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December 03, 2010

To Negotiate, Or Not To Negotiate...
Posted by David Shorr

Kim jong unWill Inboden looks for the larger lessons behind the current stand-off with North Korea / China and says it's time for a bipartisan truce within the US foreign policy community on the question of when to negotiate. Voicing his support for the administration's rejection of China's invitation to six-party talks with the North Koreans, he beckons us to join him in sober and conciliatory reflection:

But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the "partisan mind" at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other's positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic "negotiate or not" rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal. They are not a neutral tool, as the act of negotiating inherently incurs potential risks (such as the other side using it to play a delay and dissemble game while still pursuing a nuclear program) along with potential rewards. And it is a fact that negotiating, especially if public, does confer some sense of legitimacy and political capital to the other side.

Sounds like a framework for a more constructive debate, which I naturally support. True enough, these are policy calculations. And if we can discuss them as such -- without trying to prove or score political points -- that would be a fine thing. Before joining in such a truce, though, I have to respond to some of Inboden's ideas. Hopefully my points will be taken in the same constructive spirit.

It comes down to leverage, Inboden argues:

If a careful "leverage assessment" reveals a weak hand, then it is usually best not to enter into unconditional negotiations, especially because in those cases the best type of leverage might actually be the prospect of negotiations, desired by the other side.

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il's $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea's behavior.

By his analysis, then, the administration is trying to accrue leverage by forcing the Kim family regime to cop to how eager North Korea really is to get back to the table -- leverage Inboden suggests augmenting with the reimposition of the lifted sanctions. I can parse this analysis, and will further down, but isn't the calculation about China's six-party invite much simpler?

Obviously the main backdrop for this geopolitical stand-off are the provocations on the Korean peninsula and beyond, as outlined in a post that Inboden mentions by his fellow Shadow Government blogger Peter Feaver:

Instead of ratcheting up pressure on North Korea, China has responded to North Korean belligerence with successive rounds of concessions and cover-ups. The situation rather resembles a weak parent seeking to excuse the public misbehavior of a spoiled child.

The Obama administration is wise not to rush in to rescue China from this latest embarrassment, and it is wise not to make other concessions that China is demanding -- for instance, restricting U.S. naval activity in the Yellow Sea. Instead, the United States should take visible steps to deepen cooperation with our regional treaty allies. And we should insist that China take similarly responsible steps to reign in North Korea.

The six-party talks only make sense if China is willing to shoulder its regional security responsibilities. Until that is demonstrated, there is not much to talk about.

Right. When the other parties have just willfully heightened tensions, it is not a good time to join them for a new round of talks. "You've just blatantly tried to scare and intimidate us, so tell us, what's on your mind?" (The New York Times has an excellent editorial along the same lines today.)

Coming back to armistice for a healthier bipartisan debate, before I sign on, I want make sure we either see leverage in similar terms here, or see other ways to make the calculation. For me, the key phrasein Feaver's post is "latest embarassment." Not only would it be a chump's move to run to negotiations amidst a manufactured crisis, it's to our advantage that the other guy has badly misplayed.

Within all the hard-power maneuvers lies some very important soft power political high ground. In other words, we talk about "embarassment" because all the world can see it. I've long felt that a key impulse in Obama foreign policy is the moral authority of the-other-guy-is-being-a-jerk reasonableness. Feaver himself glimpsed this feature with his "Yes, But" theory.

But I digress; my serious question is how the above analysis fits into the leverage equation. I'm concerned that the leverage framework focuses on certain kinds of strengths in one's bargaining position and risks discounting others. The ratcheting up of sanctions that Inboden mentions is an impulse often expressed in the debate over negotiating, one that tends to carry a partisan edge. Obviously sanctions are important -- the Obama Administration labored mightily for several months straight to achieve them for Iran -- but is this going to be another round of measuring the administrations seriousness about North Korea based purely on this question? Is reimposition of the sanctions that were lifted as easy as flipping a switch? And how are we counting or crediting the multilateral sanctions passed by the Security Council last year?

Obviously a key element of a calmer debate about negotiations is that we're all clear, at least generally, about what we're seeking from the other side. I think progressives and conservatives do understand one another better on this score. Just as long as we're clear that there's motivation on our side as well. Negotiating may involve an element of legitimization, as Inboden points out, but it's not entirely a favor that we grant out of the goodness of our heart. And just as Iran or North Korea can use negotiations to run down the clock, too much coyness from our side can cost valuable time too. My worry is that leverage-calculation can be just another word for "we should only talk when it's all wired up to guarantee success."

And as luck would have it, the current situation with Iran poses this very question. Secretary Clinton and some analysts think we're in a pretty strong position. Do we conservatives and liberals all agree?

[UPDATE: I revised this post to substitute new versions of the second- and third-to-last grafs.]


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