Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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Clearly, there are no constructivists at Foggy Bottom

I've been remiss in not linking to the new State Department blog, DipNote. Part of the reason for the slow-motion link is that Joshua Keating panned it over at Passport ("most of the posts from the big shots consist of little more than summaries of their schedules.... zzzz."). Then there's been the outright mockery.

Clicking over, however, I found this Sean McCormack post about negotiating with Iran pretty interesting. McCormack -- who's the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs -- clearly articulates how Foggy Bottom thinks about the utility of negotiations:

One way the mainstream media breaks down coverage of Iran policy is to place people (both inside and outside government) into two neat categories those who want to engage Iran and those who want to isolate Iran. Admittedly, there are other ways to create camps on the Iran issue use of force vs. diplomacy, for example but the engage vs. isolation dichotomy is the one I most often read about those at State purportedly chomping at the bit to negotiate with an Iranian, any Iranian. Let me offer another way to look at the issue.

Ill start with a simple premise: diplomacy without incentives and disincentives (carrots and sticks) is just talking. Put another way, diplomacy without the proper mix will accomplish nothing when dealing with an adversary. The question then becomes one of establishing both sides of the equation incentives and disincentives -- before any negotiation. So those who want to divide the world into engage vs. isolate camps are missing the point. In fact, it is not a binary choice. Instead engagement and isolation are two different sides of the same coin.

Experience tells us that without creating significant leverage, you will fail in a negotiation unless of course you face a weak or unthinking opponent. So, unless the U.S. creates the right conditions for successful negotiations with Iran, we wont get anyplace.

This prompts a few questions:
1) Is McCormack correct? If he is, social constrictivists all over the world will be crying themselves to sleep.

2) Does this logic change when one views the very decision to engage in direct negotiations to be an incentive in and of itself?

3) How does the United States look when we don't answer letters?

posted by Dan on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM


I have no idea why social constructionists should be "crying themselves to sleep" over this statement. But anyway, it is also isn't much of a defense of the policy. There *are* carrots and sticks on the table: economic, military, and diplomatic.

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

Has the recent linking got anything to do with the Tara Foley post one wonders :), easy negotiation technique, put her in the room & the opposition males won't be able to concentrate :).
More seriously Sean McCormick is correct, to expect him to really comment on the wisdom of some of the rhetoric which is "theoretically" the stick, would be to much to ask, but certainly I think it is a fair posting.

P.S. Any self respecting blog should come up on Firefox url box for subscription, vs requiring clicking a link ( mind you given DD's blog is the same, perhaps this not the right spot to criticise that ).

posted by: Nigel on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

1. Yup.
2. No, this is the third side of the same coin.
3. You start answering his letters and the first thing you know he'll want to come over and see us. Oh wait...

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

Constructivists never said that you can't have incentives. what is more important is what those incentives symbolize, and to whom they are directed.

Constructivists are not some waffly liberals who think that letters and talking will solve everything. The importance of materiality (Money, Oil and the like) constructivists say are based upon the social environment in which they exist.

Thus, it all depends on what the US and Iran are negotiating for. Is the US going to allow Iran to have a civilian nuclear program? Not only would that materially benefit the country, i.e. giving electricity but is also hugely significant as a symbol of modernization.

On the flip side, if the US doesn't, not only will that matterially benefit the US (i.e. not potentially having nukes in the region), but also show "power-over" Iran, and the pertinence of hegemony (imagine the international significance of such a symbol!)

Often, in these cases, the material and the ideational are inseparable. That is what constructivists say.

posted by: David Quartner on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

"3) How does the United States look when we don't answer letters?"

Huh? Is answering a letter supposed to be a carrot or a stick? What is the objective of "answer[ing] letters"?

posted by: A.S. on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

Yeah, I don't understand how the quoted text related to the debate between realism and constructivism.

Other than that, I thought that it was fresh for a change to see a foreign policy official post something intelligent, albeit it seems to me, rather commonsensical.

Moreover, reading behind the lines, what I get from this piece is that McCormack is essentially telling us that all the rumors about a strike against Iran are a way of "strengthening our leverage" in a negotiation. However, since it seems to me that it's pretty clear to see that the military card is a very weak one and that the actual threat doesn't carry a lot of weight -because if anything, going down that road can make the US position in Iraq even more miserable, it seems like an empty bluff.

Another way to read it of course is that McCormack, the representative of the apparently sensible side of the administration debate is trying to put a good face on the threats of military action. However, I am still not convinced whether Cheney and his cohorts aren't macho crazy as they might be.

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

Well constructivists might be crying themselves to sleep, but for good reason; what has this policy with rationalist roots accomplished?

How successful has any of the negotiations with Iran been? Has the public policy approach really taken into account what the Iranian mindset is towards its own security and a nuclear deterrent's place within that sphere of thought? Does being one of the only victims of an WMD attack in the past 20 years change Iranian perceptions of its security? I think this recent article from the Financial Times outlines some of the Iranian thinking on this matter. (sorry I'm not sure how to embed links, so you'll have to copy and paste.)

This is not to say that a rationalist inspired approach would not work (at least from a constructivist perspective.) Persistant diplomatic discussions can lead to a greater awareness of opposing viewpoints and foster a willingness to compromise among participants. However several articles have highlighted the disjointed nature of the Iranian regime's decisionmaking structure, so its difficult to know how much participants at these negotiations will actually speak for the Iranian regime. ITs kinda like the State Department negotiating a trade agreement without fast track approval: its all words until it passess the senate floor.

posted by: Richard S. on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

There is nothing exceptionable about McCormack's post in the abstract. In the abstract, of course, "establishing both sides of the equation -- incentives and disincentives -- before any negotiation" can also be a formula for delay, and an argument against attempting negotiations for which there may be (again, this is the abstract we are talking about) little enthusiasm among the people to whom putative negotiators must report.

At this point I am more receptive to tutorials about the requirements of diplomacy from Dan Drezner than from spokesmen for Condoleezza Rice. I don't know whether Dan can manage a negotiation in the face of opposition from within the Bush administration, but at least he hasn't proven that he cannot. Sec. Rice's record suggests that all McCormack is really doing is laying out a philosophical justification for taking the path of least resistance -- which in this case means deferring negotiations with Iran until Bush is no longer President.

posted by: Zathras on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

One would think a combination of upping the number of US troops next door in Iraq by an additional 30,000, inserting a second aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf region, and getting Iran's top two financiers (China and Russia) to back US-led sanctions at the Security Council, would constitute as "significant leverage."

But after a while the actual willingness to negotiate becomes the real issue.

posted by: md on 10.10.07 at 11:08 PM [permalink]

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