While conventional foreign policy on the left tends to favor “engagement” with tyrannical regimes, so-called realists urge accommodation of or even alliance with them. Dalibor Rohac, rejecting both approaches, explains that negotiations with despots must follow different rules from negotiations with democracies:
When authoritarians engage in “multilateralism” or “dialogue,” they are not doing the same things that liberal democracies do. A government that is accountable to voters faces public scrutiny and criticism of its foreign-policy decisions. Large and consequential commitments made by liberal democracies—such as EU and NATO membership, for example—do not reflect just the whim of the leaders of the moment but a broader societal consensus, running across political divides. . . .
Because of [the] much smaller number of veto holders, one should accord a much lower degree of trust to promises made by authoritarians. Not even the staunchest supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, [as the nuclear deal with Tehran is formally known], would dare to argue that the deal means a material shift in the long-term ambitions of Iran’s mullahs, who are likely to scrap it the moment doing so becomes convenient for them. After all, the regime did not acquiesce in the temporary restrictions on its nuclear program in good faith, but only because the deal also empowered it to play a much more aggressive game in the Middle East. . . .
Alas, the prevailing orthodoxy of the past decades has assumed that any form of cooperation and multilateralism is good and that essentially any dispute between any regimes can be tackled by using diplomatic tools. The failure of that approach to deliver the goods—in Syria, for example, or in eastern Ukraine—has provoked a backlash, manifested today in the “realist” view of international relations as a Hobbesian zero-sum competition, which sees no value in international structures beyond those reflecting the immediate self-interest of countries. . . .
[A] safe and open international order hinges on whether the character of the political and economic institutions of countries that are shaping it is sound. If taken seriously, that insight would shift the focus of foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic and provide it with a basic compass: to help increase the returns, economic and otherwise, of democratic governance and rule of law—and to push back systematically against authoritarianism, despotism, and kleptocracy. For one thing, the West can make it much harder for dictators and their cronies to hide their money in London, Switzerland, or Florida. There are also ways of cracking down on North Korean and Iranian business interests and illicit revenue. . . .