USS Clueless - Negotiations

Stardate 20030101.2140

(Captain's log): I want something from you. You want something from me. We get together, talk it over, and each agree to give the other something. Shake hands, honorably follow our agreements, and everyone benefits.

That's the simplistic case, the idealized case of negotiations. It assumes that the deal is to everyone's benefit, so that there's a natural incentive for everyone to work for a deal. It assumes that everyone is honorable, and actually fulfills their part of the bargain. It assumes that each has something to offer that the other actually wants.

Actually, that deal happens billions of times per day, at stores when we buy things. But the "talk it over" part is really relatively brief; it consists of you (the customer) looking at what's on the shelves at the store and looking at the price, and deciding if it's worth it. (In some places, at some times, you might go to the storekeeper and dicker, but that's rare in the industrialized world.)

It gets more tricky when you face situations where both sides can't be happy with the deal, or where only one side wants a deal, or where one side has nothing to offer that the other wants, or where one or both sides can't totally be trusted. There's been a lot of theoretical study in economics of these issues. Game theory can be applied to it. The analysis can be extremely fiendish in some cases.

Diplomacy is the word we use to refer to negotiations between political entities, usually but not always nations. Some diplomacy is trivial because there is an evident bargain which can be made which is obviously fair and to the benefit of both sides, but you can't rely on that and where diplomats earn their pay is when such a deal isn't possible.

Why should anyone ever want to make a deal? Because they're better off with the deal than without it. If the other side actually wouldn't be better off, and if the deal you propose would actually cost them more than it gains them (from their point of view), then how do you get them to deal? You make it so that they're better off with the deal than without it. You change their situation.

Which is why you utilize carrots and sticks. In any case where negotiations break down because there's no mutually-satisfactory solution, then you try to change the calculation. He's got this scale, and you can pile carrots on the "accept" side to make it more attractive, while you can pile sticks on the "reject" side to make that less attractive. (Of course, he's doing the same to you.)

Carrots can be many things. They can involve money. They can involve concession of territory, or grant of certain trading rights on favorable terms. They can be agreements to act in certain ways, or to not act in certain ways.

Sticks also can be many things. At the low level, a lot of sticks are just words. You can publicly condemn the other guy and hope to embarrass him. You can talk to mutual friends and try to convince them to apply pressure to him. You can recall your ambassador. You can threaten to break off the negotiations entirely.

You can also impose punitive tariffs, or employ boycotts, or impose trade sanctions. You can blackball him in international organizations where you're a member and he wants to be. Simply the threat to hold a grudge is a stick. And in the most extreme cases, you can use physical violence against him, which is to say you can go to war.

Sometimes the carrots and sticks are actually empty balloons, full of nothing but hot air. Those are respectively "empty promises" and "empty threats". Sometimes you add a stick to the scale and the other guy doesn't believe there's anything to it. Sometimes you offer a carrot and he doesn't believe you will actually follow through. The value of a carrot or stick is a function of how important the other guy thinks it is, and whether he believes that you mean what you say.

Every carrot and stick you use costs you something. Some are cheap and some are expensive. Each also has a value to the other side, positive or negative, and there is only small correlation between how much one of them costs you, and what value the other side places on it.

You get this ongoing bidding process. You may add a stick, and he adds his own stick: "If you do this, I'll respond with this and you won't like it, so why don't you just take that stick right there back off the table again, OK?" Those are called deterrents.

Eventually the point is reached where one side decides that further negotiations, further additions of carrots and sticks, will only make their situation worse, and then an agreement is reached. Or else no one does that, and one side decides to stop negotiating, and then you get a war.

Carrots and sticks both have a place in negotiations, and few major controversial negotiations are successful without them. Of course, not all negotiations are successful; they may yield no agreement, or they may yield an agreement which leaves one side sullen and angry, or they may yield an agreement that no one sticks to which effects no change. (All diplomacy is always successful, if you listen to what the diplomats say afterwards. But if they talk about how it was successful because there was a "frank exchange of opinions", or because "they agreed to keep dialogue going", then you know that nothing important actually took place.)

Sticks are evil. Sticks are cruel. Sticks mean being a son-of-a-bitch. Sometimes the stick is minor, perhaps even negligible, but if the issues are serious, the sticks can be huge, and in that case what you are threatening is to open a truly large can of whoop-ass on the opponent, to truly do something terrible to him.

Even something as simple as imposition of a punitive tariff is cruel. If you put a tariff on some particular product the other guy had been selling to your nation, then whoever it was in that nation which was making that product will face a decline in sales. (And the people in your nation who were buying it face a drastic price increase and may have to do without.)

It's impossible for a stick to not be cruel, because the purpose of a stick is to threaten, or actually do to your opponent something he doesn't like. It can't be effective if it is not cruel; it is the cruelty which is the essential characteristic of stickdom.

Not all carrots or sticks are effective in any given negotiation. A given carrot may be immensely valuable to one guy, but totally useless to another. A given stick may terrify one guy, and cause another to laugh.

Among civilians in this nation, there are substantial legal limits on the kinds of sticks we're permitted to use, for instance in business negotiations. If I say to someone, "Sign this contract or I'll kill your child" then he's going to sic the police on me, and I'll end up in prison. Equally, if someone doesn't fulfill their end of the contract I have the ability to take them to court, and to use the power of the state to enforce the contract or to extract damages from him. These things given to us by the state help us to trust contracts, which helps make large business deals more possible, which helps make the commerce of the nation run more smoothly. There's still a stick, and it can be a huge one. But it isn't wielded by either negotiator; it's held by the government and will be used against either side who breaks the rules. (At least in theory.)

But in international relations there are no such limits, and given the capabilities that nations have and the kinds of issues they are dealing with, the sticks used in negotiations can be monumentally terrible. There is no independent court system. There is no overriding authority which enforces good faith. It's a jungle out there and no one will protect you except yourself and your friends.

There is a dream, held by some. It involves institution of a similar kind of law internationally, to permit nations to negotiate with one another within an environment similar to the one that we citizens operate under. There would be some sort of extra-national authority which would limit what nations could do within negotiations; which would offer disinterested adjudication and arbitration, and which would punish transgressors who failed to live up to their agreements or who used unacceptable threats while negotiating. It is the hope of those proposing this idea that if everyone goes along with it, that this will substantially reduce the size and intensity of sticks used in negotiations, and war will be a thing of the past.

The primary proponents of this new way of doing things are Europeans (and sympathetic academics), who believe that they have now transcended the brutal international order of the past, where all nations were armed to the teeth and where negotiations often involved the threat of war, or happened over the sound of battle. European diplomats believe that there should be an international court where nations could take their grievances for binding arbitration, and hope to institute an international system where all nations feel as if they should actually concede their grievances if arbitration goes against them. The idea is that nations would cede considerable amounts of sovereignty to some international authority, and live as "citizens of the world".

It is a worthwhile dream. It represents a better way. If it were in effect, far fewer people would suffer. Unfortunately, though I wish it could be made to happen, I don't believe it can be. It is inherently unstable; even if it could be instituted, it would fall apart.

It discounts the possibility of bad faith; it ignores both the "Prisoner's dilemma" and "the Tragedy of the Commons". If a cheater ends up in conflict with an honorable nation, the cheater may agree to arbitration. If the arbitrator rules in favor of the cheater, the honorable nation will concede and the cheater wins. But if the arbitrator rules the other way, the cheater can ignore him and continue to pursue the point. There's everything to be gained from arbitration, but nothing whatever to lose. And thus cheating is an advantage when most of the world is honorable, leading directly to the tragedy of the commons. Even if such a system could be established, there would be an incentive for at least some to break the rules, for doing so would be to their advantage.

Europe has been trying to set an example by being internationally active in diplomacy, while at the same time having no ability to project military force. And it hasn't been working at all well. As a general principle, if all you have are carrots, or only feeble and laughable sticks, then you don't have any way to make "reject" unpalatable, so the only way you can make "accept" more palatable is to pile lots more carrots on the scale than you would really like to, and in fact in some cases the Europeans have found themselves having to give away the farm in order to get an agreement.

Worse, they're finding that in some cases they have no carrots to offer, and also have no sticks, and as a result their intended negotiating partner refuses to even talk to them. (EU's Solana believes he knows how to settle the problem between the Israelis and Palestinians, but the solution he proposes involves major concessions by Israel. Solana has nothing to offer Israel which it thinks would offset that cost, so quite naturally Israel refuses to deal with him.)

When Europe has faced cases where it has no adequate carrots with which it is willing to part, and no sticks to apply, and wants an agreement anyway, the only remaining solution is whining, which has been notably unsuccessful.

Carrots and sticks do indeed both have a place in negotiations and it is rarely possible to gain a satisfactory conclusion without having both in your briefcase, even if you don't place them on the table. But they differ in critical ways. All other things being equal, usually if a carrot and stick are evaluated as being equally valuable by the other side, then the carrot will cost you more to offer, for the simple reason that it's easier to destroy than to construct. If I offer a billion dollars to the other side, I have to find a billion dollars. But I may be able to cause a billion dollars worth of damage to him by spending far less than that (though there may be other non-monetary costs involved for me).

Carrots also tend to be more specific; a given stick can usually be applied more broadly, which means that sticks are more versatile. (These are, of course, generalizations.)

On the other hand, actual use of a stick is more likely to have unintended consequences, which could be tragic or even catastrophic. Sticks are more risky. And sticks are inherently evil, inherently cruel. For some, that doesn't matter (because they are not bothered by the idea of being cruel), but for those of us who live in nations which pride themselves in their humanity, there is a distinct discomfort involved in the use of sticks. (Which is one of the reasons why the Europeans believe that big sticks should be abolished, though by no means the only reason nor even the most important one.)

Is it wrong to use a stick? It depends.

In particular, it depends on whether you acknowledge that a moral person may sometimes deliberately act in a manner which is evil because doing so supports a greater good. On one level most people acknowledge that this can be necessary. When a crazed madman holds a class full of children hostage and threatens to start killing them, we do not condemn the police sniper who picks him off. He would not be tried for murder; on the contrary, we might give him some sort of award.

But when we begin to talk about massively evil acts, for some people a line is crossed where the degree of evil is so great that it could never be justified. Thus to them there are certain kinds of acts of war which should always be wrong, for everyone everywhere, eternally. They call them war crimes, and think of that as being an aspect of international law.

There have been attempts at various times in history to try to place certain limitations on what is permitted in war. The pope declared that it was unlawful for Europeans to use certain weapons on the battlefield (though he decided it was OK to use them against the Arabs in the Crusades). There is a long history of "victor's justice", where people on the losing side of a war are prosecuted and may be punished by imprisonment or execution.

The most successful example of that kind of thing has been the Geneva Conventions (there were several) but part of the reason why is that the Geneva convention is not an unconditional ban. If two nations at war are both signatories to the Geneva Convention, then both are bound by it. If either violates a section of it, the other is then free to do so as well.

And if a signatory to the Geneva Convention fights a war with a nation which is not a signatory, the signatory is not bound by the rules of the Geneva Convention (though may still follow them in part, voluntarily, for reasons of its own).

As such things go, the Geneva Convention has been relatively successful, but the main reason is those two principles. Because I am not bound to follow a rule that you have broken, you then have an incentive not to break that rule because you fear what I might do in retaliation.

And because I am not bound by the rules if you are not a party to the treaty, you don't get to free-ride and gain the benefits of it without making the commitment to also follow it.

One of the best examples of how the Geneva Convention has been successful was the fact that chemical weapons were never used in the European Theater in WWII. After the horrors of the trenches of WWI, where every side used chemical weapons heavily (resulting in huge numbers of dead and horribly maimed men) it was agreed that henceforth they would not be used in war. The chemical weapons of WWI were plenty horrible, but the march of progress meant that by WWII Germany had developed entirely new kinds of chemical weapons of unprecedented lethality, such as Sarin. And yet, even later in the war when the situation became dire and Hitler cast about for any way at all to survive and win, he never ordered an attack using chemical weapons.

Not, of course, because of the Geneva Convention. Hitler was not known for obeying agreements he himself had signed, and certainly not those imposed on him or agreed to by previous German governments. Hitler repudiated the treaty of Versailles, and ignored his obligations regarding treatment of prisoners of war with regard to the horde of Soviet soldiers he captured. He ignored many other aspects of the Geneva Convention, but he never broke this one.

He certainly could have. The V2 was unstoppable and caused great but localized destruction, because the V2 came straight down on its target (e.g. London or Antwerp) at supersonic speeds. It carried one ton of high explosives which is, in the grand scheme of things, not really very much given the cost of manufacture of the V2 even using slave labor. It was hoped by Hitler that this would cause a feeling of defenselessness and helplessness in the Brits and cause them to make concessions in order to stop the attacks, a classic application of a stick to diplomacy, but one which didn't work. How much more damaging would a V2 have been if it had instead carried a ton of Sarin instead of a ton of TNT? Fifty times? How much more terrifying would it have been? That could well have made the difference.

Except that it wouldn't have, for the British (and Americans) would have responded to it not by making concessions, but by retaliating in kind. By the time the war had turned seriously against Germany and Hitler began looking for a miracle, the British and Americans were routinely putting hundreds of heavy aircraft into the sky over Germany to bomb, well, nearly everything. At the time neither had nerve gas (though they probably could have developed such things if need be; the theory wasn't all that complicated) but they did have substantial stocks of the older weapons, such as mustard gas. If a V2 had struck London carrying Sarin, there would have been an RAF bombing raid on Berlin very shortly thereafter (a day or two) which dropped upwards of a hundred tons of mustard gas. Even for Hitler, that wasn't acceptable.

All through the war, both the British and Americans maintained stocks of chemical munitions in the theater. In Italy the Luftwaffe sank an American freighter which was loaded with mustard gas, and it's still there and still leaking. (There isn't really anything that can be done about it.)

It wasn't "international law" which prevented Hitler from using chemical weapons, it was the threat of deterrence. It was his absolute certainty that we would not hesitate to respond in kind, with chemical weapons of our own. That is the nature of a deterrent, and that is specifically why the Geneva Convention does not bind you to follow any rule once your opponent has broken it.

That is the nature of the deterrent which made it possible for us to survive the Cold War without it turning white hot for 6 hours, leaving most of the industrialized world in ruins. It was steely-eyed men in silos and on submarines and piloting bombers who operated systems designed to deliver fusion bombs onto enemy cities, so as to deliberately slaughter as many civilians as possible. Enemy civilians were not collateral casualties for attacks on military targets; enemy civilians were the target, and the battle plan was designed to maximize the number of enemy civilians who would die.

It was their commitment, their acceptance that if they received the order to actually do such inconceivable and unconscionable things that they would indeed follow their orders. Perhaps with tears in their eyes, a sick feeling, a prayer on their lips; but still they would follow their orders.

Tens of thousands of nameless, faceless men in the USSR, in the US, in China and in Europe took that vow, for they knew that they must embrace the possibility of gargantuan sin, and perhaps eternal damnation, in order to prevent even greater evil. It was the largest stick to ever appear on a negotiating table.

When I discussed war a couple of days ago, I discussed my view of how it fit into international politics, based on my study of Clausewitz and many other things, along with much contemplation and the application of the tools of systems analysis I learned as an engineer. I do not claim that my view represents any large group of academics; I don't even know if it does (and don't really care too much, either). Some of my conclusions also directly contradict certain things that Clausewitz himself said, but I slavishly follow no man. I view Clauswitz the way I view Darwin: each made a key breakthrough which inspired much that followed him, but neither man was perfectly correct. Darwin had no knowledge of genetics, and placed too much faith in gradualism. Equally, some ways of reading Clauswitz suggest that he thinks that war is always violent.

It is my conclusion from consideration of the system of diplomacy, based on the kind of practical analysis of it that I use as an engineer, that "war" (in the sense of violent war) is one kind of stick, and that there is little fundamentally different about it than any of the other sticks except for the fact that it has no ceiling. In my discussion here, I used the term "war" in a more generic way; in this post I have substituted the word "stick" for that concept. All sticks are cruel. All sticks are evil. Not all sticks are violent.

Other kinds of sticks typically cost you less and also cost the opponent less, and thus have less value as bargaining chips. But when the stakes are low, you may not need to use large bargaining chips. The one big difference regarding war or the threat of it is that it is the only stick which permits you to threaten the other side with infinite calamity. When all other threats available to you are inadequate to the job, war can be as heavy as you need it to be on the scale.

There is one other way in which war differs: among sticks, it is the only one which actually permits you to unilaterally "solve" the diplomatic problem that faces you, without cooperation from the other side (and even despite his best efforts to the contrary).

The use of violence in international relations comes down to one of three cases. First, you can threaten/use violence directly against an opponent to make him miserable enough to give in. Second, you can use/threaten violence against an opponent to neutralize some threat he's made against you.

Third, you can use war instead of diplomacy for purposes of settling an issue by annihilating an opponent outright. Usually this means you eliminate the government involved, but in extreme cases it can conceivably mean genocide. If you face an opposing population every one of whom holds firm to a goal you find intolerable, who will never abandon that goal while they live, then the only solution is eradication. It is a highly unlikely scenario, but not impossible, and it's happened in history. (Rome solved the problem of Carthage that way.)

(The fourth case is violence because of insanity or delusion. It's been argued that the attack in September, 2001, may have been such a case.)

There have been cases where the goals of the two sides were diametrically opposite, so that any compromise was obviously impossible and each side viewed the issue as being of paramount importance. In such cases war is almost inevitable. One side will lose, though sometimes both sides lose. The issue must be settled and no other means is available of deciding it, so both sides field armies and the corpses start to pile up.

This is in many ways deeply unsatisfying (to say the least). It is horrible because of what it does to those who fight the war, and what it does to those unlucky enough to be where it gets fought, and potentially because of what it might do to everyone in the world. But it is perhaps even more unsatisfying because victory and defeat are not a function of the rectitude of the causes involved. It is entirely possible for the "bad guys" to win.

In some cases the fundamental issue is whether one of the two sides should even exist, where compromise is impossible because either the answer is "yes" or "no". The American colonies said "We declare independence." The King of England said, "Not if I have anything to say about it." After years of war, the King (actually, his advisors) gave up, and the United States was founded.

In 1861, as debate in this nation about slavery reached its peak, the southern states declared secession from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The government of the United States refused to accept the existence of the CSA, and went to war to forcibly return the seceding states to the Union. The CSA lost.

There are similarly intractable issues involved in Bosnia (and the rest of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito), in northern Ireland, in Israel, in Taiwan, and between the US right now and a cloudy, shadow movement I've been referring to as "Arab Traditionalism". In such cases. where compromise seems to be impossible and when one side decides it is no longer willing to wait for a conclusion, then there will be conflict. The conflict can only end when one side accepts that it cannot get what it wants, and gives up, or when one side ceases to exist entirely.

Genocide is not required in most such cases, thankfully. After the Union conquered and destroyed the CSA, it was not necessary to round up and slaughter everyone who had worked to establish or defend the Confederacy. They accepted that they had given it their best shot, had lost, and that the issue had been settled.

But if you face an enemy who refuses to give up, whom nothing will ever dissuade, then the only way to end the argument is to kill him. If there is a large mass of such people none of whom will ever give up, then you may face having to kill them all. (I don't think we face that in the war we're fighting now, I'm happy to say.) That is the infinite catastrophe which war makes possible that no other diplomatic stick can apply, and it is the ultimate solution for problems which can be solved no other way (except surrender).

But even when war is an adjunct to diplomacy rather than a solution where diplomacy has broken down, it is often necessary to do truly horrific things, or at least to be prepared to do them. Either you are directly threatening horrible consequences to the other side to force concessions, or else you directly threaten horrible consequences to neutralize his threat against you.

But your threat is only valuable if he believes you'll carry it out. If you do not have the ability to do what you threaten, or if you have the ability but not the ruthlessness, and if he knows it, then he can ignore your threat with impunity.

In such cases it is sometimes necessary, as part of the negotiating process, to actually implement one or more of your threats. Partly that adds to his pain and makes the situation urgent, for him, and partly that proves that your other threats, perhaps of larger evils, are not empty. He comes to know that you really are a badass and he better not take your threats lightly.

Is it evil to nuke a city? Of course it is. Should we foreswear ever doing so? Absolutely not. We must be willing to do so. We absolutely must publicly and forthrightly state that we are ready and willing and able to do so. We absolutely must maintain the wherewithal to do so.

It is essential that we do such things, because there is no defense against nuclear attack. For most opponents we face which have such weapons and delivery systems and who have the capability to destroy our cities that way, the only means we have to prevent them from nuking one of our cities is our clear determination to respond with infinite catastrophe. We cannot neutralize their capability, but we may be able to neutralize any such intention, and that is good enough.

If anyone ever nukes us even once, even in a small way, we will commit genocide in retaliation. We will not use a measured response; we will not cause them damage proportional to the damage that was done to us. Any offensive use of a nuke against us will result in a maximum response by us against the perpetrator. This does not necessarily have the ability to deter all potential adversaries who might consider such an attack against us, but it can and has deterred many. Any crack in that determination and there would no longer be a deterrent, and we would all be in far greater peril.

Should we foreswear first use of nukes? Again, no, but in this case the calculation is more complicated. There are places in the world where we have been in a situation such that if we committed to never being the first to use a nuclear weapon, that the entire situation would become far more perilous. Part of what maintained the stalemate in Europe during the Cold War was the fact that if there had been a Soviet invasion of western Europe, we would have used small nukes to stop it when no other means was available to do so. It was assumed that this would lead to escalation and catastrophe, and because of that, any attack by either side across the frontier would have led to annihilation of both sides. As a result, there was no war.

Not nuking an enemy city is a good thing. Not having any of your own cities nuked is even better. We survived the Cold War without millions of us being turned to radioactive ash because we refused to rule out genocide. It's that simple. It was our willingness to commit what many consider an infinite evil which saved us all.

All of this was intended to lay the groundwork for responses to several letters I received regarding this post, but given the length of this, that will have to wait for another article.

Update 20030103: And here is that article.

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