Diplomacy: When a winner-take-all approach risks losing big

Why We Wrote This

It’s tempting to think diplomatic breakthroughs can be driven by taking unyielding stands. But it’s often when leaders step back from hard lines that progress gets traction.

Olivier Matthys/AP
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) walks with Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel prior to a meeting in Luxembourg, Sept. 16, 2019.

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Give-and-take diplomacy has lost ground in recent years to promises of crushing wins over rivals. Yet amid standoffs between Britain and the European Union, and between the United States and China, North Korea, and even Iran, finding a way forward through compromise appears again to be gaining. 

With Iran, President Donald Trump has shown signs of a change in tack. He called off a retaliatory strike after the downing of a U.S. drone in June. He floated easing sanctions, as well as meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. On North Korea, a third summit with dictator Kim Jong Un has been raised, despite the lack of progress toward “denuclearization.” On China, the Trump administration has shown signs of a readiness to retreat from the latest round of tariffs.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ramped up talks despite promises of a no-deal Brexit by Oct. 31. Though there has been no real progress, there’s an interest in avoiding further uncertainty. On both sides of the Atlantic, any renewed negotiations would have to scale back expectations or involve considerable give-and-take. And leaders will have to rise to another challenge: selling any agreement as a diplomatic and political win to those who had expected a winner-take-all outcome.

It may seem hard to imagine, with tension between the United States and Iran ratcheted up to its highest level in decades. But there have been signs across a range of world trouble spots that old-fashioned, give-and-take diplomacy could be poised for a comeback.

It’s been driven out of fashion, to put it mildly, by populist leaders promising both breakthrough solutions to their countries’ main international challenges and all-out wins over diplomatic rivals. Yet now – from Britain in its standoff with the European Union, to China, North Korea, and even Iran – there has been renewed talk of seeking some compromise way forward.

That won’t be easy. The biggest obstacles are political. Leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson have raised expectations of clear diplomatic wins, on their own terms. If they do change course, they’ll risk a backlash from more hard-line supporters. And they will need to find a way to sell any compromise as a victory.

For an example, look to Iran

The escalating crisis with Iran has provided a dramatic illustration of potential obstacles.

Late last year, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. He decried it as a weak-kneed lifting of economic sanctions that did not fully end Iran’s nuclear-weapons threat, its ballistic missile development, or its support for proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The administration adopted a “maximum pressure” policy of tightened economic sanctions.  

President Trump has, however, shown signs of a possible change in tack.

He ordered, but then stood down, a retaliation strike after the downing of a U.S. drone in June. In the past week, he has parted ways with the hawkish John Bolton, his former national security adviser, while also discussing the prospect of easing sanctions and a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations later this month.

The first backlash may have come from Tehran. If the U.S. is right in suggesting Iran was involved in last weekend’s attack on key Saudi oil installations, one catalyst may have been a desire by Iranian hard-liners to forestall any Trump-Rouhani meeting. Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made that position formal in a statement on Tuesday, conditioning any renewed U.S.-Iran talks on Washington’s return to the nuclear agreement.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s raising the idea of a possible counterstrike on Iran’s oil installations was an indication of President Trump’s need to be able to sell any change of approach politically.

Getting beyond ‘winner take all’

The same could apply to the possibility of a third summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, despite the lack of progress toward the goal of “denuclearization.” On China, too, there have been signs within the Trump administration of a readiness to retreat from the latest round of tit-for-tat tariff increases – though, as economic concerns mount, a return to more traditional diplomacy on that front would likely face less pushback.

Still, with the winner-take-all approach having failed to deliver its promised results, any renewed negotiating process would either have to scale back expectations or involve considerable give-and-take. Probably both.

In Britain, the prime minister has promised that his country will leave the EU by Oct. 31, even if he can’t reach an agreement on withdrawal terms – a so-called no-deal Brexit. But having been mandated by Parliament to seek an extension of the departure date if he can’t get a deal, he has ramped up talks. 

He, too, has essentially held out the promise of “winner take all” – by reiterating his determination to get out by the end of next month and saying, in effect, that it’s up to the EU to prevent a no-deal outcome by rewriting the compromise deal reached with his predecessor, Theresa May. 

There’s been no sign of real progress yet. But both sides do have an interest in avoiding further political and economic uncertainty around Brexit, and in moving on to the next stage: a transition period during which a new Britain-EU trade agreement would be negotiated. So it’s not inconceivable that some last-minute deal will emerge. If it does, it’s also possible it would win approval in Parliament, since many MPs would be relieved to have avoided the prospect of leaving with no deal at all.

The problem, again, is raised expectations. Mr. Johnson has repeatedly voiced his readiness to go for a no-deal – something the more hard-line Brexit supporters in his Conservative Party would actually prefer. If he does get a new deal, it is unlikely to represent a radical overhaul of Ms. May’s agreement. That might seem to them – and to the recently formed Brexit Party, which trounced the Conservatives in this year’s European Parliament elections – like a surrender.

The need, in other words, would be for Mr. Johnson to sell his agreement as a diplomatic and political win.

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