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

* The strength of such groups means that an American appeal to a bilateral relationship--for instance, with the United Kingdom or Mexico--may not lure the ally away from an opposing EU or Rio Group position. While many U.S. foreign policymakers have long advocated a common European foreign policy--a single phone number to call, as Henry Kissinger once famously put it--at the UN, the reality of European coordination is slow and cumbersome decision-making that often culminates in lowest common denominator positions dictated by Germany or France. On UN dues, as long as the French held the EU presidency and were determined to oppose the U.S. plan, private sympathy from Great Britain, Sweden, Portugal and others did little good. In the world of bloc politics, the United States must go beyond gaining the backing of friendly delegations to wrest them out of the grip of opposing group positions.

Unified political and regional groups cannot be attacked frontally. Since a major purpose of these alliances is to enable smaller countries to stand up to the United States, an open effort to divide and conquer these alliances usually just solidifies resistance. Nothing galled the French more than indications that the United States was trying "to divide the EU." Although the United States must respect group leadership, the key to changing a bloc's position is addressing the forces behind it. Alliances are generally made up of a large majority of countries that have no stake in the fight and may even privately disagree with the collective position, led by a handful of interested delegations that appeal to group unity to hold the others in thrall. Eroding a solid affiance entails both picking off the disinterested and turning around the core of hardliners.

The United States has yet to fully adapt its multilateral strategies to the reality of alliance politics. Going a big step beyond standard U.S. lobbying tactics, in the dues campaign U.S. diplomats from the UN traveled the world to lobby delegations during key decision-making congresses of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of African Unity. Through these efforts, the United States was able to influence group positions before they were finalized, a far easier task than attempting to reverse unfavorable positions after the fact. By recognizing that key turning points occur within the alliance structures long in advance of actual UN debates, the United States can get ahead of bloc politics, weighing in with key delegations before they have committed themselves to any particular line.

Because they rarely speak up in multilateral debates, the vast majority of delegations from small countries are often overlooked in advocacy efforts despite the voting power they wield. In the Human Rights Commission vote, for example, Andorra, Benin and Fiji held just as much sway over the final result--arrived at by secret ballot--as did China or Russia. Early on in the drive to lower U.S. dues, important delegations often asked why the United States bothered bringing its case to small delegations. Although the United States and other large countries often rue the "one country, one vote" system, the diffusion of power can be turned into an advantage. Harvesting the low-hanging fruit of small delegations can be relatively easy, and can help isolate more influential players in due course. Because of its size, resources and global presence, the United States is uniquely positioned to rally small delegations that others leave out of their lobbying efforts.

The value of soliciting backbench delegations is several-fold. When the United States first called for a debate on the dues issue, other countries resisted, claiming that the discussions would open up a Pandora's Box of irreconcilable differences, since no country would willingly pay a penny more under a revised system. By relying on its bilateral relationships to recruit Israel, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary and the Philippines to announce at the outset of the debate that they would "volunteer" to contribute more for UN peacekeeping, this argument fell away. Later on, when the United States needed proof that the General Assembly as a whole was ready to create an agenda item to discuss financial reform, eliciting dozens of letters of support from across the membership proved critical. At the UN, demonstrating the allegiance of fully half of the organization's 189 members--even if they are virtually all small countries with limited influence--causes opponents to cower.

Where delegations do not have a strong position, winning them over sometimes requires little more than some stroking. When small countries are lobbied personally by the U.S. ambassador to the UN, capitals take notice. During the dues campaign, Ambassador Holbrooke paid countless visits to UN missions across New York City that had never before hosted any senior U.S. official. The Americans got to know each delegation and its issues: Oman was livid about the UN's peacekeeping failures and did not want to invest another dime in them; the Pakistanis would help, but wanted to ensure that their troop contributions to peacekeeping were properly recognized; the Germans could not discuss UN finances without bemoaning their exclusion from the Security Council. Hearing out these countries enabled the United States to see the dues issue from their perspective and craft effective appeals to them as a consequence. As importantly, the hours spent with each and every delegation helped build up the kind of close relationship s that are indispensable in a crisis but that cannot be forged on the spot.

Ledger Diplomacy

POWER-POINT presentations and personal visits were not enough to sway staunch opponents to the dues reform agenda, however. Some delegations scoffed at what they deemed efforts to cloak a unilateral U.S. agenda in the guise of UN reforms. In these cases, the United States brought bilateral pressure to bear to persuade hostile delegations to moderate their opposition.

Although at a forum-wide level U.S. power can have a polarizing effect, American influence is a powerful weapon for persuading individual delegations. In A Dangerous Place, an account of his experience as U.S. Ambassador to the UN in the mid-1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested that the United States use its bilateral ties to advance multilateral priorities. Absent other compelling bilateral goals, Moynihan argued, the U.S. Ambassador to Togo, for example, should make it his or her number one objective to secure that country's backing on key matters in the UN and other forums. By mobilizing support in this way, he suggested, the United States might have headed off the "Zionism Is Racism" resolution that sent U.S.-UN relations into a decades-long downward spiral.

Unfortunately, Moynihan's proposal went nowhere. Multilateral issues remain a sidebar at best to bilateral relationships. Ambassadors have no incentive to push remote and contentious multilateral issues that have little direct bearing on their day-to-day jobs. When the State Department asks that a typical UN issue be raised, embassies tend to simply fax off a background paper to the foreign ministry. When it is brought up at all, the issue is generally raised in isolation, rather than as something central to the give-and-take of the relationship. Even where embassies are willing to push, they rarely have sufficient information to persuade. Though the United States has unparalleled capacity to wage effective campaigns on the global stage via its network of diplomats, this machinery rarely kicks into gear.

On pressing issues, ambassadors need to be held accountable for delivering the support of their host countries and, in turn, they need to be equipped with the tools and incentives to do so. During the dues debate, the limitations of traditional channels, whereby only the State Department can "instruct" an embassy to raise an issue, became immediately apparent. Instruction cables, required to go through multiple "clearances" by various regional and functional bureaus, were too slow, formal and routine to elicit the necessary advocacy and energy. Instead, once the instructions were given, U.S. diplomats at the UN established direct relationships with their counterparts in various capitals, providing detailed, country-specific information in real time. Traditionally, when UN issues are raised in capitals, they are brought up only once, with the ambassador reporting back via cable whether the host country said "yes" or "no." On the dues issue, by contrast, since countries initial reactions were invariably negative, the first approach needed to be supplemented by a campaign to turn "no" into "yes." U.S. diplomats at the UN implored their colleagues in embassies to press on in the face of opposition, and to raise the issue repeatedly whenever the country's relationship with the United States was discussed.

While the United States knows how to mount an aggressive diplomatic campaign when it needs to, the efforts tend to be confined to a handful of countries routinely judged as major players, irrespective of whether these governments are actually calling the shots on a given issue. During the dues campaign, these stepped-up tactics were deployed around the world, with more than fifty embassies actively engaged. In this way, the United States was able to ferret out some unlikely ringleaders--Oman for the Gulf Cooperation Council, for example--who were ultimately behind unfavorable groups' positions.

The UN dues campaign illustrates that the multifaceted relationships between the United States and most other countries make it possible to use both carrots and sticks to elicit cooperation. When a collective incentive such as the salvaging of the U.S.-UN relationship will not sway a country, a more targeted individual inducement may. Most nations count the United States among their most important relationships, a position that confers substantial leverage.

Essay Types: Essay