Explaining the Opening of Diplomatic Dialogue

There has been much blather about Obama kow-towing to Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega at the recent Summit of the Americas conference, as well as his overtures to Cuba and Iran. At a minimum, his opponents accuse him of sending the wrong message (apparently it involves “legitimizing” governments that have already been majority elected by their own constituents), and at the worst he is labeled a “socialist” and a “traitor” to the US ideals. The drumbeat of hatred in disloyal opposition is stoked by conservative media outlets, who openly incite the ideologically inclined to physically act upon their irrational fears.

Notwithstanding that type of beat-up, and partisan idiocy aside, there is no reason to be alarmed. US broaching of diplomatic dialogue with various adversaries is a tried and true aspect of conventional diplomacy. Henry Kissinger was a major exponent of the approach, so it is no less useful for US President Obama and Secretary  Clinton to do so. 

As a proven diplomatic tactic, one that the Clinton re-treads who run Obama’s foreign policy apparatus clearly subscribe to, the offer to thaw relations between the US and Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is a “tit-for-tat” strategy designed to gauge the intentions of the opponent. Derived from game theory, it simply states that you open with a cooperative move, then replicate the opponent’s response. If the opponent responds with a cooperative gesture, then continue the iteration. If they opponent responds in an uncooperative fashion, then respond in kind, and only change when the opponent changes the tone of its response. In other words, always replicate the opponent’s move.

As the stronger actor, the US is advantaged by such a strategy, as it puts the other side in a quandary vis a vis domestic constituencies and its own rhetoric (Iran is the current case in point). If there are internal contradictions within the political structure of the opponent, such a strategy is designed to expose them.   For example, the US (under Reagan of all people!) told General Pinochet that they would prefer that he not stand for the presidency of Chile under his rigged constitutional referendum in 1988, and offered several inducements (personal as well as political) for his cooperation. He refused, so the US responded by publicly announcing that, in the interest of US-Chile relations, it would prefer that he did not assume the presidency even if he won.  The conservative coalition that backed him splintered over the offer. He consequently lost the referendum and his hand-picked successor lost the 1989 election that restored democracy to Chile. The point is that Reagan and company wanted a conservative post-authoritarian elected government untainted by the name “Pinochet.” When he showed his megalomaniac tendencies and his support base fractured, Chileans got a left-center, pro-market government instead. Win-win on all counts from a post-Reagan US perspective.

I use the Chilean example only because I am personally familiar with it, but the general point is this: a willingness to talk after periods of estrangement is a diplomatic tit-for-tat opening. It puts the ball in the opponent’s court and gives (US) politicians room to delineate their subsequent moves. Exploiting media opportunities to show “friendliness” is symbolic sop thrown out to soften the opponent’s constituency, and can only be undermined by resistance from one’s own constituency (which is why Fox News and its Republican lapdogs are barking so ferociously about it).  Watching local and international media spinmeisters weave their interpretations (however governments may succeed in controlling interpretations), both sides can measure the external and internal consequences of their respective responses, and carry on accordingly. That gives them a degree of separation from political responsibility in the event of failure.

Closer to home, the question arises: does New Zealand understand the utility of a tit-for-tat strategy when dealing with places like, say, Fiji? If not, MFAT should read the above, and the vast literature that underpins it.

6 thoughts on “Explaining the Opening of Diplomatic Dialogue

  1. How do you react if your opponent presents two moves at once? One cooperative and another more or less equally uncooperative?

  2. What if the Prime Minister declares war on Fiji on the morning news, and then your defence defence guts the military on the evening news?

  3. T: The rule holds: In all cases repeat the opponent’s move. That has been the case recently with Iran recently, where the Iranians combine hints at being receptive to dialogue with ongoing denunciations and threats. The US, seeing the latter as more for domestic consumption in Iran, responds by pulling out of the Geneva meetings on human rights at a late date and expresses regret at the rhetoric, all the while quietly sending working parties to meet with Iranian diplomats in third countries.

    TS: The silliness and irrelevance of your hypothetical aside, that would presume a total lack of communication between the PM and NZDF and a lack of rationality on the part of the PM (unless you think that declaring war on Fiji would be sane). One thing is certain–the Fijian response would be uncooperative.

  4. Pablo,

    I think what Tom is referring to is this, in which John Key floated the (rather alarming) idea of contributing peacekeeping troops to Fiji, as if it were a live war zone or conflict state.


  5. Lew:
    If that is the case then Tom has reading comprehension problems, since the PM never mentioned “declaring war” on Fiji. Mind you, publicly voicing the idea that NZ might contribute armed personnel to a future (hypothetical) multinational peace-keeping force in Fiji was undiplomatic (and hence unwise) in the extreme, and he promptly backtracked on his original comments. But his comments were not irrational, whereas Tom’s declaration of war scenario clearly is. I think Tom was just taking the piss…

  6. My take is Obama was just being Obama. That the State Department can live with the change, because after all they are diplomats and they understand how all this works down the line, is why they had no reason to advise him against being himself.

    On the case of Fiji – surely the scenario changes when the legitimacy of the government is in question.

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