Last week, I had a meeting at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). They asked me what I would advise USIP president Nancy Lindborg regarding current world affairs.
I wanted to share my answer here because it speaks to the topic of this blog...the discourse used within and around conflict.
The Familiar Discourse of the Cold War
While of course no one really wants the U.S. and Russia to face off in the Middle East creating a proxy war on top of existing civil wars, Russia's entry into the mix is actually comforting to the United States.
The field of Conflict Resolution and even much of the business negotiation field was born out of the cold war. In our upcoming conflict anthology Dr. Sara Cobb and PhD Candidate Alison Castel and I make the case that this Cold War era, which we call Epoch One, gave birth to Game Theory, Tit-for-Tat, and Rational Choice Theory that became the foundation for much of the field.
We became accustomed this "rational" state actor and this game of deterrence. Hollywood made movies about the Russians, and still do (even the new Muppet Movie). Russia was an enemy the United States could identify. This discourse is familiar.
The U.S. enjoyed the Iran negotiation because again it evoked the Cold War discourse...an arms race, a state actor and long negotiations.
What the U.S. Does NOT Like
The United States does not like an enemy that does not have a face or a country. Our foreign policy struggles and defense department struggles with insurgent groups whose identities shift often and whose networks are as complicated to understand as our modern technology.
There are few "presidents" in the middle east struggle; with ISIS there are no diplomats that know how to properly hold a wine glass and an hors d'oeuvres plate. They will not come to your summit and put on a name tag.
They're not interested in your negotiation table.
Now, Putin, on the other hand. Putin will sit down with you. Putin will negotiate. Maybe he cannot be trusted but he's an "enemy" we know.
Don't Slip Back Because it is Comfortable
So my advice to USIP and U.S. policy in general is to not let our comfort with the Cold War discourse upend all we have learned about conflict since the Cold War. We know the limitations of rational choice theory. We know the power and limitations of dialogue groups.
If we slip back a few decades simply for comfort, we'll lose our ability to make much of a contribution in the Middle East. It's like going back to the old bad relationship.
The stakes are higher than in the relationship because many more people could experience extreme pain if we do this. We will head right towards Russia because we know it and all those in the Middle East struggling to find their way will be in the middle of our proxy war.
I encourage us to stay in the discomfort of "not knowing" what to do in the Middle East rather than jump right back into tit-for-tat. There is no Berlin Wall to fall this time. There are more players involved.