Why We Don’t Negotiate

The signature of Joe Biden’s State Department has been the abdication of diplomacy. Its head, Antony Blinken, the chief U.S. diplomat, has abdicated the role of diplomat. Though obvious in Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, this absence of diplomacy has been nowhere more evident than in the Russo-Ukrainian war where the State Department has been more the warrior than the Pentagon.

On November 9, 2022, it was America’s top soldier, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who said, “There has to be a mutual recognition that a military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word is maybe not achievable through military means, and therefore you need to turn to other means.” Nine months later, Milley was still advising that, “If the end state is Ukraine is a free, independent sovereign country with its territory intact, that will take a considerable level of effort yet to come. And this is a long, very difficult, high casualty-producing war that’s ongoing. You can achieve those objectives through military means. That’s gonna take a long, long time, but you can also achieve those objectives maybe possibly, through some sort of diplomatic means.”

But while the warriors were counseling diplomacy, the diplomats were counseling war. When asked about talks taking place in the early days of the war, State Department spokesman Ned Price answered that Russia is “suggesting that diplomacy take place at the barrel of a gun or as Moscow’s rockets, mortars, artillery target the Ukrainian people,” and objected that, “This is not real diplomacy. Those are not the conditions for real diplomacy.”

If diplomacy is not an appropriate tool at time of war, when is it? The State Department was advancing a novel theory – and abandonment – of diplomacy: you don’t negotiate with enemies at times of war. But when else do you negotiate? And with whom else do you negotiate?

The State Department lost its identity by substituting the means of attaining American goals, diplomacy – its reason for being – with the attainment of those goals and became an arm of the Pentagon. The State Department laid out as a precondition of talks the defeat of Russia. You do not cease the war with peace negotiations: you win the war, then negotiate the peace. First Russia lays down its arms and returns its conquered territory to Ukraine, then negotiate. But that is not diplomacy. That is attaining your diplomatic goals by war. It is the abdication of diplomacy.

Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with,” then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in harmony with his U.S. partners. Prior to the war, diplomacy was already in restraints when the State Department informed Moscow that negotiating NATO expansion into Ukraine was never really even on the table.

Later, a Chinese suggestion that, “All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire,” was not consistent with the novel U.S. position on diplomacy. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby explained that “a ceasefire, at this time, while that may sound good, we do not believe would have that effect,” it would not be “a step towards a just and durable peace.”

“We don’t,” Kirby clearly stated, “support calls for a ceasefire right now.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the suggestion a “tactical move by Russia” that was “supported by China” and warned that “the world should not be fooled.”

The United States would continue, both in talks with then Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and in talks in Istanbul, to turn down a chance for diplomacy that Ukraine was willing to take.

In his soon to be published book, The Lost Peace, Richard Sakwa draws on the distinction between the pursuit of hegemony and the pursuit of primacy. “Hegemony,” he explains, is leadership that “relies primarily on consent and belief in the values proclaimed by the hegemon, whereas primacy entails predominance and the conscious attempt to thwart the ambition of others.” The U.S. grand strategy has tried to balance the two. But after the Cold War, Sakwa says, the pursuit of primacy grew excessively at the expense of hegemony.

Though Gorbachev and post-Soviet Russia sought to transcend the world of blocs, the United States offered only subordinate membership in a U.S.-led unipolar world. “The choice,” Sakwa says, was “subordination to the U.S.-led liberal order, as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ . . . or resistance.” But if a nation chose resistance, then “the whole machine of coercion and demonization would be deployed.”

Prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia, partly out of a position of weakness, had largely played by those rules and had been a “responsible stakeholder.” In disagreements between Russia and the United States up to then, according to Alexander Lukin, Head of Department of International Relations at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia had compromised, and the disagreements were rather quickly resolved. But Russia’s reaction to the coup in 2014 that removed Viktor Yanukovych from power and their subsequent annexation of Crimea, “fundamentally changed this consensus,” according to Lukin. A now stronger and more confident Russia stood up at its red line in Ukraine. “Russia,” Lukin says, “refused to play by the rules.”

Crimea was the end of unchallenged American primacy. That is one reason why the annexation of Crimea was so threatening to the United States. Faced with such a challenge, “the whole machine of coercion” was deployed. In such circumstances, Sakwa says, “traditional forms of diplomacy [are] marginalized.” They are replaced by sanctions and military responses.

The refusal of the United States to negotiate is an attempt to preserve primacy. Equals may negotiate. Even hegemons may, at times, negotiate. But primacy precludes negotiation. Primacy puts competitors in their subordinate place and “thwart[s] the ambitions of others.” “Our first objective,” under secretary of defense for policy Paul Wolfowitz set out in 1992, “is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.”

It is, in part, because the U.S. still sees itself in the role of global primacy that it believes that it cannot negotiate with Russia. Russia challenged American primacy. Such challenges are met, not with diplomacy, but with discipline.

There are many other reasons why, in the case of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States has declined diplomacy. There are powerful people within the Biden administrarion, like Victoria Nuland, Jake Sullivan, and Antony Blinken, who are very hawkishly anti-Russia. There is Blinken’s concern, as expressed by State Department Spokesman Ned Price, for “core principles,” including that each country has a sovereign right to determine with whom it partners or allies. On September 6 in Kiev, Blinken said, “Ukraine’s security is… integral to security around the world because of the principles that are being challenged here.” There is the concern to defend the sovereignty of nations and the integrity of their legal borders. But at a systemic level that rises above these particular reasons, diplomacy with Russia is ruled out by America’s insistence on, not just hegemony, but primacy, which demands, not negotiations, but coercion and subordination.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.