Not So Grand Bargains

Epic meetings and grand summits can often backfire, raising expectations impossibly high and then dashing hopes. If we take a step-by-step approach to our big problems, we’ll get better results.

Big problems demand bold moves, and in foreign policy bold moves often mean striking "a grand bargain"-a game-hanging proposal designed to change the world, stabilize a region or end a major protracted conflict. It sounds good. But bold ideas are not necessarily good ideas. Pursuing grand bargains is more likely to end up complicating the situation instead of diffusing the crisis. Indeed, the process of developing grand bargains will probably create stagnation and paralyze policymaking.

Unfortunately, few if any grand bargains with war and peace at stake have been reached in recent times. The Arab-Israeli grand bargain got off the drawing board, but the failure to achieve it in 2000 was followed by continuing violence.

More concretely, here are some of today's grand bargains that political commentators and some diplomats are urging. In crude summary:

·The United States should put together an arrangement that produces a stable Iraqi state, despite the lack of agreement of its citizens on the nature of that state, while resolving the significant interests and troublesome involvements of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Iraq's affairs.

·To stop Iran's nuclear-weapons program we need to put all the other issues between Iran and the West on the table reasonably quickly, make sure the interests of Israel, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are served, and preserve the integrity of the non-proliferation agreement.

·If we want to get out of Afghanistan in any politically reasonable time frame, let's resolve the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan, establish an effective Pakistani political entity, bring the insurgent infested Federally Administered Tribal Area into Pakistan proper and corral all the decent contending Afghan parties to a powwow.

·Lastly, there is the continuing effort to create two states in Palestine. Violence has punctuated all recent attempts so that even some grand bargain proponents are now saying since everything has failed-from ceasefires and waiting for the ripe time to make peace, to the grand bargain of final-status negotiations-we have to look at the problem with fresh eyes. (That assumes there are fresh eyes and something new to see.)

This is a daunting list with daunting complexities; that's the nature of a grand bargain. Put everything on the table, subject all basic considerations to an impressive range of discussion and try to limit events from derailing progress, as so often happens in Arab-Israeli negotiations. There are good reasons for pursing a grand bargain. It offers the hope of finality, real peace. The magnitude of the effort can give participants the sense of great achievement, the notion that creating a new world is at hand.

As power diffuses in the world, the United States will find the going even tougher, however charismatic its leadership, in fashioning grand bargains. Perhaps new "aggressive diplomacy" will work some magic. Unaggressive diplomacy certainly has achieved little this past decade.

The simple fact is that grand bargains are difficult to achieve. They are hard to put together because of all the necessary tradeoffs. With everything on the table, complexity is overwhelming and can generate endless bargaining and the constant reopening of issues that were thought settled. The enormous compromises that have to be reached make it difficult to sell grand bargains to publics. Once the effort fails, the situation is likely to worsen. The closest to a grand bargain in recent times was the Dayton agreements, but the contending parties were weak or utterly dependent on the U.S. Indeed Dayton was an incremental effort to establish Balkan stability.

The incremental approach is the dreary alternative to the grand bargain. It worked more or less in the containment of the Soviet Union, the growth and expansion of the EU, the armistice after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the integration of China and the comprehensive peace agreement between North and South Sudan. While incremental agreements on these issues have not always led to any final settlement, they build some confidence among the parties and provide merciful periods of peace or the reduction of tensions. That is not to be sneered at. Incrementalism must be accompanied by vision and a political resolve to address root causes. Their absence is obvious in Africa where we take humanitarian measures in Sudan, Congo and Somalia that satisfy our publics, but do little to move the problem toward better resolution, while proclaiming our dedication to international moral principles.

We are not smart or powerful enough to both conceive and execute all the effort necessary to achieve wide-reaching agreements with parties with whom we lack cultural affinity or deep understanding. Nor does democracy make reaching such broad arrangements any easier; democratic governments change and goalposts are moved by domestic political forces. Incrementalism-the elements of which are involved in any grand bargain-also has its problems, but it is hard to forsake, and the standard must be twofold. First, our approach to seemingly intractable problems must be both realistic and broad. Second, any interim agreement or arrangement must not preclude moving on to the harder aspects of these monumental issues. With these two criteria in place, the incremental approach may not be as dreary as it sounds. We would be wise to listen with critical ear to the siren song of grand bargains.


Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research from 1985-1989.