Topic for March 16: ?Smart Primacy: ?Etiquette,? ?Style,? and ?Technique? v. Policy Choice and Deeper Forces?
March 5, 2004
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: American Primacy and Its Discontents
To: Participants in the “American Primacy” Seminar
From: Jim Sebenius, Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration, Director, Negotiation Roundtable
Subject: Topic for March 16: “Smart Primacy: ‘Etiquette,’ ‘Style,’ and ‘Technique’ v. Policy Choice and Deeper Forces”
Graham asked me to lead a discussion on a recurring theme: the importance of what we’ve variously characterized as style, etiquette, manners, or negotiating technique. As I read the conversations so far, the group strongly concurs on the potent influence of underlying factors like 11/9, 9/11, and the growing asymmetry of U.S. military capability as well as the actual content of U.S. policies. No argument from me that these conditions matter, a lot. Yet to some, the implication seems to be that these larger forces relegate the actual conduct of foreign policy to a relatively marginal status. The strong form of this argument is that outcomes are so heavily determined by such deeper, long-run factors that, while it is tempting to finger particular leaders and administrations as responsible for worsening relations, they are more scapegoats than real causes. I cannot bring myself to say words like “epiphenomenal” but that is sometimes the charge.
I suspect that most of us would agree that, wherever the big-factor tectonic plates are moving us, U.S. interests as well as those of many other countries can be considerably advanced by cooperative action across a host of areas such as security, trade, finance, environment, public health, development, law enforcement, intelligence, and the like. I believe that an approach we might call “Smart Primacy” would, on average, increase the chances of realizing such gains relative to the alternatives (“Stupid Primacy”?). In our March 16 session, I would like to stimulate a discussion of what this actually means and why. To do this, it helps to focus explicitly on the most common form of theories used to explain observable outcomes.
A long-standing social science tradition seeks to map or predict outcomes from the spare elements of the underlying “structure.” While a strong trend in international relations theory embodies a version of this, the purest form of the “structure directly implies outcome” quest is probably found in game theory, increasingly a mainline tool of social scientists. As Ariel Rubenstein, one of this generation’s best game theorists, put it in an influential Econometrica article
[f]or forty years, game theory has searched for the grand solution,” that would achieve “a prediction regarding the outcome of interaction among human beings, using only data on the order of events, combined with a description of the players’ preferences over the feasible outcomes of the situation.”
If successfully developed, this “grand solution” would generally reduce to frictional status factors like style, manners, etiquette, and negotiating approach. In my view, which I will briefly illustrate in our session, a number of factors strongly limit the power of this “structure implies outcome” perspective. Several of these factors help explain the potential importance of the process and approach one takes in a given “structure”:
- People may treat process and approach as attributes of intrinsic value.
- People may use process/approach as an informative signal of what game theorists would call the “type” (nice, nasty, etc.) of the party taking the action.This can shape perceptions and expectations, which in turn can influence results.
- The process/approach can itself change the salient attributes of the situation and shape expectations, which can matter a lot to outcomes.
- While a choice like the “order of consultation” may be mainly thought of as a matter of diplomatic protocol, outcomes can be highly path dependent in a way that makes the choice of approach critical.
- The process/approach chosen can stimulate (or retard) the formation of potentially blocking coalitions.
- A variety of potent psychological mechanisms prevalent in situations of competition and conflict—self-serving role biases, partisan perceptions, and attribution errors—can greatly exacerbate the effects of these factors.
Taking these factors into account, “Smart Primacy” normally includes “good manners” and the diplomatic equivalent of common courtesies: genuine consultation, some involvement of those affected, a generally respectful attitude, refraining from gratuitously insulting or provocative statements, and a more than perfunctory concern about the views of others. In my view, it certainly should include a significant role for the threat and use of force, though with well less confidence than other common views as to its likely sufficiency for many problems. I would, however, argue that Smart Primacy entails much more. I draw the analogy to an expansive conception of truly effective negotiation that goes well beyond interpersonal process, communication, and tactics “at the table”. (For an elaboration in a business context of what I mean, see the enclosed November 2003 Harvard Business Review article of mine (with David Lax) called “3-D Negotiation.”) This may be a useful point of departure to flesh out the elements of Smart Primacy in more depth.
The most salient hard case is probably the Iraq war. Could a different approach have achieved U.S. objectives with substantially greater allied support and marginalized opposition? In my view, the answer is affirmative. The best argument I’ve seen for this is James Rubin’s September/October 2003 Foreign Affairs article, “Stumbling Into War,” which is also enclosed. Despite some flaming assertions—such as arguing that a few weeks delay would have produced a second Security Council resolution and much wider support—his points on overall approach and process strike me as worthwhile.
I look forward to the conversation.
- sebenius_memo.pdf (20K PDF)
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