The Biden administration seems intent on maintaining an especially counterproductive practice in U.S. foreign policy. For decades, US officials have insisted in making utterly unrealistic demands on other governments in its diplomatic interactions. In such cases, Washington doesn’t really engage in diplomacy at all; instead, it tries to force adversaries to capitulate and tamely accept the resulting humiliation. Not surprisingly, that strategy has not worked very well. Most foreign ruling elites spurn the outsized US demands, even if they then risk defeat in war for such recalcitrance.
Capitulation diplomacy has been most evident involving Washington’s dealings with Russia and North Korea. The Biden administration has just imposed new sanctions against Russia for a variety of alleged sins, including how Vladimir Putin’s government is treating opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his followers. Some aspects of Washington’s policies are extremely murky. It is not at all clear what corrective steps Putin could take with respect to Navalny or Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections that would satisfy Washington’s complaints and get the sanctions lifted.
One US demand is crystal clear, though. Biden has reiterated the insistence of the Obama and Trump administrations that Russia reverse its 2014 annexation of Crimea and return the peninsula to Ukraine. The president’s statement could scarcely have been more blunt and uncompromising: "The United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula."
That demand is a classic diplomatic nonstarter, and it torpedoes any prospects for a cordial, much less a truly cooperative, relationship between the United States and Russia. After the Obama administration’s egregious meddling in Ukraine’s internal political affairs to help demonstrators overthrow President Viktor Yanukovych’s elected, pro-Russia government in 2014, the Kremlin struck back by annexing Crimea. Russian leaders feared that Ukraine was about to become NATO’s forward outpost, greatly impinging on Russia’s core security interests. In particular, Putin and his colleagues were determined to protect the country’s crucial naval base at Sevastopol, rather than risk having that installation become a NATO base at some point.
In addition to such security considerations, Crimea was a sore point historically for many Russians. The peninsula was part of Russia from 1782 until Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred jurisdiction to Ukraine. Since both Russia and Ukraine were merely components of the Soviet Union, the change did not seem terribly significant at the time. But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the principal successor state, Russia, now found its most important military base on the soil of a foreign country. That outcome was inherently annoying and worrisome, but the U.S.-assisted regime change in Kiev brought Russian discontent to a head.
The bottom line is that Russia in all likelihood will never relinquish Crimea. Such a concession is at least as improbable as the notion that Turkey someday will return occupied northern Cyprus to the Greek Cypriot republic or that Israel will return the Golan Heights to Syria. Making such utterly unrealistic demands is pointless, and persisting in them raises serious questions about the competence of the leaders doing so. Russia will not capitulate to the United States regarding Crimea.
Another long-standing example of Washington’s capitulation diplomacy is policy regarding North Korea. A succession of US presidents, beginning with George H.W. Bush, has pursued a consistent – and futile – policy toward Pyongyang. The foundation of that approach has been to insist that North Korea commit to a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to its nuclear-weapons program before negotiations on other matters can take place. To increase pressure for that objective, the United States has pushed efforts to isolate the country internationally and steadily escalate economic sanctions until Washington’s demand is met. US leaders have persisted in that futile strategy for nearly three decades. Even President Trump in his attempted outreach to Pyongyang, never backed off from the US insistence on North Korea’s complete denuclearization.
Joe Biden’s statements during the 2020 presidential campaign offered little hope that he would adopt a more realistic policy. In January 2020, he stated flatly that there was "no way" that he would agree to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong‐un without "preconditions" – meaning the firm commitment to denuclearization. During the final presidential debate, he stressed that he would meet with Kim only "on the condition that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity." Biden’s overall attitude regarding the desirability of bilateral negotiations actually seemed to harden. He accused Trump of having "legitimized" the North Korean regime by even meeting with Kim, and of cozying up to a "thug" who was similar to Hitler.
Such blistering rhetoric was unlikely to facilitate productive negotiations with Pyongyang, and the initial months of the Biden administration have confirmed the continuation of Washington’s sterile approach. Although administration officials apparently made an informal "outreach" to Kim’s government, there was no indication of any flexibility on the core issue, and, unsurprisingly, Pyongyang has not responded favorably.
US officials need to relearn to basic features of effective diplomacy. Continuing to issue utterly unrealistic demands on other parties is pointless and inflammatory. Moreover, even when making more limited, possibly attainable, demands, American negotiators must be willing to make corresponding, substantive concessions. However, that has too often been a missing tool in Washington’s diplomatic tool bag. Instead, US officials habitually offer little or nothing in the way of meaningful concessions.
Even in the unlikely event that North Korea agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, Washington has never committed to anything more than a gradual, partial lifting of sanctions. It is not even certain that the United States would agree to a treaty ending the state of war on the Korean Peninsula or would establish formal diplomatic relations with the North Korean government. In short, Washington insists that Pyongyang abandon the one weapon it possesses that could effectively deter the United States from pursuing a forcible regime-change strategy as it has against other non-nuclear adversaries, in exchange for …very little of substance.
The U.S. negotiating strategy toward Russia may be even more imbalanced. It is not evident that Washington is prepared to make any concessions even in the highly unlikely event the Kremlin returned Crimea to Ukraine. US leaders seem to assume that such a surrender would be a matter of Russia belatedly acknowledging international law, not a move deserving of some reward.
Not surprisingly, Washington’s capitulation diplomacy has failed time and time again. Behaving as a bully in negotiations leads to intransigence and pushback, not to progress and a more peaceful world. US leaders must abandon that approach and finally adopt a realistic, constructive diplomatic strategy.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.