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Syria’s Diplomatic Barriers

We recently witnessed crisis diplomacy unfold as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached an agreement regarding chemical weapons in Syria.

Written by Tara Maller Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

It is at least worth applauding both sides’ ability to get to the negotiating table. For the moment, there seems to be rhetorical agreement on what would constitute a mutually acceptable outcome with regard to disposal of Syrian chemical weapons – even if that outcome falls short of being one that is complete or perfect.

To expect a simple solution in Syria is holding the diplomatic bar to an unreasonably high standard. While the current deal may only bring about incremental changes on the chemical weapons front as opposed to an overarching and radical transformation of the situation on the ground, it does represent progress by opening the door to diplomatic dialogue.

The United States must use this diplomatic opening as an opportunity to push for a more expansive and comprehensive diplomatic effort. They should aim to broker a cease-fire or set up talks that modify the behavior of the Syrian regime.

Hopefully, this commitment to a larger diplomatic effort will be seen and felt in the upcoming days at the U.N. General Assembly – and include not just diplomacy with the Russians, but genuine and bold overtures to the Iranians. A turn to diplomacy does not mean that the credible threat of force should be taken off the table, nor does it mean that the United States condones what is going on in Syria.

Historically, U.S. political leaders, including presidents and senior officials, have frequently opted to disengage diplomatically by shutting down embassies, withdrawing ambassadors, refusing to meet with certain leaders, and establishing substantial preconditions for talks.  However, if the U.S. adopts policies of diplomatic disengagement, it runs the risk of losing influence and control over outcomes on a wide range of foreign policy matters. My own research has shown that when the U.S. is more diplomatically engaged with a target state, economic sanctions are more likely to be effective in getting a target state to comply with U.S. demands.

There are a number of barriers that tend to inhibit real and legitimate diplomatic efforts.

First, government officials could be concerned that engaging with the enemy will be construed as appeasing the enemy. Critics of diplomatic engagement often invoke analogies of appeasement when individuals advocate for greater engagement with states like Iran and North Korea, arguing that engaging enemies is tantamount to appeasement. Negotiating or talking with an enemy may be viewed as a concession in and of itself, particularly if the enemy is the one asking for or demanding the talks in the first place.

Government officials may also worry about appearing weak to domestic or international audiences if they negotiate or engage in diplomacy with certain actors or states. These concerns might be even more salient if they are thinking about reversing from a strong and public position of non-engagement towards one of engagement. In other words, government officials may worry that their previous strategies will be perceived as failures if they modify their positions, and they may also fear losing credibility with their constituents.

Another barrier to diplomacy is the belief that diplomatic routes will not be successful in yielding desired outcomes; therefore, there is no point in wasting one’s time and energy to pursue it. Government officials might genuinely believe that engaging with an enemy will not be conducive to any desired outcomes or benefits and view military force and coercion as the best ways to reach desired outcomes with hostile actors.

Lastly, there may be be a variety of psychological and cognitive factors that drive leaders’ adherence to diplomatic resistance even when one has opted to engage diplomatically. Cognitive dissonance theory, which argues that because people have interconnected beliefs and that they attempt to strive for internal consistency in their belief structures, may play a role in undermining diplomacy.

Leaders may view diplomatic engagement with problematic actors as being inconsistent with their internal belief structures about such actors. Confirmation bias may also cause leaders to look for and incorporate only evidence that confirms their already existing negative beliefs about a particular country or leader, making it difficult to shift positions or see diplomatic opportunities when they actually do exist. Similarly, other studies of participants in negotiation show that individuals will increase their liking for ideas or proposals they have offered, as opposed to those originating from others.

This poses a challenge if another state is the one proposing engagement or opening the door with diplomatic overtures. Reactance theory applied to the realm of international negotiation suggests that the appeal of options that are at risk of being lost will increase, while the appeal of options put before an individual by another individual or by circumstance will decrease. Therefore, if certain concessions or overtures are made by one party, this might actually make those concessions or overtures less appealing to the recipient actor.

There are some strategies that can be employed to mitigate the previously discussed barriers.

• Illustrate differences between diplomacy and appeasement. One way for policymakers to push engagement strategies is to highlight and articulate the differences between appeasement and diplomatic engagement to distinguish them from one another.

• Emphasize that diplomacy can include condemnation, criticism and convey threats. Diplomacy is a mechanism of communication between states. It does not need to convey an attitude of acceptance or approval of a regime’s behavior. In fact, diplomacy can be used to convey harsh messages of condemnation, criticism and even articulate threats to another state. Policymakers who are trying to push diplomatic engagement policies with problematic states ought to emphasize some of the ways diplomacy can be used to apply coercive pressure on states.

• Engage in more private diplomacy. Concerns about reputation or credibility can be ameliorated by starting talks in private or secret.  Behind-the-scenes talks with certain actors allow diplomatic foundations to be put in place before publicizing the diplomatic interactions.

• Highlight the many advantages of diplomacy beyond just attaining political outcomes: Diplomacy can yield a number of advantages beyond the desired political outcome. Intelligence can be gleaned from diplomatic engagements, including greater insight into a regime’s position or about the military and political dynamics of another country. Policymakers should highlight the ways previous diplomatic interactions yielded valuable intelligence. Even in negotiations with terrorist groups, talks can serve to assess enemy interests and intent. Diplomatic negotiations can work to transform the nature of relationships between parties. Similarly, the author’s own work illustrates the ways diplomatic engagement can enhance intelligence and increase the effectiveness of attaining desired outcomes in sanctions’ episodes. Finally, diplomacy can even yield valuable intelligence for future military strikes or operations at a later date.

That the U.S. and Russia have been able to work out a preliminary deal is a critical step in the right direction. Even if diplomatic efforts unravel over the next few months, exhausting diplomatic options may actually still have value in and of itself and may prove to be a critical and necessary step for the United States in order to mobilize the public and international community in favor of another course of action on Syria.

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