Engaging Conflict: Five Minutes with Chester Crocker

On February 16, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker sat down with Kenneth Anderson, one of his Georgetown students, to discuss the Reagan administration's policy of constructive engagement toward apartheid South Africa and how the United States can best engage the current Iranian regime.

[GJIA] What motivated you to pursue a policy of constructive engagement toward South Africa? Knowing what you do today, would you have done anything differently when dealing with the apartheid regime?

[CAC] The answer is the subject of a book I’ve written [High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood], so I’ll parse it down here! Essentially, an engagement strategy, properly construed, is a testing strategy. You reach out to an isolated regime and explore the possibility of defining a joint road map toward an improved relationship. And it was my, well our, judgment at the time that this was an appropriate approach in 1981. The approach of the previous Carter administration had created a notional framework for Namibian independence but it was going nowhere. It’s a complicated scenario, but the essence was that we inherited a stalled peace process and felt that there was a need to reinvigorate it. We prioritized and privileged the issue of independence for Namibia, Africa’s last colony, in our relationship with South Africa at that time. And we linked it to the removal of Cuban forces from neighboring Angola.

All of our diplomatic dealings with the neighboring African frontline states pointed to the priority that should be given to Namibia. Rhodesia had just become Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola were newly decolonized and very troubled. It was important to get the sequence right. This meant we needed to grasp the regional challenges – cross border warfare, Soviet-Cuban interventionism – as the first stage, and that’s what we did. In terms of sequencing, these issues had to come first; the question of ending apartheid was not the first step, although it was obviously the major question concerning the future of South Africa and the region. Sequentially, we worked to get the regional issues to move first.

It won’t surprise you that I consider our policies toward southern Africa in the 1980s to have been a striking success. We played an important role—I won’t claim the only role—in changing the geopolitical map of Southern Africa and laying the groundwork for fundamental political change. We did it with our African partners and our Western allies. I don’t look back at that period and say ‘I wish we’d done it differently.’ My advice to the future diplomat would be: don’t give your policies a name [laughs]. People who don’t like your polices will attribute their definition to your name. It’s not easy to retain control of the brand. We had the right policy, but the name got us in trouble sometimes. Interestingly enough, constructive engagement is now a household word and we do it, or consider doing it, all over the world. So maybe the brand is not damaged after all.

[GJIA] What is your view on the utility of the Iran sanctions regime? Would you advocate engagement in this case? What characteristics of regimes make constructive engagement more likely to be successful?

[CAC] The Iran sanctions regime is a dynamic thing. It’s changing and continuing to be reinforced. I think the jury is still out as to how effective it will ultimately prove to be. One question I have—does it make sense to have an incremental, progressive application of sanctions? If you keep tweaking with bits and pieces of increased pressure, the target may get used to that process and learn to live with it. If you have all these arrows in your quiver, maybe you should use them in a more coherent way.

Would I advocate engagement in the Iran case? I already have. I’ve said so in op-eds. But we need to be clear about what the term means. Engagement is not a strategy of making nice with people. Engagement is a strategy of testing people, and it can and should be combined with pressure. That is especially the case with a hostile country with hostile intent toward our friends and towards us. The Iranian regime should be tested. One way to test somebody is to say ‘we could do better if…,’ and here are the ‘ifs’. That regime may have ‘ifs’ of its own, so it needs to become a conversation. I don’t see engagement as the opposite of pressure; I see engagement as working with pressure, especially in the case of a government whose conduct is as egregious as theirs.

You asked which characteristics of regimes make constructive engagement more useful. If the country and regime are relatively more engaged in the international system, in their relationships of trade and investment, they will think more about what price they’ll pay if they don’t alter their behavior. If they’re more autonomous and don’t need the international system, that makes them less responsive. It also matters whether there’s a unified feeling of nationalism in the country or not. Sanctions can divide countries, or lead to a nationalistic reflex, depending on the domestic character of the country.

This interview was conducted by Kenneth Anderson, a 2nd year student in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University and managing editor of the Georgetown Journal.

Chester A. Crocker is the James R. Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and serves on the board of its Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Dr. Crocker’s teaching and research focuses on international security and conflict management. From 1981 to 1989, Dr. Crocker served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. He developed the strategy and led the diplomacy that produced the treaties signed by Angola, Cuba and South Africa in New York in December 1988. Dr. Crocker chaired the board of the United States Institute of Peace (1992-2004) and continues to serve as a director.