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Diplomacy appears ready to make a comeback. The United States, after years of reluctance, is reconsidering the role of negotiation in confronting extremism and managing international conflict. India has resisted an aggressive response to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and is open to diplomatic engagement with Pakistan over Kashmir. Participants in the six-party talks have been scrambling to decide whether, when, and how to engage North Korea since its nuclear test of May 2009. The generals in Afghanistan are busier today than they have been in recent years, but so are the diplomats. Certainly, not everyone has rushed to the bargaining table — witness, for example, the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But governments around the world are asking themselves the same important question: When should they negotiate with their enemies?
Determining the precise conditions for such talks is never easy. In the shadow of terrorism, the calculus is all the more complex. Not only can acts of belligerence or extremist violence strain or derail ongoing negotiations, but the persistence of violence is often the primary reason governments refuse to negotiate in the first place. This has long been the case in Israel, for example, where successive governments, especially those led by the conservative Likud Party, have refused to negotiate with Palestinian leaders until they bring the violence to a halt. The same dynamics influenced the peace process in Northern Ireland in the years leading up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. North Korea’s recent provocations have elicited a similar response from hard-liners in Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
The ability of extremists to derail negotiations through violence and belligerence presents policymakers with a high-stakes dilemma: Should the muzzling of extremism be set as a precondition to negotiations, or should negotiations be initiated in order to reduce support for extremism? Similar considerations have plagued peace efforts around the world, from Colombia, where the government has struggled for decades to determine when it should demand a cease-fire from FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), to Kashmir, where using violence to derail prospective talks has become a predictable tactic. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, surges in extremist violence are threatening to further destabilize already-weak governments.