"I hope," said America's first diplomat, "that mankind will at length, as they call themselves responsible creatures, have the reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats."
We often remember Dr. Benjamin Franklin as the great inventor, statesman, and scholar that he was. But he was also America's first diplomat, serving as Ambassador to France from 1776-1785. During his tenure, Franklin successfully secured the Franco-American military alliance that would prove decisive at Yorktown, and subsequently negotiated and signed the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally ended the Revolutionary War.
Throughout our history, diplomacy has had immeasurable value for the United States. With diplomacy and foreign economic aid, we turned 20th-century archenemies like Germany and Japan into 21st-century allies. Diplomacy opened up China during the Cold War and helped start new dialogues and forge new partnerships across the Pacific.
From day one, diplomacy has been a central pillar of President Obama's foreign policy. While his approach to international affairs has been disparaged by Republican leaders as "leading from behind" and "weak," President Obama has followed a strategy of working with the international community, rather than working around it as President Bush often did.
Take the case of Iranian sanctions: whereas the Bush Administration frequently saw the international community as a roadblock, the Obama Administration has viewed it as a partner. This stark difference helps to explain their contrasting records of success on achieving crippling, multilateral sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.
In an election year, however, diplomacy will rarely score you votes. Unfortunately, talking tough and seeming strong on defense will earn you more support than being smart on defense. Andrew Bacevich, an ex-military officer who is now a historian at Boston University, told Nicholas Kristof in 2010, "Republicans think banging the war drums wins them votes, and Democrats think if they don't chime in, they'll lose votes."
Over the past few days, Republicans have been banging the war drums for a preventive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, as evidenced by recent statements from three of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates (with only Ron Paul outstanding). And some Democrats are chiming in, to be sure.
But this year, the stakes are too high; we can't let politics get in the way of our national security. President Obama recently admonished his GOP opponents who advocate a military strike on Iran, dismissing their rhetoric as "just talk." He dared them to actually make that case to the American people, explaining the potential benefits and consequences a strike would have.
Later this year, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1962, the world stared into the abyss, coming closer to nuclear war than ever. After thirteen days of tense brinkmanship, the Cuban Missile Crisis was ultimately defused thanks to diplomacy. Robert F. Kennedy was able to meet and negotiate directly with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
What would happen today if there were miscommunication between the United States and Iran? There is no Iranian Ambassador to the United States, nor is there one from the U.S. to Iran. If we spoke to the Soviets at the most tense moment of the 20th century, we should be able to have channels of communication with Iran now.
In this election year, the calls for war with Iran are growing louder. But if we are "responsible creatures," as Franklin put it, we must make diplomacy a bigger priority and give the multilateral sanctions we worked so hard to impose a chance to work before heading down the path towards war. Of course, diplomacy does not always work. But neither does war.
Analyses of a military strike on Iran's subterranean nuclear facilities conclude that such a strike would postpone Iran's nuclear program for a few years, at best, and cause oil prices to spike sharply, jeopardizing the global economic recovery. Moreover, it would likely unify the Iranian people, pour fresh cement over the widening cracks in the Iranian political system, and harden the regime's resolve to produce and possibly use a nuclear weapon. Given the costs and limited prospects for success, any military option should be the absolute last resort. But diplomacy remains the best way -- the only way -- to permanently resolve the Iranian issue.
In these dangerous times, the simplistic rhetoric that military restraint and diplomacy are signs of a weak foreign policy will not suffice. Prioritizing diplomacy is the sign of a smart and responsible foreign policy, and it is the signature policy of a president who continues to place our national security above politics.