Diplomacy in his administration, President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail, would become “the premier tool of our global engagement.” So it should be: Diplomacy is the first and best option for foreign policy, the norm and barest necessity of international relations. Across the political spectrum, from the most aggressive hawk to the most committed pacifist, we can agree on the value of diplomacy as a means of keeping peace and advancing US interests abroad without resorting to costly violence.
For all that broad acclaim, however, policymakers in Washington have a bad habit of misunderstanding how diplomacy works. They too often seem to conceive of it as a reward for desired behavior rather than a practical means for achieving those ends. “Do what we want,” Washington says, “and then we can talk.” Maximalist demands, coercive sanctions, reckless public insults, and hasty reactions are more characteristic of US diplomacy than the patience, persistence, prudence, and mutually beneficial compromises needed for the task. Our government’s diplomatic efforts are frequently wildly undiplomatic, resembling nothing so much as Proverbs’ characterization of the fool.
Most of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon, a king known for his wisdom. The fool, Proverbs tells us, is willfully ignorant (Prov. 1:22) and is unwilling to accept others’ advice (12:15), learn from mistakes (26:11), or heed correction (13:18). The fool is always “chattering,” unable to keep silent even though foolish words bring “ruin” (10:10). Fools are hotheaded (14:16) and “show their annoyance at once” (12:16). While “the prudent overlook an insult” (12:16) and “avoid strife,” fools are “quick to quarrel” (20:3) and prone to provocation (27:3). “Fools mock at making amends for sin”; they operate without goodwill (14:9). Fools are often unaware of their self-inflicted danger (14:16), but that oblivion is no security for their associates: “A companion of fools suffers harm” (13:20).
Perhaps the most glaring example of this proverbial foolishness in US diplomacy right now is the shambles of US-Iran relations. To see how Washington has played the fool here, a quick rehearsal of recent history is first in order.
In 2015, after two years of negotiations, the United States, Iran, the European Union and five other countries signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. The pact constrained Iran’s nuclear activities to levels well below what would be needed to construct nuclear weapons. It also provided for independent inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
The JCPOA was never meant to be a full overhaul of Iran’s governance or even its foreign policy. The terms of the pact were kept narrow—some even time-limited. Yet if this deal were successful, it could become a basis for further talks to address other Iranian military buildup (especially ballistic missiles), as well as Tehran’s regional troublemaking and maybe, eventually, its domestic oppression, too.
And the deal was successful: Iran complied. Those independent inspections repeatedly had Tehran keeping its side of the bargain, as the Obama and Trump administrations both certified. But in 2018, thinking he could force Iran to accept a more expansive pact, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal. He re-imposed sanctions on Iran that the JCPOA had lifted (a policy dubbed “maximum pressure”) and tried to make other signatories—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the EU—do likewise.
Iran spent a year maintaining compliance though it no longer received many of the JCPOA’s promised benefits. When it became apparent the US exit wouldn’t be quickly resolved, Iran began gradually breaching the deal’s constraints in the summer of 2019. Next, French-mediated talks fell through in the fall of 2019 after Trump followed a private agreement to reduce sanctions with a public announcement of more sanctions. Since then, nuclear negotiations have stalled, with both countries preoccupied by COVID-19 and Iran reportedly determined to lay low until after the US presidential election.
Biden came into office this year having promised new attention to diplomacy as well as a return to the nuclear deal on condition of renewed Iranian compliance with its terms. Less than two weeks after his inauguration, Iran offered a proposal meeting Biden’s stipulation: a simultaneous US and Iranian return to the JCPOA managed by the European Union.
Biden refused. He also shot down a similar plan from European diplomats. The reasoning? The usual: Do what we want, and then we can talk. The administration has now agreed to indirect talks with Iran via European intermediaries, but the insistence that Iran return to full compliance first hasn’t changed.
This is foolishness. The Iranian government deserves ample critique—not least for its treatment of religious minorities—but Tehran didn’t initiate this conflict. Washington did. The imperious posture of two consecutive US administrations is shortsighted and garrulous. It seeks strife instead of avoiding it. It rejects Iran’s attempts to revive goodwill and make amends. Our government has an opportunity to reverse and learn from a mistake but is choosing provocation instead. And we, a “companion of fools” in our government, could be harmed as a result.
That risk will continue in our foreign policy until our leaders learn a less foolish diplomacy. Iran is a comparatively small and weak nation—its entire GDP (around $450 billion) is less than our defense department budget (around $700 billion).
But many foreign policy experts anticipate conflict with China and/or Russia will be the focus of this century. That would mean far higher stakes and an even more urgent need for wisdom in our diplomacy. US policymakers should be imitating the prudence of Joseph as governor of Egypt (Gen. 41:46–57), the winsomeness of Daniel in the Babylonian court (Dan. 1), and the canniness of Paul when he was arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 22:23–29).
That means putting aside childish displays of power and arrogant commands. “American foreign policy must make greater allowance for the use of influence beyond military or economic threats,” CT editorialized about Iran in 2008. “The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating,” says Proverbs 18:6–7, “The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives.” We are fortunate enough to be able to hear that warning metaphorically most of the time, but in foreign policy, the danger of foolishness is real.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.