Negotiating Our Way Out of Catastrophe

What Can We Learn From World War II About Peace Talks?

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 26, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.
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Sometimes it’s the smaller milestones that teach the bigger lessons. Take this past January 22. It was the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9417, issued in 1944 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board, tasked with rescuing European Jews from the Nazi death machine. During the remaining 16 months until the European war ended in May 1945, it’s estimated to have saved about 200,000 lives.

The anniversary didn’t make quite the same splash as, say, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination or the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. Actually, it passed almost unnoticed. That’s a pity. It’s worth a second look. It has a lot to teach us about the current moment in history.

This is an unusual moment for America. After a decade of entanglement in two ground wars, we’re now engaged in three separate negotiating processes, each addressing a different deadly international dispute. One is the six-power negotiation with Iran in Geneva over halting its nuclear weapons program. The second is the international conference, also in Geneva, to stop the carnage of the Syrian civil war. The third is the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

It’s hard to think of another time when three such urgent diplomatic processes were going on at once. They have different timelines, different casts of characters and different issues under dispute. But all involve global stakes.

All three reflect, at least partly, the Muslim world’s traumatic, often violent process of adjustment to modernity. All three concern the same 1,000-mile stretch of the Middle East between Jerusalem and Tehran. And right now, for better or worse, they’re all Barack Obama-John Kerry productions.

But they’re not the same. One pits an Iran with great-power ambitions against a rare, painstakingly constructed coalition of global powers determined to trim Iran’s sails. The second addresses a local Syrian protest that escalated into a flashpoint in the centuries-old conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, dragging in various regional and global allies. The third is even more local, involving a territorial dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, but echoes globally because of the passions it evokes throughout the Muslim world and beyond.

None of these disputes is World War II redux, despite what you sometimes hear. None involves a nation or axis of nations with the ambition, much less the power, to conquer and enslave the world as Germany and Japan tried to do. None involves a nation remotely capable of exterminating the world’s Jews.


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