Perhaps the most duplicated photograph in diplomatic history shows Chairman Mao Zedong smiling benignly at Henry Kissinger, his American interlocutor.
We know from Jung Chang’s biography of Mao just what a monster he was but we also know that Mr Kissinger’s diplomacy was essential to ending the cold war and bringing China into the state system it had vowed to destroy.
Should we talk to tyrants? Of course. And we do, all the time. Despite official disavowals, the Nato states involved in the pacification of Afghanistan would not be serving the military alliance’s interests if they were not in touch with some pretty ghastly warlords and some murderous Taliban.
The more difficult question is: should we walk with tyrants? Should we, for example, form a tacit alliance with Bashar al-Assad in order to deprive Isis, the self-styled Islamic State, of its Syrian sanctuary, even though we have denounced Mr Assad and dedicated ourselves to his removal on the grounds of his bestial behaviour towards his own people?
Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have said of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua, (or possibly of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic) that the American ally against the communists “may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch”. Client states who manipulate their patrons have a long imperial history, and though there is no imperial great power today, there are plenty of clients and plenty of sons-of-bitches. The issue always seems to be, “is he better – more humane, more amenable, more adroit – than the person who would replace him?”
In the end, maintaining local allies who rule by terror sows bitterness and hatred towards the patronising sponsor, and makes of other societies no more than instruments of the patron’s own interests. But what about the truly life-threatening peril states sometimes face when the only viable alternative seems to be to ally with a horrific regime that would, if it did not face the same peril, pose its own menacing threat? Do we walk with tyrants then?
The Turks have a saying that might be translated as: “It is permissible to call the bear uncle until you cross the bridge.” This was the situation democracies faced in the world war against fascism.
Indeed, Roosevelt said to Joseph Davies, “I can’t take communism, nor can you but to cross the bridge I would hold hands with the devil.”
The devil he had in mind was Joseph Stalin. It seems obvious now that Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was a fatal step for the Nazi regime; that ardent anti-communist Winston Churchill remarked to Jock Colville the evening before Operation Barbarossa: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
Perhaps it is harder for democracies to embrace unsavoury regimes even when their survival is at stake; perhaps it should be. The democracies were fighting for something more than survival in 1941. There must have been moments when civilisation itself seemed held in the balance and the possibility loomed that we should have to fight even if there were no hope of victory rather than acquiesce in the degradation that would have followed capitulation to the fascists.
But this is not the calculus of the state, whether it be a democracy or some other form. The first duty of the state is the survival of the society that has called it into being. The princely states of the Renaissance made and broke alliances with cynical abandon. Should the democratic states today adopt similarly agnostic rules?
“The Assad government may be evil – but it is a lesser evil than Isis, and a local one,” Richard Haass has recently pointed out in these pages.
Other options – a Nato ground invasion, an Arab League expeditionary force (without, tellingly, Iran), the resurrection of the moderate Syrian opposition – look hopeless.
Unfortunately, such a tacit alliance might also serve the goals of Iran, an anti-western regime whose own clients are the Syrian government and Hizbollah. A similar point has often been made of the US-led removal of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
But perhaps this misframes the problem. Our objective is not simply the defeat of Isis nor even the calling to account of the Assad regime. Our objective is a peaceful region that does not ground its world view on a hatred of the west. That objective may only be achievable if Iran is brought into the society of law-abiding states, an inclusion that may also demand a certain detente with Tehran, whatever our long-term conflicts with its theocracy, and a truce between Sunni and Shia. That may not be possible, but if it is it will require adroit diplomacy, bending the arc of sectarian conflict to achieve peace much as
Mr Kissinger played competing communist capitals off against one other. And that means intense engagement, not detachment.
We have been on this bridge before. As John Gaddis observed, “Collaboration with the Soviet Mephistopheles helped the US and Great Britain achieve victory.”
But the price was the rise of a totalitarian state that was more powerful and less fathomable, and American policy became consumed with attempts to deal with the consequences. The challenge that Roosevelt and Harry Truman faced was, Mr Gaddis added, to find “a way to win the war without compromising the objectives for which it was being fought. It was out of their successive failures to square that circle that [the] concept of containment eventually emerged.”
As the late Robert Strauss said, “When you dance with the bear, you don’t quit when you’re tired; you quit when the bear is tired.”
Philip Bobbitt is a member of a Hoover Institution task force and teaches at Columbia and the University of Texas