Economics & Trade Policy Global Policy Studies & International Security LBJ School Politics and Governance

What a Crisis Taught me About Diplomacy

A few weeks ago I took part in a policy simulation and learned as much about international relations in forty-two hours as I did in an entire semester of studying.  Political theory is an important basis for understanding international relations, but it is incomplete without including the complex levels of diplomacy as well.

During my first year as a Global Policy Studies student at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, I read thousands upon thousands of pages of political theory.  I closely watched news coverage of 2015 Iran Nuclear deal and tried to apply what I had learned to this real world situation.  I found that every model I had learned from classical realism to constructivism fell short of explaining the complex results of the negotiations I viewed from my TV screen.   

It was not until the spring semester that I realized what I was missing.  During the first week of February, the Global Policy Students of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, in conjunction with the Army War College, participated in a crisis simulation presided over by Ambassador Thomas Pickering.  Students played the parts of diplomats from various countries attempting to resolve a crisis.   Each group had embedded military and diplomatic mentors whom advised and observed the groups during the exercise.  The exercise modeled a flair up of tensions between India and Pakistan one year from now in a fictionalized future.  

The talks began following a tense military situation that could have gone nuclear.   Troop movements and skirmishes left thousands of people displaced and in need of aid within disputed Jammu-Kashmir region. My classmates and I spent three days running around in suits negotiating and ultimately achieved little more than a cease-fire between India and Pakistan, as well as an agreement to continue talks.  The purpose of the exercise, however, was to learn about the diplomatic process. During those three days, I discovered several of my assumptions about international relations to be deeply flawed, both what it means for a country to have a strong position and what success in negotiations looks like.

The first thing I realized is that there is no such thing as winning.  During the simulation no group achieved the majority of their primary goals, probably because so many of them were in conflict.  The United States and the United Kingdom strove to achieve autonomy for the Jammu-Kashmir region and sought support for a human rights investigation.   On the other hand, China, Russia, and India failed to conclusively block the possibility that a human rights investigation would be conducted.  They feared such an investigation would set a precedent for the United Nations to investigate their countries for human rights abuses.    These issues deadlocked because neither group could compromise their positions.

The only thing almost achieved was that, by the end of the talks, India and Pakistan had verbally agreed, more or less, to the proposed emergency humanitarian aid plans proposed by the other parties.  You could say that all parties involved “lost” because they did not get what they wanted.  From a diplomatic standpoint though, the talks were successful for all parties.  No parties were forced to give up anything they were completely unwilling to.  They did not walk out of negotiations with less than they began with.  In fact, everyone walked away with slightly more: the first steps towards emergency aid and an agreement for further discussion.

Our mentors, who had all seen many policy simulations, considered the exercise a success.  During the post simulation wrap up the mentors all praised their teams on stage.  They said they had seen good group cohesion and intelligent negotiation tactics.   The delegations had successfully begun a negotiation process and achieve small goals.

The experience changed how I see the diplomatic process.  It provided the insight I originally lacked.  Looking back at the July 15th Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 and the EU, I see that I should not have looked at the situation in terms of absolutes.  There has been a considerable amount of discussion in the American press over what the United States had “won” or “lost” in the Iran deal and if it was a mistake or success.  From my own experiences in the policy simulation, I argue that thinking of negotiations in terms of winning and losing is largely unproductive.  The question of how the agreement reached could be better or worse, however, remains very relevant.

Another important takeaway from the negotiations is that a country’s relative financial or military strength is not as important in a talks as the strength of its position in the negotiations.  What I saw in the policy simulation is that the only leverage one country has against another is that which they are willing to use.  Any advantage one country has over another is irrelevant if it cannot be used.  For example, during the simulation the United States had considerably more military power than India, but it did not threaten to cut off all trade or nuke them. That would be ridiculous.  Even when India would  not agree to a human rights investigation of India’s actions in Jammu-Kashmir, the United States could not leverage its vast strength to make them budge.  

During the simulation, India actually possessed a significant advantage in that they were willing, much of the time, to walk away from the table when it suited their interests.  India’s primary goal was to maintain the status quo, as it already had the disputed territories.  The Indian delegation needed only to participate in talks just enough to make sure the other countries were not organizing against its interests.  Otherwise, it had more to lose by negotiating than not.  The party in a set of talks who has the most to gain by no agreement or a preservation of the status quo has something of an advantage over a party to whom the status quo is unacceptable.

The same line of reasoning is oddly enlightening in regards to the Iran deal.

Another major criticism of the Iran deal is that many people feel the United States should have gotten more from the negotiations.  This view largely comes from the assumption that the United States was negotiating from a position of strength because it has a military and financial advantage over Iran.   The mistake is in assuming that those advantages could be turned to viable leverage in negotiations.

While Iran’s leaders know the United Nations or the United states will react immediately if it fully develops a nuclear attack capacity, they can be reasonably sure the United States is not going to invade them if they merely do not negotiate.  On the other hand, the United States and the United Nations had everything to gain by getting some degree of oversight of Iran’s nuclear actions.  The party who most wants another party to come to the table will nearly always be in a weaker position unless they have and are willing to use some other manner of leverage.

Overall, what the simulation taught me is that there is another level to negotiations.  It is not just about how powerful the countries are, or how much they are willing to threaten or offer each other.  It also matters when the talks happen, and which country needs an agreement most.  How much each country cares about the stakes is as important as the stakes themselves.  As with all things, it is important to look beyond what you first see to the complexity behind and below.  

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