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Why We Must Talk

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Frode Overland Andersen/Norwegian MFA
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, the author of this article, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, March 1, 2011

What a road we have traveled to reach this point. Just a month or two ago, no one would have suggested that a popular uprising in Egypt would successfully topple one of the region’s longest-serving autocratic leaders. Now, many major newspapers and journals praise the courage of the protesters and speculate about continued democratic progress for the Egyptian people.

Yet alongside these congratulatory tones, there is also a current of worry. How democratic will Egypt become? How can the West aid this transition? Whom should we be talking to, and how? Some of the loudest voices warn of imminent Islamic takeover and imply that talking directly with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood might be dangerous. This perspective is hardly surprising. Deep suspicion of new, popular movements in Middle Eastern and Muslim countries is widely accepted in the West.

We should not allow ourselves to be affected by this fear. Almost ten years ago, the international community agreed that military action was needed in Afghanistan and that dialogue with the Taliban and its supporters would have no place in that strategy. We have since learned the cost of this belief. What was once considered heretical is becoming conventional wisdom. While a military presence is still needed, Afghans and their international partners must find a way forward through diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban.

Together, these experiences demonstrate the centrality of a question that is likely to become more urgent in a shrinking world: Should we talk to those who attack our societies, challenge our most deeply held values, and violate rights we consider fundamental?

This is no mere philosophical question—a fact that was personally hammered home for me three years ago. Late in the afternoon of January 14, 2008, I was—as foreign minister of Norway—meeting with Mrs. Sima Samar, Afghanistan’s brave human rights commissioner, at the Hotel Serena in Kabul. Suddenly the clatter of gunfire echoed down the hallway. We felt the hotel shake from several explosions. Two suicide bombers, members of the Taliban, had attacked the hotel. For three hours, chaos reigned as we were evacuated room by room. I escaped unharmed, but others were not so fortunate. Six innocent civilians, including a Norwegian journalist, were killed. Six more, including a senior member of my team, were seriously wounded. A Taliban-affiliated group took responsibility for the cynical attack. It was a heartbreaking experience. And didn’t it show the futility of dealing with groups like the Taliban?

A year and a half later I found myself struggling with a similar dilemma in a setting about as far removed from Kabul as one can imagine—peaceful and affluent Geneva. Originally conceived as a way to confront and reduce racist ideologies and behaviors, the closing session of the UN World Conference against Racism (known as Durban II) had turned into an event that some saw as little more than a highly publicized soapbox for anti-Semitism and anti-Western attacks. The April 2009 conference was particularly controversial because Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivered a divisive and vitriol-laden speech attacking the West and Israel. In response, more than twenty delegates from the EU walked out (a half-dozen other nations, including Israel and the US, had already refused to attend the conference).

Two completely different events. One from the landscape of the violence and chaos of terrorism; the other from the world of diplomatic communication. Taken together, they exemplify what for many people would prove the dominant perspective of the last decade: that diplomacy and dialogue are less and less useful and relevant to international politics.

In my view, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw. Despite our experience at the Hotel Serena, I remain convinced of the need to encourage direct political talks between all relevant political parties in Afghanistan. And despite the fact that we found Ahmadinejad’s claims abhorrent, our delegation decided to remain for his address. We believed that it was important to listen to his words and then to use our position as the next speaker to directly engage and challenge his hateful claims.

Why do I believe that it is important to continue to carry on a dialogue even under conditions as difficult as these? Because my five years as a foreign minister have convinced me that as challenging as it is to continue to talk in such circumstances, the consequences of not talking are often far more dangerous. Used correctly, dialogue is the essential diplomatic tool that allows us to pursue our common interests in an increasingly complex and fast-moving world.

Certainly, military power has an appropriate place in foreign policy. Norway’s security, like that of most other countries, continues to rely on a credible military capacity and our membership in NATO. But as policymakers, we know that military force alone is ill-suited for dealing with a growing number of situations that currently shape international and interstate relations.

I have seen firsthand how the international forces in Afghanistan have tried to avoid civilian causalities. I doubt that there is another armed conflict in history where so much effort has been invested in ensuring that only military targets are pursued with force. And yet it only takes a small number of ill-fated incidents to make much of the goodwill generated by aid and local outreach programs evaporate. When civilians are killed or injured, images of destruction are quickly transmitted throughout the world. If military force has always been a poor means of changing the convictions and allegiances of local populations, it is particularly ineffective in the era of mass media.

In such a world, I find it difficult not to conclude that strategies based on dialogue are indispensable and must be defended, and further strengthened. I am not suggesting that contact and talk can solve every conflict, or that dialogue can replace military power or the use of force entirely. The lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is clear about this—a willingness to judiciously apply military pressure combined with a willingness to communicate was the right course of action. With respect to Iran we have the option of progressively adopting tough sanctions while simultaneously calling on the international community (and Iran) to keep diplomatic channels open.

Moreover, I do not believe that we have to be willing to talk to everyone, under any circumstance, regardless of other considerations. All countries have their “red lines” that cannot be crossed. Yet I believe it is important to resist the temptation to disavow on moral grounds dialogue with any group or state whose ideology and aims we view as dubious or dangerous. For example, I believe that we should not assume that a group must be excluded from dialogue simply because some states have named it a “terrorist” organization. When asked about his country’s strategy against terrorism, my colleague Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister, put it bluntly: “The effort to fight global terrorism is not a war. If it was simply a war, then it’s simply about the application of force, brute force.” In this context, the defining question shouldn’t be who we should allow ourselves to talk to. Rather, the question we should ask is under what circumstances, and about what topics, it is appropriate to talk.

Unfortunately, there is no easy, universal rule that answers the specific questions of when and how to conduct dialogue with an adversary. We need to make judgments on a case-by-case basis. The role of Islamic groups in the Middle East is of particular importance. Should we talk to Hamas? In Norway we condemn Hamas’s attack on innocent civilians, and strongly oppose its ideology. We believe that Hamas must respect previous agreements and obligations entered into by the PLO, renounce the use of violence, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas—or any other single faction for that matter—has no right to decide over war or peace on behalf of the Palestinian people.

So, why do we nonetheless support a policy of allowing contact and talks with a group such as Hamas? Because beyond doubt Hamas represents a significant part of Palestinian society—and it now controls a territory, Gaza, that includes around 1.5 million Palestinians. It is thus a social, political, religious, and also a military reality that will not simply go away as a result of Western policies of isolation. There are constituencies within Hamas that seem open to dialogue and there are signs that these parts of the movement might be willing to support a two-state solution and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

How do we test this possibility? Engaging in dialogue with a group and its members is not the same thing as legitimizing its goals and ideology. Used skillfully, engagement may moderate their policies and behavior. It may also fail. But the blockade and other attempts to completely isolate Hamas have been a clear failure, allowing the Hamas leaders to play the martyr in the international media and to further embed themselves in Gaza by becoming the de facto providers of goods and services. The isolation has also further driven Hamas and its constituency into the hands of Iran.

Because of this, I think the international community was mistaken when it did not engage in relations with the Palestinian unity government in 2007, a government that included all Palestinian factions—among them the elected Hamas representatives—and was endorsed by the democratically elected President Mahmoud Abbas. A policy of engagement with that government would have extended neither full cooperation with it nor financial support until key changes in policy had been made. But the Middle East Quartet—the UN, the US, the EU, and Russia—could have held talks with the unity government. It would thus have recognized that the Palestinian factions had made a historic effort to unite, and that dominant factions within Hamas had chosen to work through politics.

The Quartet could have used dialogue to encourage further steps toward serious negotiations. Instead the unity government was treated like a pariah—with predictable results. Elements within Hamas who had opted for politics and who were potentially willing to explore negotiated solutions were left empty-handed and without influence. Young people were radicalized. The government broke down and Hamas and Fatah violently opposed each other, further complicating prospects for peace in the Middle East. We cannot, of course, be sure that diplomatic talks and contact would have been more successful. But it seems unlikely that they would have been less successful.

The events of the last month and a half in Egypt add credence to this belief. Many in the West worry that strong popular movements in the Arab world, secular or Islamic, would provide an opening through which radical Islam will clamber. This, in turn, has dissuaded policymakers from supporting democratic changes and engaging in dialogue with various civil society groups in ways that we regularly do in many other parts of the world.

The situation in Egypt demonstrates just how unwise this approach is. The recent weeks have revealed that the communications revolution of the last decade has profoundly changed politics in the Middle East. Diffuse networks of groups can now collaborate and communicate in ways that are not controlled by any single ideology or regime. The young populations of the Middle East can increasingly express their desire for a better life. The events in Egypt and elsewhere also highlight the fact that although radical and dangerous Islamic factions exist, moderate, pragmatic, and influential Islamic groups and wings of groups also have their own power.

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