Retail Diplomacy

Retail Diplomacy

Mini Teaser: The successful U.S. campaign to convince 188 other nations to cut its annual dues obligation provides a model for success in other multilateral negotiations.

by Author(s): Suzanne Nossel

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to getting the UN to accept American terms was the zero-sum game of UN financing, where every dollar of reduced U.S. dues meant higher payments for another, usually poorer, country. Although virtually the entire UN membership privately agreed that, on the basis of their economic growth over the last decade, the Chinese could afford to pay more than their drastically discounted rate, virtually no one was willing to say so to Beijing. Developed and developing countries alike would sooner have left the UN insolvent than ask a poorer country--even a rising economic powerhouse--to pay more to enable a richer one to pay less. The ostensible imperative of giving in to U.S. power did not translate into the political will necessary to meet U.S. demands. So despite its financial leverage, a U.S. victory was hardly foreordained.

That power alone will not always win the day does not mean that America should avoid taking strong stands. In internal discussions, U.S. policymakers often propose that instead of taking aggressive public stances, the United States should recruit other countries to front American views and thereby prevent a backlash against a "made in the USA" position. "Can't we get the Philippines to propose the dues cut?" some queried. While the intuition to recruit others to the U.S. cause is sound, America is far too prominent to slink out the back door while others do its bidding. When an important U.S. goal is at stake, relying on the Philippines or Estonia to front for us is risky. There is no guarantee that our ally will make an effective case and, besides, U.S. silence rarely fools anyone in the midst of a contentious debate. When important U.S. interests are at issue, then, the question is not whether to take a stand, but rather how-tactically-- to win the fight without scorching the landscape. Success requires car eful attention to the power dynamics at play in multilateral settings, the means and methods of persuasion, and the targeted use of U.S. bilateral power and influence. In short, success requires attention to detail.

Details, Details

THE UNITED States rarely wins arguments inside a multilateral meeting room. The impulse that leads rowdy back-benchers to rise up against heavy-handed prime ministers makes membership-wide meetings rallying points for resisting the powers that be. No country wants to be publicly seen to buckle under U.S. pressure. During the dues battle, formal meetings at the UN were bruising for the United States, with country after country taking the floor to demand that America pay its back dues "on time, in full, and without conditions." Even toward the end, as details of a compromise took shape in private meetings, the public rhetoric remained feverish. Open meetings make good theater, but deals are cut in back rooms. For this reason, too, it was clear that by the time the U.S. delegation was winging its way to the Durban racism conference, the time to rally others to our cause had already passed.

That the United States cannot saunter into a public meeting and expect others to fall into step behind it does not mean that official forums can be ignored. Moves to circumvent ordinary channels risk being labeled as power plays. Likewise, reciting U.S. proposals with a pompous "take it or leave it" tone may seem like fair game for a superpower, but it only undercuts our cause. By doing its homework and making convincing arguments in open meetings, the United States can gain some favor by showing that it knows it cannot rule by fiat and is willing to engage in give-and-take. In its public speeches during the dues debate, the U.S. delegation sought to disarm critics by conceding that the arrears were regrettable, and by pleading for help in solving a problem that was admittedly--in significant part, at least--an American creation. Success in these settings was measured in terms of diplomatic damage limitation.

But for every one diplomat in the U.S. seat, playing by the rules, ten others should be working the corridors, explaining the details of the American position one-on-one to foreign ambassadors. Instead of wholesale oratory, the cornerstone of multilateral advocacy efforts is retail persuasion tailored to influence individual constituencies.

Before starting the country-by-country approach, the United States must figure out how to frame its case in a way that others can freely adopt. Winning support hinges on making a coherent, persuasive argument that gives countries a way out from under their reluctance to accede to U.S. power. On the UN dues issue, everyone understood that if American demands were not met, Jesse Helms might never agree to pay a dime of U.S. arrears. But no country wanted to simply give in to an American diktat co-authored by the UN's number one public enemy. Even the Israeli delegation needed to present its foreign ministry with a face-saving justification for supporting the U.S. position. The same impulse was at play when our closest allies asked to see U.S. evidence against Osama bin Laden before committing to the anti-terrorist effort. Even those who want and intend to side with us prefer to do it on their own terms.

The United States set out early on to formulate the strongest possible argument for dues reform on its merits. Recognizing that talk of a U.S. dues cut prompted knee-jerk opposition, the U.S. delegation quickly retooled, dropping talk of a rate reduction in favor of a push for broad reform of the UN's entire financing system. Although the U.S. government did not care terribly about true "reform" of the UN's dues structure, U.S. diplomats made this goal their rallying cry, recognizing that--unlike a standalone U.S. dues reduction--it was an agenda to which other governments could subscribe. Statistics were used to show that some countries were paying too little to the UN and others too much, and that the interests of fairness demanded reform. Ambassador Holbrooke presented unwitting foreign ministers with a laminated card listing every country's payment in order to drive home the point that the system, frozen in 1972, granted steep discounts to some of the richest countries in the world--including Singapore, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates--and simply demanded overhaul.

At the UN, history counts for a lot; delegations often cite chapter and verse of past resolutions to support their points. Digging up quotations, speeches and proposals from days gone by enabled the U.S. delegation to frame an argument that let other delegations back away from their opposition gracefully. We reminded delegates of the dramatic days of 1946, when Senator Arthur Vandenburg--the Jesse Helms of his day when it came to UN dues--argued at the very first UN budget debate that the organization must cap the rate of its largest contributor, so that no country, not even the United States, could command excessive influence over decision-making.

Ambassador Holbrooke's arguments laid out in charts and graphs, were pored over at countless meetings between the U.S. delegation and its counterparts. A diagram of a scale tilting precariously to one side was distributed in the capital cities of all UN member states to illustrate the imbalance in the organization's peacekeeping finance scheme. Over time, U.S. rhetoric on putting the UN on a "solid financial footing" by creating a "flatter, more equitable scale" echoed throughout the membership, finding its way into the speeches and statements of delegations from around the world. Eventually, Nigeria, Pakistan, Algeria and other unlikely allies could be seen button-holing regional colleagues in far corners of UN conference rooms, making the case that the finance system needed fixing. 'When delegates did meet en masse, having these countries repeat the merit-based arguments was infinitely more effective in turning around the remaining skeptics than U.S. pleas and threats.

Although everyone knew the United States was out to get its own rate cut and was making the UN an offer it could scarcely refuse, the refraining of the campaign into one for "reform" defused much antagonism. In the final weeks of the debate, when the momentum for change was unstoppable, the United States calmly but firmly reminded its fellow members that unless the final package met the American demands, even a reformed system would leave the UN in continuing financial crisis. At the tail end, the majority of members had accepted U.S. logic but requested extra time to absorb the proposed rate increases. With the help of Ted Turner, whose donation promised to delay the impact of rate increases for most countries, the American delegation quickly agreed. This small concession helped achieve U.S. goals with a minimum of resentment. This flexibility allowed the United States to come away with almost everything it originally wanted, as well as a reformed system that allowed many other participants in the debate to claim victory.

Untangling Entangling Alliances

MULTILATERAL politics are often dominated by alliances that complicate the task of persuading individual delegations to take the U.S. side. Recognizing the rationale and role of these coalitions and attacking them one by one is essential to building support. Most countries in the United Nations are small or poor or both. Casting lots with like-minded delegations gives weak nations a power base. Although the Cold War bipolarity that generated the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has long since collapsed, by acting under the 120-plus-member NAM umbrella, the developing world has a controlling bloc within the UN General Assembly. Smaller but still significant blocs include the European Union and its associate members, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Rio Group, the Southern African Development Community and others. While these coalitions do not operate in all UN decision-making arenas, their influence is felt ever more widely.

Essay Types: Essay