The Problem with Grand Bargains

The Problem with Grand Bargains

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


There is a tendency—almost a reflex—among foreign-policy thinkers to advocate for grand bargains. Pretty much any international problem is seen as fodder for a grand-bargain proposal: spiraling crises, such as in Syria; or protracted conflicts involving multiple parties, as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban; or glaciated struggles like Israel/Palestine.

U.S. officials in particular love to reach for the seductive, completionist idea of the grand bargain—gathering all concerned players around a table, putting every contested issue in the pot and coming up with a comprehensive agreement that pretty much settles everything. The implication is that the parties in the conflict could not or would not have come up with such a fine solution on their own and that an overarching solution is preferable to incremental negotiation.


Few international problems escape the grand-bargain proposition. A foreign-policy mandarin seems to propose a grand bargain between the United States and Iran every five months or so. Other frequent grand-bargain candidates include North Korea, Kosovo, Western Sahara and, at least until Kofi Annan resigned as UN/Arab League special envoy, Syria.

Indeed, in almost any region where U.S. interests are at stake, seasoned analysts, regional experts or former policy makers offer a plan for a major negotiated settlement to a conflict. In each case, the argument for a grand bargain identifies the fundamental issues of the conflict and suggests a reasoned compromise by which the sides could mutually sacrifice some goals to avoid the cost and risks of the continuation of the conflict. Frustrated by the recurrence of violence, the repeated past failure of incrementalism, and often at the dawn of a new U.S. presidential administration or the start of a new regime that is party to the dispute, the call for a grand bargain rings out: it’s time for a total rapprochement, the unraveling of a long-standing Gordian knot, or the end of détente. Now more than ever, it’s the Nixon-goes-to-China moment.

The grand bargain, however, is far more difficult than its advocates suggest and inappropriate for many of the conflicts for which it’s suggested. And for good reasons. Grand bargains can be quite costly for leaders actually engaged in negotiations and counterproductive to attaining a durable solution. They also can offer greater rewards for the diplomats, envoys or analysts than for the people actually living with the conflict in question.

Take Syria, where proponents of a grand bargain aim for the Assad regime to agree to an orderly transition out of power and for the many rebel factions to peacefully coalesce as they step into power. But neither side has bought into these endgame assumptions. The Assad regime hopes to survive the conflict, and the rebels seek to destroy the regime. While the conflict is active, possible settlements are fluid, and future gains are possible through continued war.

Or consider Afghanistan, where there is little incentive for the Taliban to accept a bargain with the United States if it believes its power will continue to grow after U.S. forces depart. Why bargain at all, however grandly? Conflict may be costly, but there is more to gain by actually winning.

Even if leaders of a given society wanted to make a deal, they may not be able. A grand bargain is a hard sell: core nationalist issues that have been fought over for decades are often at stake. Even if an agreement seems fair, the leaders who signed it may be vulnerable to nationalist outbidding and could be forced out of office. Hence, a large coalition is required for the country to agree to a grand bargain—and sufficiently broad coalitions rarely come about. Israel-Palestine is a clear example of how even a reasonable agreement may not be feasible.

The grand-bargain ideal also has powerful hold on domestic institutions. To understand some of the difficulties of a grand bargain in foreign policy, consider the difficulties of making an agreement on important current domestic issues. Grand bargains have been frequently proposed but have not been forthcoming on issues such as immigration, the debt limit, Wall Street regulation, and so on. The lure of striking a deal and moving on is perhaps partly nostalgic—smoke-filled backroom negotiations start to look pretty good in the current political stalemate. In any case, at home similar issues are at stake, with leaders unable to make an agreement without rendering themselves victim to attacks from their own side.

After all, embracing the grand bargain is largely the privilege of outsiders, whether in domestic politics or international. Observers half-a-world away have far more to gain in a grand bargain than the actual participants, or may see far fewer costs. A diplomat or international organization that orchestrates a flashy grand bargain earns instant maestro-status, maybe even a Nobel Peace Prize for good measure. Foreign policy outsiders see the possibility getting major credit, with little possibility of downsides, by advocating for a grand bargain. And even if they fail the test of time, implementing grand bargains is an ending, which is a nice psychological dispensation for policy-makers with finite careers. “Grand bargain” is also excellent bait to hook an editor: foreign policy journals love an attention-getting grand bargain article.

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