What the United States Gets Wrong About Peace Talks

Even when the country wants a deal, at least four largely psychological impediments get in the way.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2017.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2017. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Afghan peace process, closing off for the time being a rare opening to resolve a long, stagnant, and unpopular war. Whatever one thinks of the specifics of the deal that the U.S. representative at the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, had nearly finalized with the Taliban, the episode was a perfect demonstration of the conflicted, often self-defeating view of peace agreements that mires U.S. foreign policy.

Trump’s decision followed months of criticism in Washington that the talks were legitimizing the Taliban, delegitimizing the Afghan government, giving away too much, extracting too little. Some of the critiques were reasonable. Most ignored basic realities: Afghanistan is not a winnable war, the years-old stalemate is unacceptable to most Americans and all Afghans, and a political settlement—albeit one that requires painful compromises—is the only remotely desirable way out of the dilemma. Yet when a possible path opened to such an agreement, much of the American polity recoiled.

The incongruity is hardly unique to Afghanistan. Most U.S. policymakers from several administrations would like to see peace agreements end civil wars across the Middle East and Africa. The same is true of nuclear pacts with Iran or North Korea, if one defines these as peace agreements of a sort. (The latest attempt at talks between Washington and Pyongyang on Oct. 5 broke down after less than a day.) In each case, the United States is confronted with a problem that has persisted for years or decades, and most U.S. officials by now want to escape an unfavorable status quo.

Diplomatic efforts to do so, however, encounter similar criticisms: too much offered, too little extracted, too kind to U.S. enemies, and too harsh to U.S. friends. When such criticism swells, leaders tend either to abandon existing agreements or to deprioritize diplomacy in favor of politically safer displays of toughness. In turn, the United States tends to pour money into each standoff; it tightens sanctions without halting an adversary’s nuclear and missile programs; its troops kill and are killed, with little prospect of altering the battlefield. Wars or lower-level conflicts grind on by the year and decade.

Talks do occur in each conflict but rarely as the top U.S. priority behind which all levers of power align—and rarely with a realistic vision of the outcome. That is what must change.

Even when the United States wants a peace deal in the abstract, at least four largely psychological impediments tend to impede progress.

The first is the mirage of a perfect deal. The United States has good reasons to want North Korea to denuclearize, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign, Iran to pull back from the Arab world. None of this is plausible. An administration that softens its demands, however, invites attacks that all too often rest on magical thinking—that with the same amount of compromise by the United States, talks could have yielded much greater sacrifice by the other side. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu memorably told the U.S. Congress about the Iran nuclear agreement, “the alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.” U.S. negotiators, however, are not incompetent. The “better deal” is usually a chimera, the fantasy impedes tangible achievement, and the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

Combative half-measures too often simply reinforce the undesirable status quo.

The second impediment is the allure of hard power. The American public mostly opposes major new military commitments, especially for Middle Eastern wars, but there is little political down side to ordering sanctions, airstrikes, Special Forces raids, or carrier deployments that theoretically squeeze an adversary. Officials can defend such moves as tough and pragmatic, and the cost will not exceed public tolerance unless something goes badly wrong. The problem is that these combative half-measures too often simply reinforce the undesirable status quo. All the while, proliferators proliferate, the defense budget spills across Middle Eastern battlefields, American casualties increase, local casualties soar, and resolutions inch further away.

The third problem is contempt for one’s adversary. It is difficult for a superpower to sit down as apparent equals with leaders of a rogue state and harder still with an overachieving local militia. To justify doing so, officials are tempted to wrangle over who talks to whom—must the Taliban speak first to Washington or to Kabul? Pyongyang to Washington or a multilateral consortium? Tehran to Washington or an intermediary like Oman? Sequencing and the “shape of the table” matter in each of these negotiations, but they are never the core of a dispute. Too often the trifles of process prevent for years any serious discussion of substance.

By contrast, the United States’ most important global allies are usually quick to support peace agreements—and sometimes, so are its global rivals. Washington’s tumultuous relationships with China and Russia have not stopped both in recent years from assisting the Taliban talks, acceding to the Iran deal, and joining the six-party talks when they were the main thrust of the North Korea effort. European powers consistently backed all three. An earnest peace effort can create remarkable bedfellows.

For all the obstacles, the United States needs peace agreements more than ever. Wars are lasting longer. Stalled conflicts continually foster extremism and risk larger regional conflagrations. Nuclear proliferators and local insurgencies usually have time on their side. Washington’s ability to impose terms continually shrinks as the unipolar moment recedes.

The United States has not lost the ability to secure extraordinary diplomatic breakthroughs when it wants to. To do so, however, will mean defining peace agreements as the United States’ top priority and exit strategy from legacy conflicts and then trading what is necessary to get a tolerable agreement. This might imply accepting, for example, that the United States can contain but not dismantle the North Korean nuclear program; incorporate but not defeat the Afghan Taliban; stabilize but not eliminate Iran’s influence in the Arab world.

Even such narrower objectives will require the United States to align all instruments of national power in pursuit of them. The United States eventually did this in Afghanistan; in 2018-2019 it began specifying a political settlement—rather than the military campaign—as its top overall priority. Within months, American diplomats transformed the peace process and rallied the world behind it. The Obama administration likewise defined a nuclear agreement with Iran as its main goal in the country and devoted several years of diplomacy and sanctions policy to it. Whatever one thinks of the resulting agreement, the strategy worked.

In Afghanistan, it is unclear whether the peace deal is truly dead or last month’s cancellation simply reflects Trump’s idiosyncratic negotiating style. The result of the near-miss, however, is to revert to a stalemate that every month claims (depending on the estimate) thousands of Afghan livestwo American lives, and almost $4 billion from the U.S. government. The Iran and North Korea nuclear programs, and the proliferating wars of the Arab world, have similarly dogged the United States for a generation. Vastly better outcomes are achievable on each, but only if U.S. policymakers reject unacceptable status quos, identify their priorities, and accept compromises to achieve them.

Johnny Walsh is a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, former State Department lead advisor on the Afghanistan peace process, and former senior advisor on the Middle East and South Asia at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

What the United States Gets Wrong About Peace Talks