Diplomacy, once the province of wily men, has become an idealistic concept of late: We must talk to unfriendly regimes. Or, in the spirit of shedding our Bush era “arrogance,” we should probably listen to them.

We have a homespun, democratic notion that, if we can just talk things over (and give enough things away), we can get to yes, even with our most intractable enemy. We can be friends. We are the world.

It’s time for a reality check. Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said that “jaw, jaw” is better than “war, war.” But jaw, jaw can at times be equally fraught with peril, if practiced as anything other than a hardnosed art.

Turning the famous quote from Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz that war is the continuation of policy by another means on its head, some wag suggested that diplomacy is “war by another name.” I have a dreadful feeling that our enemies know this axiom better than we do. They are not crippled by our modern notion that we can just talk out our differences. “Let’s iron out this misunderstanding,” we say, when our enemies use the diplomatic process solely to gain advantage. A naiíve belief that two hostile nations can get together, listen, and inevitably become friendly nations is not a good negotiating principle, though it may be an excellent public stance for a canny diplomat. Just don’t believe too deeply in the good intentions of your enemy.

During the Oslo talks, which produced the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that have, in turn, produced such disastrous results for the Middle East, Dennis Ross, then chief U.S. diplomat, felt that the big problem was that the two sides, Israel and the PLO, had different “narratives” and that, if these two views could be reconciled, peace was a likely result. We just had to get to yes.

Israel understandably eager for peace, and willing to put credence in the process, signed onto an agreement to give away land in return for peace. Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote of the agreement, “For the messianic Israeli left, Oslo was more than a deal, it was a ratification [in their minds] of a new era in modern history, a new era in human relations and a radical break in history which they declared was occurring not at some point in the future, but now.”

The Palestinians, on the other hand, had no such idealistic views of the process, they would simply wait until they got the land, and then return to war, war. Israel was hopeful and naiíve, pretty much the same as the American left today, the Palestinians were clear-eyed, not averse to trickery, and totally immune from any idealistic pulls of conscience, other than toward their own ultimate victory.

Sometimes diplomacy is the correct approach to solving a problem. Nobody is talking about going to war with China over that country’s monetary policies, but some in Congress want to adopt strong-arm measures if China will not agree to raise the value of the Yuan. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson is urging diplomacy instead. Indeed, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab have called the proposed punitive tactics “the wrong approach,” in effect arguing for diplomacy.

But we must recognize that diplomacy is sometimes a waste of effort. We quite frequently have nothing to gain from talking to several regimes with which we share the globe, and their “leaders” (journalese for dictator) who may have a great deal to gain from talking to us. In addition to the prestige of negotiating with a superpower, they often wheedle a lot of goodies from us that go to prop up an awful regime. They may also garner enormous support from that segment of the American public that puts a touching faith in talking to our enemies. Do you think that Hugo Chavez would negotiate in good faith? You know the answer. Unfortunately, this harsh reality doesn’t deter many Americans from idealizing diplomacy. The Y put a touching faith in dangling carrots before Kim Jong Il (though I understand he prefers porn and cognac).

We are understandably afraid of many developments in the world. It is not pleasant to know that perfect strangers are ideologically committed to killing us. There may be times when diplomacy can avail us. But I fear that all too often we advocate talking to our enemies because of a combination of naiveté and fear. We seem willing to make any concession. Arguing with several talking heads around the time of one of North Korea’s mini-nuclear performances, I suggested that negotiating with certain regimes involves giving them too much. The pundits seemed ready to make all sorts of concessions. I could see barrels of supplies leaving the port for a rogue regime before we left the studio.

Diplomacy is a tricky art that developed in medieval times and was refined in the Renaissance. Because many of our enemies still live in the Middle Ages, I fear that, when it comes to diplomacy, they’re more sophisticated than we are.