Insoluble problems

Every foreign policy practitioner from the youngest diplomat to the president knows a basic, and largely unspoken, truth about international affairs. There are some problems/issues that are, for all practical purposes, insoluble. Several prominent examples are hiding in plain sight.

The dispute between India and Pakistan over the status of Kashmir has produced three wars and debilitating tensions over 70 years. Today, both countries are as far from a resolution as they have ever been. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has produced innumerable armed clashes and, despite long-standing international diplomatic efforts, is no closer to a resolution than it was in the 1960s. The Korean Peninsula produced a major war in the 1950s and has remained in a hostile armed standoff between North and South ever since. There is no reason to believe that this will change in the foreseeable future. Iran is the focus of intense ongoing international diplomacy involving the world’s great powers and the UN. If you were to poll the current participants, you would find pervasive pessimism concerning the possibility of an agreement.

Two more intractable disputes must be mentioned — Russia/Ukraine and China/Taiwan. The former is in a special category because it has a shorter history, but primarily because it is currently being “adjudicated” by a major war. China/Taiwan is a powder keg that has not yet ignited. If it does, it will almost certainly produce a (hopefully limited) war between the world’s two most powerful countries — China and the U.S. Short of that catastrophe, the China/Taiwan dispute appears insoluble within current professional lifetimes.

It is worth considering why these various disputes have been so intractable.  In some cases, the explanation is found in a toxic mix of ethnicity, religion and land. Under these conditions, disputed land is more than just valuable; it becomes sacred and, by definition, can never be compromised. This is descriptive of the Israeli/Palestinian situation, but it also fits Kashmir to a great degree. Even in the case of Taiwan, where the protagonists are entirely secular, the dispute has taken on the character of a quasi-religious crusade. The Chinese government has rallied popular support by portraying Taiwan as an inalienable part of the (sacred) “motherland” that must be “recovered” at almost any cost. The fact that the people of Taiwan do not want to be ruled from Beijing is considered irrelevant.

There is something analogous going on in Pyongyang and Moscow. For the North Korean regime, the very existence of South Korea is an affront to the historical imperative to unite all Koreans under Pyongyang’s flag. If you asked Kim Jong Un if the mission of his grandfather, his father and now, himself, is sacred, he would almost certainly say “yes!”  Vladimir Putin has repeatedly described Ukraine as part of Russia — indissolubly linked to the “motherland” by history, culture, language and religion. As Putin moved closer to a decision to invade Ukraine, his rhetoric became more overtly religious. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has played his part by publicly blessing the invasion as holy war against the “anti-Christ.”

Iran deviates only slightly from these templates. The regime in Tehran is a theocracy led by a clerical “supreme leader.” By definition, everything such a regime does is religiously sanctioned, including the mastery of nuclear technologies and the support of militant co-religionists in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Iran’s adversaries are not geopolitical rivals; they are devils. America, as mass rallies in Tehran routinely remind us, is “the Great Satan.”

There is a supreme irony — even tragedy — in all this. Each of these costly, intractable conflicts could be resolved with a different mindset in the halls of power — one of pragmatism focused on benefits to the national economy and society. Put another way, there is a massive admixture of irrationality bordering on insanity fueling elite decisions in Pyongyang, Moscow, Tehran and beyond.

Consider our cases. India and Pakistan share a subcontinent that is a single natural geographic and economic unit. The logic of good, mutually beneficial relations is overwhelming. The status of Kashmir could be resolved by simply allowing the population there to decide its status — or by permanently dividing the province along the existing line of control. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved by providing the Palestinians the minimal amount of territory necessary to create a state — and allow the Palestinian people the pride that goes with that.

North Korea is a deeply isolated, impoverished country with pervasive malnutrition and now a COVID pandemic. It could be a prosperous, secure and respected member of the international community — if only Kim decided to live and let live with the South. Instead, he spends heavily on missiles and nuclear arms — weapons that cannot feed his people or defeat COVID. China and Taiwan have already demonstrated that working together, they are an economic powerhouse. If China simply decided to give Taiwan room, the benefits to both would be huge. Iran, by insisting that it is surrounded by enemies, has become angry, inward-looking and impoverished. There was a time, not so long ago, when Iran was increasingly prosperous, well-educated and integrated into the global economy. The current crisis could be resolved by trading sanctions relief for renewed international nuclear monitoring. Russia should be part of Europe — prosperous, civilized, democratic, cosmopolitan — a major player in international economics, technology and scientific research. Instead, we have a paranoid autocracy that has attacked its neighbor, profoundly alienated the West and set Russia on a trajectory of decline.

In sum, these problems are insoluble only because national leaders have chosen to make them so.


Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.


Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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