How Enemies Become Friends

The Sources of Stable Peace, Charles A. Kupchan, Princeton University Press.

“How Enemies Become Friends” deals with “those magical, all-too-rare moments in international history when peace breaks out … when nothing happens.” That’s how Kupchan described the book during a recent speaking engagement, noting that it includes numerous instructive examples, including the formation of the Iroquois confederacy in upstate New York (1450), and the events that precipitated the friendship between the United States and Great Britain (1895).

Specifically, Kupchan says that stable peace breaks out through a four-phase process, one that begins with an act of unilateral accommodation (“exercising strategic restraint and making concessions to an adversary”). This is followed by reciprocal restraint, during which time “the states in question trade concessions.” In the third phase, there is a “deepening of societal integration between the partner states,” and finally, the generation of new narratives and identities, during which time “the distinctions between self and the other erode, giving way to communal identities and shared sense of solidarity.”

All this isn’t necessarily enough, however, to turn enemies into friends. According to Kupchan—professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations—three conditions must be present: institutionalized restraint, compatible social orders, and cultural commonality. It’s a lot to ask for, which perhaps explains why Kupchan’s assembled case studies feature almost as many failures as successes. (Notable failures include Great Britain and Japan [1902-1923], and the Soviet Union and China [1949-1960].)

As for lessons that can be drawn from the book, there’s more than a few. At the top of the list is the fact that in most cases, engagement with one’s enemies is good diplomacy. Second, restraint is a big factor in achieving success. (That is, there must be willingness on the part of both parties to give ground.)

Neither of the above are surprising, but two other lessons are: Conventional wisdom tells us that liberal democracies make great partners, yet Kupchan indicates that autocracies can also be very reliable partners—even with democracies. Lastly, the author notes that economic engagement is not a prerequisite for good diplomatic relations, noting that in only one of 20 cases did economic integration clear the way for political reconciliation. “We can trade [and] we can invest until we’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to have geopolitical consequence unless the politics are right,” he says.

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be drawn from Kupchan’s work is that making peace with an enemy tends to be as difficult domestically as it is with the adversary, because whenever a leader reaches out to an enemy there are always opponents at home ready to criticize. “In the cases I found where rapprochement failed—China and the Soviet Union, Senegal and Gambia, Syria and Egypt—it almost always failed because domestic opponents at home undermined the effort.” In other words, leaders have to make sure they have support at home before attempting to bridge the divide.