Siezing Consensus from a Place of Power

During the Cold War, politicians and pundits used to bandy about a phrase we don’t hear much any more – “balance of power.” As I recall, it described the goal of essentially balancing the military might and political influence of the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact allies with that of Britain, the United States, and the rest of NATO and their allies.

The balance, though, was never really equal. The West, and especially the U.S., were public and predictable in their free societies, and almost always had the upper hand organizationally and technologically.

The Soviets, paranoid and unpredictable, were able to feel good about their position at the opposite end of the scale – they too had technology, missiles and a massive army – but their problems were kept quiet, seen as a sign of weakness, and those who questioned the status-quo propaganda the Kremlin promulgated frequently were censured, exiled or murdered. As a result, issues went unvoiced and unresolved and loyalty was not based so much in pride but rather in self-preservation.

So when the United States and Russia began to sign treaties in the 1970s, the State Department understood that it was more important to make the Soviets feel equal by giving them the other big chair at the table than to flaunt the relative superiority of free, open and democratic societies.

The powers achieved consensus over the threat of destruction, and did not let the differences in their societies divert them from that goal.

Now we think of ourselves as the biggest kid on the block and it seems the world is a more dangerous place. We’ve taken Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric out of its historical context, as if the Cuban Missile Crisis and the detente of the Seventies never happened. Ronald Reagan could not have voiced his harsh criticism without the backdrop of reasonable consensus that previous decades had achieved.

The best thing we can do is bring Iran to the table. Hopefully, North Korea will be next. Negotiate with them, but not with a bomb held behind our backs. A gun held to the head might go off, and then what would we do? We must, rather, bring out an open purse just when we are tempted to wheel around an M-16. For if the goal is to reach a consensus, then we should reward those who choose to join us at the table. We don’t have to prove that we are the strongest, but that we are the strongest in our commitment to peace.

Likewise, despite the history of violence, I believe Israel should be talking to Hamas (something I think they may be doing already in secret). Yes, I know – Israelis aren’t blowing up buses and Palestinians aren’t bulldozing houses – but in the end, all anyone wants is to be heard, to have a seat at the same table. Sure Israel could keep up its program – they have the military advantage – but then it never ends. There will always be more Arabs than Jews.

We must stop looking for the perfect enemy and reach consensus for an imperfect peace.


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