Rice: Diplomacy Not About Making Deals

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gives her view of diplomatic history.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gives her view of diplomatic history. (By Gustavo Ferrari -- Associated Press)
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a tour of the Middle East, met yesterday in Kuwait City with reporters traveling with her for an extended discussion. During the session, one reporter noted that Rice, a Russian specialist, frequently says she is a "student of history" and often cites examples and analogies from the Cold War. He asked if there were any moments in Arab history, as opposed to European history, that informed her thinking, such as Britain's occupation of Mesopotamia, Britain's experience in Egypt or France's experience in Algeria. The question spurred Rice to give a six-minute philosophical lecture on her view of diplomatic history. Diplomacy, she said, "is not dealmaking." Following are excerpts from her comments.

-- Glenn Kessler

I've read the British experience and I know a number of things that went right and I know things that went wrong. I also know that one of the challenges is the particular way this map [of Iraq] was drawn. . . . You have to recognize that a country drawn on the religious fault lines of the Middle East is going to have a complicated way of moving forward to be able to overcome those fault lines. The way that they've been overcome in the past was either through repression if they were the majority if they were in Iraq, or in some cases even worse, expulsion or whatever.

It's not easy to have those differences overcome through a political process. . . . There have been people who have taken great chances and great risks -- you know, the names [former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin or [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat or whatever -- and it reminds you that sometimes coming out of very bad crises there's an opportunity for leadership on the part of individuals in those positions to do something very major. So sure, I look at the history of this region all the time.

But I want to be clear. I'm not using history to make analogues between any historical period and now because I actually think that history doesn't repeat itself. I think that conditions change so fundamentally that you're rarely looking at the same circumstances and you're certainly not looking at the same circumstances when you look at Europe and you look at the Middle East or Asia.

But there's a tendency to look at where you are now and say, "Oh my goodness, there are all these problems, we'll never get out of them, this is so difficult, it must be failing, it must be failing."

And the reason that I cite some of these other times like Europe is that it is so clear in everybody's mind that the United States and its allies came out victorious at the end of the Cold War. . . . But if you actually go back and look at the events that ultimately led to that, you would have thought that this was failing every single day between 1945-1946 and probably 1987 or 1988.

There's a tendency to think about diplomacy as something that is done untethered to the conditions underlying it or the balance underlying it. And in fact, that's not the way that it works. You aren't going to be successful as a diplomat if you don't understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating. It is not dealmaking. It's not. There are a set of underlying relationships, underlying balance of power, leverage on different sides, and you have to recognize when you are in a position to then on top of that find a solution given the underlying balance. . . .

My favorite case of this is if you had tried to negotiate German unification for any period of time until 1990, you would have not been able to do it because the underlying circumstances were not there. I was part of the team that worked on German unification. You know, I feel terrific that we were able to do it, but let's not overestimate that it was somehow just that we did the diplomacy well. . . .

That's why I think reading the Middle East right now, I tend to place a lot of emphasis on the fact that people see their interests differently now than they did five years ago or 10 years ago. They see their interests less as continuing or having maximalist positions about this conflict and are more concerned about the kind of broad strategic picture. I think Lebanon was a major contributor to that shift in alignment; and with that shift in alignment, I think you now have a chance to perhaps make progress on this issue in ways that you didn't before.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company