Guardian/UK 17 October 2013
In February 1972, US president Richard Nixon made a "surprise" visit to China, recognising Mao Zedong's communist regime and opening the door to the more or less peaceful relations that have prevailed ever since between the two countries. Although Nixon had built his political career on the anticommunist campaigns that were in part a reaction to the "loss of China" in 1949, he was then following in the footsteps of General Charles de Gaulle, who had established diplomatic relations with China eight years earlier, in 1964..
In 1973 Nixon and Henry Kissinger signed the Paris accords that put an official end to the US war in Vietnam. A decade before that, John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev resolved the Cuban missile crisis by, on the Soviet side, withdrawing missiles from Cuba, and, on the US side, by promising not to attack Cuba and withdrawing missiles from Turkey.
These events changed the course of history away from endless confrontation and the risk of global war. It must be remembered that neither China nor the Soviet Union nor North Vietnam met western standards of democracy, less so in fact than present-day Iran. De Gaulle, Kennedy, Nixon and Kissinger were no friends of communism and, on the other side, neither Khrushchev, Mao nor the Vietnamese had any use for capitalism and western imperialism.
Peace is not something to be made between friends but between adversaries. It is based on a recognition of reality. When countries or ideologies are in conflict, there are only two issues: total destruction of one side, as with Rome and Carthage, or peace and negotiations. As history shows, in the case of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, peace was a precondition that made the internal evolution of those countries possible.
During recent decades, when it comes to the Middle East, the west has forgotten the very notion of diplomacy. Instead, it has followed the line of "total destruction of the enemy", whether Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the Assad regime in Syria or the Islamic Republic of Iran. That line has been based on ideology: a mixture of human rights fundamentalism and blind support for the "only democracy in the region", Israel. However, it has led to a total failure: this policy has brought no benefit whatsoever to the west and has only caused immense suffering to the populations that it claimed to be helping.
There are signs that the situation is changing. The British and then the American people and their representatives rejected a new war in Syria. Russia, the US and Syria reached an agreement over Syria's chemical weapons. US president Barack Obama is making moves towards honest negotiations with Iran, and the EU's foreign policy chief and Iran's foreign minister judged talks just concluded in Geneva as "substantive and forward-looking".
All these developments should be pursued with the utmost energy. The planned second Geneva conference on Syria must include all internal and external parties to the conflict if it is to constitute an important step towards finding a solution to the tragedy of that war-torn country. The unjust sanctions against Iran, as in the earlier case of Iraq, are severely punishing the population and must be lifted as soon as possible.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters are staunchly opposed to these moves towards peace. But they must realise that we might start asking questions about the biggest elephant in the room: Israel's weapons of mass destruction. Why should that country, alone in the region, possess such weapons? If its security is sacrosanct, what about the security of the Palestinians, or of the Lebanese? And why should the US continue to bankroll a country that superbly ignores all its requests, such as stopping settlements in the Occupied Territories?
Countries are inhabited by people possessing common humanity, with the right to live, regardless of ideology. Ideology divides. Our real interests presuppose peaceful relations between different social systems and mutual respect of national sovereignty. Our interests, well understood, coincide with those of the rest of mankind. [Abbrev.]
Hans Christof von Sponeck was UN assistant secretary general and United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq from 1998-2000. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann was president of the UN general assembly between 2008 and 2009 and foreign minister of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990. Denis J Halliday was UN assistant secretary general from 1994-98 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/17/middle-east-prize-peace