The Problem with Grand Bargains

The incurable Western desire to reach a comprehensive solution through compromise may cause more trouble than it's worth.

Or, seen less cynically and more economically, consider that for outsiders, incremental gains matter less. Just as a real-estate agent has less incentive to negotiate for better price than the owner because a commission is such a small percentage of the overall sale, U.S.-based observers may have less incentive to seek a hard bargain than participants.

To be sure, foreign diplomats can help societies in conflict, and the principles of the grand bargain have real benefits and a genuine appeal. Because all parties to a grand bargain are usually unhappy, it means the deal is often fair. But the best work of diplomats is often sweating the details and negotiating over time—not imposing an agreement dreamed up abroad. A grand bargain end run can short-circuit a process that otherwise might contribute to crucial confidence building. Small improvements can make a major difference and eventually point the way toward a more fair, and even grand, settlement. Painstaking incrementalism isn’t glamorous but is often the only way forward.

Good opportunities to actually strike a grand bargain are far more rare than the frequency with which they are proposed. The problem is not that parties to a conflict do not recognize that there is room to compromise—it is that they hope to gain more from continued fighting or simply do not have the political capital to come to an agreement. Diplomats and special envoys should negotiate from what they know of the competing interests and complicated realities that define conflict zones—instead of reaching over and over again for comprehensive solutions. Grand bargains are harder than they look.

Ilan Greenberg, a journalist, and Andrew Radin, a political scientist, are visiting public policy scholars at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.

Image: World Economic Forum