Designing Positive-Sum Foreign Policy

Positive-sum outcomes generate valuable secondary benefits and pave the way to effective foreign policy. Despite Washington’s penchant in this century for zero-sum actions that look bold but fall short on delivery, achieving the policy-making master stroke of a positive-sum outcome may be as simple as being able to imagine how to redefine the argument.

Imagine a house about be inherited by multiple people, one looking to sell, one dreaming of spending the rest of his life there, etc. Given the mutually contradictory goals, the problem of passing the house on in a way that satisfies everyone appears insoluble. The problem must be reconceived. The lucky inheritors would have continued living without the new windfall, so, viewed reasonably, they cannot lose, i.e., they cannot end up worse off than before and should be at least somewhat pleased to end up somewhat better off than before. They simply need to discipline themselves to define their goal not as victory over an adversary but as gaining something. The relative desiring to live there may insist on doing so but perhaps will accept the personal use of just a few rooms or some sort of time-sharing arrangement with another of his beloved relatives, while the relative looking for cash might accept a buyout rather than insisting on selling the whole property in order to get rich quick. This problem is so simple in principle and so familiar to anyone who has ever inherited anything that it seems ridiculous to belabor it, yet it befuddles decent families every day, and the concept, translated into international relations, lies at the core of U.S. foreign policy failures that imperil our security.

In international relations, the inherited house may represent our planet or perhaps some territory in dispute or an abstract concept, e.g., “national security.” In reality, it represents some endlessly mutating bundle of abstract concepts, but that should facilitate, not complicate the problem: dividing a tiny cabin among a dozen needy relatives may indeed challenge a Solon but anyone ought to be able to devise a method for sharing a huge estate in a mutually satisfactory manner. Consider the bundle of abstract concepts at dispute in the Mideast.

The core concepts bedeviling the Mideast essentially amount to: national security, participation in the international political system, quality of life, and cultural freedom of choice. Our perspective toward resolution of disagreements determines whether these disagreements will be solvable or not. Viewed as a zero-sum situation, the goal of national security, for example, cannot be solved within the bounds of the multi-state system, i.e., security through superior strength automatically generates insecurity, thus containing the seeds of its own defeat for the weaker side will try harder to surpass the stronger. The goal of cultural freedom of choice, defined by picking winners and losers for large geographic regions, is also unrealistic if not unachievable given the mixture of populations, though the proponents of ethnic cleansing provoke endless horrors in their continuing efforts in that direction.

But if goals are defined as “progress toward…” and the bundle of conceptual goals addressed as a whole, then opportunities burst forth like flowers after a desert rain. This is not to argue that diplomats should be expected to join hands and treat each other with new-found love but simply to point out that a foreign policy focused on inventing modest, short-term, positive-sum steps forward is likely to be more effective over the long run than a foreign policy based on a simplistic, black-and-white view of the world. And this is particularly true for a country that aspires to lead the world but lacks the power to compel the world to obey, especially if that superpower benefits from stability, cooperation, and economic progress. The result of the three trillion dollar experiment in remaking Iraq by force should suffice to convince every American that whatever conception of the future world an American has in his or her mind, that future cannot be created by the U.S. through force.

Nonetheless, U.S. policy on a long list of specific issues demonstrates that the predominant world view on the Potomac remains black and white, which may simplify the writing of speeches and the foreign policy decision-making process but essentially rules out foreign policy success. Washington’s current approach to Iraq is dominated, to the degree that can be determined from public sources, by aerial attack, about as black and white as any policy can be. Yes, the White House recognizes that more subtle, delicate compromises will be required (e.g., forming a national Iraqi army, sharing the Iraqi state budget without sectarian discrimination, controlling the feared Shi’i militias, providing work for Iraq’s young men), but American hard thinking and resources focus on the air war. Destruction may in fact be required, but Iraq is already rather well destroyed, and ISIS is spreading further destruction. Still more destruction, akin at best to additional surgeons wielding knives, can do no more than buy time at the cost of increasing the difficulty of finding a solution before the patient dies. Yemen, where U.S. “ally” Saudi Arabia is running the aerial attacks is a similar case. Palestine, where U.S. “ally” Israel implements a dual policy of brief military attacks plus background political and economic repression of the whole Palestinian society, constitutes an even more extreme example of black-and-white policy: punishment if you do nothing and more punishment if you protest.

Zero-sum policy, i.e., policy whose goal is not problem resolution but defeat of the adversary, also reigns supreme on key non-military issues: Iranian surrender continues essentially to be the goal of Washington regarding the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute despite the obvious destabilizing impact of pushing Tehran into a corner, humiliating it, and leaving it concluding, with great justice, that Iranian national security will have been severely undermined. A technical solution to the nuclear issue that leaves Iran insecure and determined to get revenge would constitute a significant defeat for U.S. foreign policy, helping no one but Iranian…and Israeli…extremists.

U.S. foreign policy should be designed to achieve long-term goals consonant with U.S. interests. Instead of awarding the title of “U.S. ally” to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel that pursue foreign policy goals that harm U.S. national security, Washington should work with all states willing to be cooperative. Beyond that rather passive approach, Washington should take the search for productive conflict resolution strategies based on creative linkage among the various issues it faces in interstate relations as the primary purpose of foreign policy. Making it the “primary” purpose of U.S. foreign policy would involve: 1) a major shifting of budget priorities away from the Pentagon toward the State Department and the political analysis arms of other agencies and 2) a shift in tactics away from drone attacks toward the funding of programs to offer alternatives to the people of disadvantaged societies. When foreign aid for social work (not weapons) takes 90% of all U.S. funds used outside its borders, we will know that Washington’s foreign policy priorities have been changed. The search for positive-sum conflict resolution strategies would quickly reveal opportunities for the U.S. because one country will often treasure a success that costs another country little or even turns out to benefit both. Allowing Iran to participate in regional diplomatic conferences may reveal areas where Iranian and American goals overlap, as in combatting ISIS; allowing Iran to export natural gas to Europe would enhance European efforts to achieve energy independence from Russia.

Sincerity at the negotiating table is a critical component of an effective strategy for identifying positive-sum outcomes. Even a brother would be suspicious if, in discussions about how to share an inherited house, he were assured, “Oh, no problem, just let me have the house; you’ll always have a place to sleep.” A far more sincere-sounding message would be, “Tell me what set of rooms would make you comfortable, and I’ll give you a deeded right and the key by Tuesday, 5:00 pm.” At the U.S.-Iran level, Washington might offer support for an Iran-Turkey natural gas agreement, the long-awaited Iran-Pakistan pipeline, regular high-level military consultations on ISIS, and diplomatic recognition the day that the two sides sign a nuclear deal. Those U.S. politicians desiring the continuation of U.S.-Iranian tensions understand this, which explains their efforts to prevent Obama from having the power to offer Tehran the instant cancelation of specific aspects of the U.S. sanctions program, for the quid pro quo of U.S. promises on sanctions in return for Iranian promises on nuclear research lie at the core of any prospective solution.

The logical next step after A) deciding to search for creative positive-sum solutions and B) making one’s counterpart a specific offer is implicit in the above ideas of how Washington might effectively approach Tehran for a nuclear deal: think multilaterally. Rather than publicly slapping down friendly regimes that offer compromise solutions, consider how the U.S. might benefit from allowing other countries also to benefit and invite others to take the lead. Iranian economic ties with Turkey and Pakistan would not only benefit all three states but would raise the interest of each in supporting regional moderation, in turn strengthening the security of the West. An Iran with a rising middle class benefitting from economic integration trumps a marginalized Iran committed to asynchronous warfare as the route to influence. Making the political marginalization of Iran the goal simply amounts to rejecting a solution.

The use of force against third parties has a funny way of ruining relationships: we are all linked by a complex and highly adaptable network, be it us and our relatives and their friends and our friends, or states in the global political system. Actions send waves throughout the social network, reinforcing or weakening various links. The allies of A may be the best trading partners of A’s military rival, and if A is a superpower that started a war against its ally’s trade partner without seeking its ally’s advice, well…

  • Washington rudely dismissed Ankara’s effort to mediate the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute; now, several years later, Ankara has abandoned its regional good-neighbor policy and is toying with a dangerous policy of Sunni-first sectarianism, openly hostile to the Kurds and seemingly turning a blind eye to Islamic State recruitment practices. It appears that Ankara learned that the U.S. does not appreciate moderate advice from its friends, a lesson that apparently pushed Ankara away from the U.S. and toward policies that harm U.S. national interests.

  • Progress on U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks appears to be facilitating the slow, mutually-embarrassing dance toward anti-ISIS military coordination.

Actions are hard to target; everyone else is interpreting the significance for themselves of A’s behavior toward B. Since keeping track of all the ramifications on third parties and their attitudes toward you of something you do is effectively impossible, taking small steps that benefit as many actors as possible is better long-term policy than striking vicious blows that instantly alienate many and slowly worry many more.

How much effort is Washington putting into finding solutions to major regional conflicts that all sides will find at least tolerable? A solution to the Syrian conflict is hardly imaginable without both Ankara and Tehran gaining something.Shutting Tehran out of the diplomatic process constitutes nothing more than a defeat for long-term U.S. national interests, which are best served by persuading as many states as possible to cooperate. A solution to the ISIS/Iraq conflict requires reassuring both Sunni and Shi’i Iraqis. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires listening to Palestinian grievances.  Who in Washington is sincerely dedicated to listening and responding to the demands of all parties involved in these disputes? Black and white categorizations are for children. Can anyone name a political faction in the Mideast so morally superior as to merit total victory? Can anyone name a political faction so extremist that no significant number of “men in the street” credit it with defending their legitimate interests?

By moving the focus of attention from defeating an adversary to finding a linked set of agreements of mutual value, we (whether “we” are relatives or states) make the pie larger rather than spending our time snatching tiny slices out of each other’s hands.


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