Robert Dallek: Diplomacy isn't what we see

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Robert Dallek is a presidential historian who served as an adviser to the documentary WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, which premieres on PBS on May 6.]

In the opening days of his presidency, Barack Obama has reached out to the Russian and Iranian governments to signal that his administration represents a new day in U.S. diplomacy — one in which America is more sensitive to the other country's concerns. This sort of openness is not entirely new in the history of U.S. foreign relations. It dates at least from Woodrow Wilson, who preached "open covenants openly arrived at."

It harks back even more directly to Franklin Roosevelt. FDR instituted the Good Neighbor Policy for Latin America as a step toward openness and better relations with the southern republics. And, during World War II, FDR encouraged other nations, especially the Soviet Union, to believe that America was intent not on promoting its selfish economic and political interests but collective security and self-determination for all nations.

On the face of things, it seems President Obama is eager to re-establish trust in America's benign approach to the world. His message at the London summit of the Group of 20 major global economies and in his speeches on the continent, in Iraq and Turkey, and at last weekend's Summit of the Americas seems like a throwback to the sort of idealism FDR offered during his 12 years in office.

But Obama will want to remember that Roosevelt's diplomacy was not as straightforward or as benevolent as he represented it to be. Indeed, what a new documentary, WWII Behind Closed Doors, demonstrates so clearly is that Roosevelt was as much a realistic politician abroad as he was at home, where he knit together a coalition of political forces that elected him to the White House an unprecedented four times.

National interest

Like his distant cousin Theodore, who walked softly but carried a big stick, FDR was a real politician who acted on the understanding that nations operate not by altruistic designs but by self-serving ones.

There is no better example of Roosevelt's shrewd manipulations than his agreement with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on how to limit control of the atom bomb they were developing. In wartime conversations, Roosevelt and Churchill pledged not just cooperation in building the "winning weapon," as some understood it to be, but also to hold back the secret of the bomb from Joseph Stalin and the Soviets as a guard against post-war differences that could make them adversaries rather than allies.

Are there any lessons here for the current Obama administration?

More than one: It is fine to invite unfriendly governments to talk about past and existing tensions that threaten to erupt in hostile actions. It is also useful to speak openly about reducing arms and reining in hopes of converting other nations into Jeffersonian democracies. If suspicious governments distrustful of America's motives hear a more friendly, less hectoring voice in Washington, it is bound to calm some of their fears.

But what Obama, like FDR, seems to understand is that good intentions and soothing rhetoric might not be enough to reduce tensions and acts of violence aimed at the United States and its allies. When the president shuns talk of turning Afghanistan and Pakistan into models of representative government free of terrorists or potential terrorists plotting violence against Americans, he is saying to the world, I — we — are not naive. We are eager for better relations with you and even friendship, if you will take our open hand, but if not, we are prepared to meet your ill will with harsh measures that will reduce you to impotence.

Surely, it is not hard to imagine that Obama's dispatch of additional troops to Afghanistan; continuing stealth attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan; reliance on seasoned, hard-headed diplomats such as Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross to speak privately and, one assumes, forcefully to Pakistani, Afghani and Iranian officials; and harsh reprimand of North Korea for its missile firing are evidence of a tough-minded president laying down the law to unyielding enemies.

Understanding, of course, that we live in vastly different times under immeasurably different circumstances, Obama could have done worse than recall FDR's international public face and well disguised private one.

As the president is showing, a warm, reasoned approach to friends and foes is a good way to improve our standing abroad. But, as his statements and more muted actions on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and North Korea also show, he is, like FDR, a sensible realist who understands that creating greater security without TR's stick is beyond even the greatest president's reach.

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