The Hill: Biden should look to ‘Ostpolitik’ to negotiate with autocrats

April 5, 2021

by: Kenneth Dekleva

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President Biden faces the challenge of crafting his own national security strategy to deal with adversaries such as Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While knowledge of such leaders’ negotiating strategy, leadership psychology and intentions is critical, it may not be enough. Biden’s national security team and other leaders of allied nations may find it helpful to borrow a page from Pope Francis’s playbook, by examining his recent negotiations in Iraq and what might be learned from the Holy See’s history of Ostpolitik during the Cold War.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the late Vatican Cardinal Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli made many trips behind the Iron Curtain — including some that were covert — to work out sensitive agreements between the Holy See and various communist regimes to protect the rights of the Roman Catholic Church and Catholics in Eastern Europe. The Holy See’s agile, quiet diplomacy and Ostpolitik paved the way for the Vatican’s later diplomacy — utilizing the late American Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters as a confidential “go-between” and ambassador at large — between President Reagan’s administration and the Holy See. This provided a powerful moral, diplomatic and strategic counterpoint to the USSR and the evils and human rights violations of communism.  

Importantly, it also holds lessons of value in today’s diplomatic challenges, where America and its allies seek to confront powerful, formidable, authoritarian and anti-Western regimes such as Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, Kim’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Khamenei’s Islamic Republic of Iran. While there are many who would proclaim that such “evil” leaders cannot be negotiated with, and instead should be shunned and isolated, both the pope’s and Reagan’s approaches suggest otherwise. 

Negotiation with such adversaries requires strategy, as well as moral and political courage — and it’s ultimately very transactional, requiring both acceptance of risk and “skin in the game.” In this case, former President Trump was bold and perceptive, as when he met with Kim in Singapore and Hanoi during 2018 and 2019, and when he stepped across the Koreas’ demilitarized zone in 2019.

Pope Francis’s recent trip to Iraq was powerfully symbolic but also politically astute and revealing of his personal diplomatic style. He took a real risk, traveling to a war-torn, violent nation, still rift with sectarian and political violence. In meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pope showed respect, humility, cultural sensitivity and courage by going to the ayatollah’s home, where they drank tea, held hands and discussed issues of peace in Iraq and the Middle East. 

As Pope Francis has shown us, negotiation is ultimately about empathy — understanding an adversary’s humanity and point of view, even when it is very different from one’s own.

It is critical and pre-emptive for President Biden to focus on America’s huge domestic challenges, especially the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy, where he has had initial success with respect to vaccinations and his administration’s coronavirus relief plan. While requiring Biden’s leadership, many such policies can be delegated to the White House, Cabinet and various federal, state and local agencies. Cooperation, compromise and steadfastness may suffice. And in foreign affairs and national security, it is surely tempting for Biden to proceed with caution and await the development of novel policy strategies, rebuilding of alliances and adoption of multilateral diplomatic approaches.

But given his government experience, Biden knows that negotiations with adversaries such as Xi, Putin, Kim and Khamenei cannot be delegated or carried out virtually from the White House.  They require his personal presence, experience and gravitas. Avoiding such negotiations, for whatever reason, carries political risk and a potential for loss of face and respect. Yet the same logic applies to a potential diplomatic stumble (during such negotiations) on the part of Biden, and our adversaries are acutely aware of such sensitivities and perceived weaknesses. 

In these complex times, the president nevertheless might attempt to emulate the physical and moral courage of Reagan and Pope Francis and borrow from their diplomatic playbooks. At his age, Biden has little to lose. But America, and the free world, have much to gain.

Kenneth Dekleva is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.