Get Foreign Policy Out of DC

John Moulton Barn, Grand Tetons, Wyoming. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Jon Sullivan, PD Photo

If Trump seeks a rapprochement with the Kremlin, one lesson is clear: Get away from Washington.

A similar strategy was at work in 1995 when the unlikely site of Dayton, Ohio, was chosen for negotiations to end the war in the Balkans. “At the time, it did not sound like an impressive place for a major international conference,” Richard Holbrooke, the chief U.S. negotiator in the talks, explained in his memoir. The Washington Post tut-tutted the choice by leading its story with “Camp David it isn't.” Slobodan Milošević semi-seriously equated it with being “locked up like a priest,” Holbrooke said, and the European diplomats dismissed the location as “somewhere in America.”

Yet Holbrooke, like Baker, knew that “physical arrangements could make a difference; every detail mattered.”

Dayton offered what Washington could not. For one, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was “neutral ground” that could be closed off from the press and from outsiders. It was also remote enough, as the Washington Post reported, “to discourage Balkan warlords from running off to television studios in New York and Washington every time the negotiations hit a snag.”

Of course, Wright-Patterson was also a potent reminder of American hard power. "There is a morbid irony to the choice of an Air Force base," Zbigniew Brzezinski said at the time. "It encourages at least one of the parties to think how they got there, and what might happen to them if they don't get an agreement."

The strategy of holding the talks away from Washington in a controlled environment worked, and after tough negotiations an agreement was reached in November 1995. Since then, Holbrooke wrote, “‘Dayton’ has entered the language as shorthand for a certain type of diplomacy—the Big Bang approach to negotiations: lock everyone up until they reach agreement.”

Today, this “Dayton” approach seems tailor-made for an administration intent on landing “Big Bang” deals and for a president who touts his dealmaking skill. As with Jackson Hole, the location was essential to Dayton’s success.

There are other advantages to this “beyond the Beltway” strategy as well. Hosting the talks in Dayton allowed more Americans to participate in U.S. foreign affairs, if indirectly. Holbrooke explained:

Unlike the populations of, say, New York, Geneva, or Washington, which would scarcely notice another conference, Daytonians were proud to be part of history. Large signs at the commercial airport hailed Dayton as the ‘temporary center of international peace.’ The local newspapers and television stations covered the story from every angle, drawing the people deeper into the proceedings. When we ventured into a restaurant or a shopping center downtown, people crowded around, saying they were praying for us. Warren Christopher was given at least one standing ovation in a restaurant.

Dayton and Sarajevo, separated by five thousand miles, were now linked. Dayton-area hospitals and police, its colleges and businesses, went on to participate in programs with their Sarajevan counterparts. The Dayton mayor himself visited Bosnia in 1996. The Dayton Accords also sparked in that mayor, Mike Turner, a strong and lasting interest in foreign relations. In fact, Turner is now a U.S. representative on the House Armed Services Committee, the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and a respected Republican voice on foreign affairs. Not too bad for a guy from “somewhere in America.” It’s yet another reason to get out of Washington. Hosting high-profile diplomacy elsewhere means that local communities and up-and-coming politicians can gain new interests, connections and experience. Some of this might even find its way back to Washington. More Mike Turners bringing their Middle American pragmatism and sensibility on foreign affairs to DC would be of clear benefit for both parties.

There are also reasons that the Trump administration, specifically, should want to adopt this approach. Conducting diplomacy away from Washington will go a long way in nixing any charges of foreign governments paying for access. Trump’s opulent new DC hotel, which is already a site of controversy, has no equivalent in Des Moines, Grand Rapids or Sioux Falls. Finally, decamping the District will undoubtedly agitate the pundits and media fixed in Washington and New York who view anywhere apart from Acela’s Northeast Corridor as foreign. The incoming president, as has been shown, values such agitation highly.