Beyond a handshake: making peace with enemies

By Lee Hamilton
Mar 23 2009

 In December 2003, the Bush administration was in the middle of a heated policy debate about North Korea. Under discussion was a Chinese-proposed joint statement to jump-start the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. At one point, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly declared: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it."


In contrast to Cheney's views were those of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin knew war better than most, having fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and served as the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War.

On a historic day in September 1993, Rabin was at the White House to sign the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles with his longtime foe Yassir Arafat. Prior to the ceremony President Bill Clinton asked Rabin to shake Arafat's hand in public, and Rabin reluctantly acceded. "I suppose one does not make peace with one's friends," he told Clinton.

Rabin's insight was both simple and profound. It seems obvious that conflict, not accord, is a prerequisite for peacemaking and diplomacy. If parties are already in agreement, what is left to discuss?

Clearly, resolutions to all the world's conflicts are not a handshake away. Diplomacy takes time, requires the consideration of all parties' interests, promises frustration and disappointment, and does not guarantee success. It requires presenting incentives and disincentives to alter behavior in accordance with our interests. Discerning what those incentives might be requires direct engagement. Not talking is a near-guarantee that problems will fester, and that we will miss opportunities for progress.

Denouncing countries and refusing to talk to them may make us feel better in the short run, but it makes little sense in the long run. Calls to defeat evil may sound inspiring, but diplomacy is more pragmatic.

In 2002 President Bush identified an Axis of Evil: North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Yet in 2001-2002, we were already negotiating with Iran over stabilizing postwar Afghanistan. Throughout Bush's second term, we negotiated directly with North Korea over its nuclear program. In 2007-2008, the United States partnered with Sunni insurgents in Iraq — the Awakening Movement, which no doubt included individuals with American blood on their hands — to halt Iraq's spiral into civil war.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)