Good Cop, Bad Cop

Why Joe Biden is more a rogue cop than a bad cop and how well does this NYPD Blue routine work anyway?

Anyone who has ever watched an American-made police procedural is familiar with the good cop-bad cop routine. The idea is straightforward - if the criminal fears punishment from an out-of-control bad cop, he will be more likely to confess to the good cop. I have no idea if this gambit works during actual police interrogations, but the perps on NYPD Blue, Homicide, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent seem to fall for it every time.

Does the good cop-bad cop routine work in international relations as well? The possibility should certainly be considered. In statecraft, a reputation for acting rashly and aggressively can be useful when bargaining with an adversary. Of course, the best outcome-even for the aggressive actor-is to never act on the aggression. If the good cop can persuade an actor to acquiesce before the bad cop goes rogue, as it were, then the cops get what they want and avoid bloodshed in the process.

That's theory-can the good cop-bad cop routine work in practice? Within alliance structures, some nation-states are usually more eager to take aggressive action than others. The more restrained governments can exploit this intra-alliance friction to put pressure on the other side. On Iran, for example, Israel seems to be playing the bad cop role to the Obama administration's good cop. The clear message to the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran is that if they don't agree to terms on their nuclear program with the United States, Israel will lash out, unconstrained by Washington. Israel certainly has the past record to make it seem like the bad cop-it launched air strikes on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2008 to prevent those countries from realizing their nuclear ambitions. It is somewhat debatable whether Israel and the United States are actually coordinating their actions and rhetoric in this manner. Then again, when the good-cop-bad-cop scenario is properly run, outside observers should conclude that the good cop can barely control the bad cop.

Allies are not the only possible actor to audition for either cop role. In any negotiation that requires legislative approval, presidents have often profited from having Congress look as intransigent and stubborn as possible. This allows the president to exclaim that while he or she would like to be reasonable, there's this maverick-y legislature that-like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon-cannot be controlled. Part of the reason that Bill Clinton was able to move NATO towards action on Bosnia, for example, was that Congress was threatening to flout the United Nations arms embargo of former Yugoslavia. Faced with the choice of cooperating with Clinton the good cop or letting Congress go rogue, NATO cooperated.

One could argue that Bill Clinton recently reprised his role as the good cop to Hillary Clinton's bad cop towards North Korea. Whereas the secretary of state compared the regime in Pyongyang to an unruly child, the secretary of state's husband flew to Pyongyang to engage in a three-hour conversation with Kim Jong Il and what may or may not have been an apology in order to secure the release of two American journalists.

Finally, there is Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration has bent over backwards to hit the "reset" button vis-à-vis Russia. Last month, however, Biden gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he said,

[The Russians] a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

There is certainly a precedent for vice presidents playing the bad cop-see Cheney, Dick. To be sure, Biden might excel at playing the rogue cop-but it's not clear exactly what message he was trying to send to Moscow.

On the whole, the good cop-bad cop routine is of limited utility in world politics. Iran appears to be unbowed in the face of a hawkish Israeli government (though, to be fair, they have been preoccupied with other matters recently). A protectionist Congress has not made it any easier to complete the Doha round. Bill Clinton's good cop was able to secure the release of the hostages, but at the price of a photo op that looked bad no matter how necessary it might have been. And while no one doubts that Biden occasionally goes rogue, it remains unclear just what policy benefits that strategy yields.

In theory, the best kind of bad cop is the one that seems genuinely unconstrained and ready to strike. An independent but allied government plays this part much better than a subordinate member of the executive branch. In other words, if you want to successfully execute the good cop-bad cop routine in world politics, the odds are long to begin with. To pull it off, however, under no circumstances should you let Joe Biden be Joe Biden.


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. His book, Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, was published in April by Brookings Institution Press.