07/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Talking Does Not Make a Foreign Policy

I listened recently to three people who claim to advise Barack Obama on foreign policy. They all extolled the virtues of talking to our adversaries and allies. I have read a considerable number of blogs and op-eds arguing for and against Obama's declaration that he will talk to friend and foe alike. I believe it is a good idea, under practically all circumstances, and a vast improvement over the Bush administration's bankrupt unilateralism. However, talking does not a foreign policy make. Neither does the very welcome call for more diplomacy and less saber rattling. Talking and diplomacy are merely means to an end. The question is: to what end?

The French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in the days of sailing ships that no wind will do for a boat that has no port it is seeking to reach. Take the most dangerous part of the world, Pakistan. No one is denying that it has nuclear weapons, and a lot of Taliban running around, and that they have friends and allies in the Pakistani intelligence services. What do Obama and company plan to tell Pakistan? And what if there is no one who can speak for Pakistan? And what if those who do point out that they have other concerns than ours, for instance not to piss off the Taliban?

I am sure some progressive people will say, and not without merit, that it is 'all our fault.' If the CIA had not trained and armed Afghani troops, working with the Pakistani intelligence services; if American corporations... etc etc. But this is all water under the bridge. There is no way to rewind history. We now have a problem we do need to talk about, but first we must figure out what we are seeking, an outcome that will serve both us and Pakistan. I do not hear Obama and company talking about this thorny subject.

There are half a dozen others. Surely one should talk to Iran, Syria and Russia, among others. But on the way to sitting down with them, one must note that -- surprise, surprise -- they have their own agendas and needs. I see no sign that all the good people who surround Obama, or for that matter McCain, have drafted a plan or envisioned a new international architecture that the US can promote in talking to these agitated parties.

Actually there is a model that President Clinton worked out and which has been recently revived. In dealing with North Korea, the US did talk to other nations, including China, Japan and South Korea, as well as to North Korea. However, it also had a plan. It was willing to forego any notions of regime change, to shore up the last Communist tyranny in the world, by granting it fuel and food -- in exchange for it giving up its nuclear weapons. We do not know yet if all will work out, but it is a clear policy. Talking is not the main point; what we are talking about is.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale, 2007) email: