definition:

Engagement is

  • reaching out
  • establishing cooperation and reciprocity
  • exercising persistence, patience, and ingenuity
  • maintaining credibility flexibility, and a tough skin
  • reducing tensions
  • resetting relationships
  • finding common ground
  • inculcating habit of dialog and mutual respect
  • achieving incremental agreements
  • creating honorable path to peaceable relations

Engagement is not

  • selling out national interests
  • tolerating genocide or other heinous crimes
  • exercising coercive diplomacy
  • postponing the inevitable
  • performing an act of charity

The positive aspects of engagement so apparently outweigh the negatives that it is hard to imagine that countries have not pursued it.  Miroslav Nincic explained some of the reasons why.  Most have to do with resistance of citizens to reaching out to an enemy.  US politics honors a “tough line” and “retributive justice.”  Efforts to engage are seen as “appeasement.” The popular perception is that “conciliatory gestures encourage bad behavior by rewarding offenders.”  Strategic matters related to unequal power relations and political instability can also disarm positive engagement.

The experts generally agreed that “sticks” have not worked.  Sanctions and coercive policies have not made North Korea or Iran back down from their determination to develop nuclear arms.  In place of sticks, Nincic proposes “catalytic carrots.”  Efforts to engage adversaries might be more successful if the objective were not to see a regime overthrown, but to see it alter its “more objectionable policies.”

Walter Clemens echoed this perspective.  He focuses on the hubris of both the U.S. and North Korea.  The politics of “tit-for-tat” and “an eye for an eye” have dominated.  “Arrogance and disdain” have nullified any hope of positive engagement.   He would like to see an abandonment of hubris for GRIT—“graduated reciprocity in tension-reduction”—which involves each side making a “limited series of unilateral concessions.”  But who will make the first step?  Will the initial gesture be trusted or gestures at any stage be betrayed?  Domestic hostility to concessions and bureaucratic inertia may make any GRIT momentum hard to sustain.

As difficult a problem as this may seem, there was some agreement on a solution.  Interactions should be driven less by the abstract—policies and principles—and more by the concrete.  “Getting to Know You” was the theme proposed by Andrei Lankov.  He proposes academic exchanges as a starting point and offered the example of two Russian individuals who came to the U.S. to study and then returned to the USSR to become spies or propagandists.  The suspicion that a country would use exchanges for nefarious purposes was thus affirmed until the beginning of perestroika—when both these individuals contributed to the collapse of the Soviet regime.  Exposure to a different world will promote change in the long run by building up internal pressures for reform and by preparing leaders to deal with a different future.

Stuart Thorson offered an example of successful exchange with North Korea in the area of scientific research.  Science abhors politics (even if it is involved politically), and the ever more global environment requires the relatively transparent movement of data over digital networks among scientific collaborators around the world.  His personal example was the successful collaboration and exchange between Syracuse University and the North Korea State Academy of Sciences.

Other experts echoed this focus on the concrete—people to people rather than policy to policy.  The U.S. needs to assert policies and principles less and to learn more about its enemies.  Humanitarian assistance, such as food aid, should be given for humanitarian, not political, reasons, Karin Lee asserted.  In Iran, the “Obama administration’s sanctions-only policy is both failing to achieve its objective on the nuclear front and adding to the regime’s repression,” said Trita Parsi.  Kun a. Namkung proposed that the U.S. needs to know more about Korean history—to understand that it might make more sense to see a West and East Korea than to see and North and South Korea, for example.  And while the U.S. may see changes in Myanmar as very positive, an understanding of the internal culture would prevent us from being surprised by setbacks there, observed Nicholas Farrelly.

The workshop was sponsored by the East Asia Foundation with assistance from several IU units, including the ANU-IU Pan Asia Institute, and the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs.  The proceedings have just been published in Global Asia: A Journal of the East Asia Foundation (Summer 2013).

 Mel Gurtov,  professor emeritus of political science, Portland State University;   editor in chief, Asian Perspective.
Miroslav Nincic, professor of political science, University of California-Davis.
Walter Clemens, professor of political science, Boston University.
Andrei Lankov, professor of history, Kookmin University, Seoul; adjunct research fellow, Australian National University.
Stuart Thorson, professor of political science and international relations, Syracuse University.
Karin Lee,  executive director of the National Committee on North Korea.
Kim A. Namkung, scholar and consultant on Asian affairs.
Trita Parsi, president, National Iranian American Council.
Nicholas Farrelly, research fellow of international, political and strategic studies, Australian National University.
Kate Gould, lead lobbyist for Middle East policy, Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Mark Valencia, maritime policy analyst and consultant on Asia issues.
Keith Luse, former East Asia foreign policy advisor to Senator Richard Lugar.
Gil Latz, associate vice president of IU International Affairs.
There is much we still need to learn about Korean culture, said Kun A. Namkung.

There is much we still need to learn about Korean culture, said Kun A. Namkung.

Gil Latz said that universities won’t be able to bring North Korea into their productive research until they escape the stereotypes associated with Communism.

Gil Latz said that universities won’t be able to bring North Korea into their productive research until they escape the stereotypes associated with Communism.

Andrei Lankov proposed social exchanges as an effective way for enemies to get to know each other.

Andrei Lankov proposed social exchanges as an effective way for enemies to get to know each other.

Keith Luse recognized the importance of domestic buy-in. “Congress has to be a partner” in any effort to engage.

Keith Luse recognized the importance of domestic buy-in. “Congress has to be a partner” in any effort to engage.

Seeing America through Foreign Eyes after 9/11

          The tenth anniversary of the worst foreign attacks on U. S. soil have prompted a period of intense reflection.  Workshops, performances, memorial services, reminiscences—all have tried to articulate what the events of 9/11 meant and how the country and its peoples have changed as a result.  Indeed, the IUB College of Arts and Sciences has set issues of war and peace as a theme for events during the entire fall semester.  As part of that extended program, international experts from Indiana University gathered in the Georgian Room at the IMU on Monday, September 12. The first half of the three-hour session, moderated by Maria Bucur (history) , was dedicated to political ramifications of the 9/11 events, the second, moderated by Bob Ivie (Communication and Culture), to their cultural implications. There were few confident answers and no sense that we are ready to put these issues behind us.

           The political experts provided few answers.  Rather they struggled with finding the right questions.

Patrick O'Meara (Political Science; African Studies)

Patrick O’Meara spoke of the “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” (the same individuals depending on one’s point of view) that brought significant and largely successful change to South Africa, and noted the differences between those efforts and 9/11.    His question:  Are we in a new dimension, a different form, of terrorism, one with no possible meeting point? 

Nick Cullather (History)

Nick Cullather asked, Why do we care what others think of the U.S.?  He traced the history of America’s interest in the world’s opinion, which began optimistically with Woodrow Wilson embracing it as moral conscience to guide foreign policy, and quickly declined as experts came to see it as a fickle master, and then sank even further as government officials saw it as a force to be surreptitiously manipulated. 

Micol Seigel (African American and African Diaspora Studies; American Studies; Latin American and Caribbean Studies

Micol Seigel brought her expertise of Latin America to the table and counted up the dead in Mexican drug wars–numbers more than ten times those who died in the 9/11 attacks, and many killed in unspeakably horrible ways.  Her question:  Why are some deaths more visible than others?

Padraid Kenney (History; Russian and East European Institute)

Padraic Kenney’s question came from an encounter in Budapest in 2003.  He was there when the U.S. declared war on Iraq, and he expected his Hungarian university colleagues to protest America’s aggression, but they didn’t.  His question:  Why was there sympathy in Central Europe for the U.S. attacking Iraq? Kenney’s answer:  At the time (and possibly no longer), there was still a sense that there is such a thing as moral foreign policy, and Central Europe understood well the corrosive power of dictatorship.

The cultural experts spoke more personally, remembering their immediate reactions in September 2001, but they too provided no resolution, and their presentations became a litany of unrealized hopes and dreams.

Gardner Bovingdon (Central Eurasian Studies)

Gardiner Bovington’s area of expertise is the nation of Uyghurs in Western China.  His colleagues there hoped they would find sympathy and support in the multi-ethnic U.S. for a China whose constitution guarantees equal rights to all its ethnic groups. Since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy, sensitive to the importance of trade, has not responded to that hope.  Bovington saw the possibility of two positive U.S. responses to the events of 9/11:  (1) that Americans would show a greater desire to understand others, and (2) that the U.S. might gain a better perspective on its behavior in the world.  Neither has been achieved.

Jeff Isaac (Political Science)

Jeff Isaac did not cancel his class on Civility in American Democracy on 9/11/2001, but rather prepared a lecture that he was asked to deliver again later on.  But, he said, “The things I was hoping for did not come to pass.”  Instead, he sees a war on terrorism that accomplished none of the things that we needed to address.  “Is there the possibility that things can be better now?”  Now he offers no answer and does not speak in public about the issues of war and peace in the Middle East.

Kevin Jaques (Religious Studies; Islamic Studies)

Kevin Jaques also taught his class that day.  He had expected in teaching the history of Islam that only in the last two weeks would he speak about living persons, but the class was full on the first meeting of the second week of term, and students were asking for answers, “Why would Islam support doing something like this?”  That the question was posed wrong—that Islam is so broad and varied that no one can speak for Islam as a whole—became the theme of the rest of the semester.  And Jaques worries that what America has done and not done since 9/11 has achieved only its’ own inability to have an impact in the Muslim world. 

Hilary Kahn (Center for the Study of Global Change; Latin American and Caribbean Studies)

Hilary Kahn is an expert in aspects of Guatemalan culture, and has spent much time in Jamaica.  She spoke of the intractable ambivalence Latin America feels towards the U.S.  The U.S. is blamed for all the evils visited upon Latin America—everything from short skirts, to drugs, to AIDS.  But at the same time, Latin America held out hope that the U.S. would be a force for local good.  However, since 9/11, their perception is that the U.S. has abandoned the needs of its own hemisphere.

Nazif Shahrani (Near Eastern Languages and Cultures; Anthropology)

As an Afghan and a Muslim, Nazif Sharani, declares he himself sees the U.S. through “foreign” eyes.  What he sees since 9/11 is that the U.S. has written the wrong stories.  At one time, the U.S. had built enormous trust in the Middle East; that trust has gradually winnowed away.  The “dastardly acts” of 9/11 were meant to signal the loss, to bring into the foreground the political grievances that the Middle East had towards the U.S.  But the U.S. wrote a different story, a clash of civilizations.  “They hate us because of our freedom.”  The U.S. story didn’t resolve into a search for peace, but in a declaration of the need for better security.  Military victory was the end of that story, not cultural engagement.

IU Chair Wins Turkish Award for Strategic Vision

Nazif M. Shahrani, chair of IU’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and professor of anthroplogy, was honored by TASAM, the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies, with its Strategic Vision Award for a Scientist.  Other recipients of TASAM 2010 awards included Vladimir Putin, prime minister of Russia,  and Luiz Inacia Lula Da Silva, former president of Brazil.  TASAM has made these awards for five years to statesmen, bureaucrats, scientists, public institutions, businessmen, artists, and journalists.  Dr. Shahrani traveled to Istanbul in December to receive the award.   He commented to the assembly: 

Anthropologists are not known for their strategic vision as such but since you have honored me for it, I must work hard from now on to have/find strategic vision. 


Nazif M. Shahrani, chair of IU's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures

Nazif M. Shahrani, chair of IU's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures