Rubbish diplomacy

Published: Jul 20 , 2015
Author: Stephen White

Two negotiated deals of historic significance. One between Greece and the EU/Eurozone, the other between Iran and the P5+1. Both are hailed as a victory for diplomacy. Both are rubbish. Both are being derided and disowned in all quarters. Both are disintegrating as the ink dries. What do we learn?

 1. Trust is the key element. In neither case do any of the parties trust each other, so in both cases the undercurrent of suspicion throws huge doubt on the ability or preparedness to follow through with the mandated actions. No one in Greece believes that the half of the population who evade some of their taxes will start to pay. No one in the Eurozone believes that this third bailout in 5 years will be the last. No one in Iran believes that the Great Satan (USA) has now become a trustworthy friend. None in the P5+1 believes that the Iranians will curb their tendency to secrecy and obfuscation. So no one thinks that the terms of either of these deals will stick. And yet these are the conditions on which the deals have been constructed.

 2. Time is the key element. Both of these deals purport to regulate the issues they include over a significant period of time – in the Greek case over the next 5 years, and in the Iranian case over the next 10 to 15 years. Both of these time frames are absurd. The IMF have now publically destroyed the myth that imposed austerity in Greece will enable their economy to grow sufficiently to make timely loan repayments unless there is an enormous debt relief, which the Germans and others will continue to resist. Whilst for the West 10-15 years is a longish horizon, for Iranian leaders, predominantly religious in outlook, where the long term aim is victory, be it of Shia Islam over Sunni Islam, or of the eventual domination of Islam over the other world religions, 15 years is a blink of the eye; their time frame is generations and centuries. Where the negotiating parties see the time frames differently, deals will inevitably be flawed.

 3. Ego is the key element. It is unquestionable that the individuals who have negotiated these deals, at the top and at the advisory levels, must be intelligent and intellectually capable. But their egotistical investment in the need to see a successful outcome hailed as such by the public becomes such a powerful motivator that their common sense disappears. Perhaps Alexis Tsipras saw himself as a modern Alexander the Great – never defeated in battle. Perhaps John Kerry saw himself as master negotiator, a 21st century Henry Kissinger, although history will be less kind to both of them. It is better not to come to an agreement if a prime rationale for the deal is the announcement itself.

 4. Gestation is the key element. Both of these negotiations have lasted years; in the case of Greece since 2009/2010, when the weaker members of the Eurozone ran into trouble, and in the case of Iran since 2003 when sanctions were first mooted and then imposed by the West. There is a widely held view that onlookers are more impressed by a deal struck in adversity than one which appears to have been struck speedily and collaboratively. How skillful the negotiators must have been to remove the obstacles and drive to a successful conclusion, how resolute and patient they have been not to have thrown the towel in years ago but to have persevered and now succeeded. They should learn from history – the longer the war the more fragile the peace which follows.

 5. Diplomacy is the key issue. Which is to say in different words Winston Churchill’s famous dictum from 1954 ‘To jaw jaw is better than to war war’. I don’t think that even Churchill believed it when he said it (certainly his lifetime actions didn’t demonstrate this view), but it has become a prevailing mantra for the liberal West. Diplomacy is better than war and so a deal with Iran is better than the alternative, which is the continuing existence of a pariah terrorist-funding state. Keeping Greece in the Eurozone is better than a breakdown of negotiations leading to a Grexit, because this maintains the façade of an invulnerable Euro currency. Poor thinking on both counts if the effect of a badly constructed piece of diplomacy is simply to delay a subsequent catastrophe. In each case the alternative to the deals which have been struck is not ‘no deal’, but a better deal. My view is that both of these deals will collapse so maybe that will be the longer term result, and the world will be better for it.

 Too many key issues? Alas not; in diplomatic circles there can never be too many key issues.

Stephen White 


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Stephen White
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Muck Shift

Just when is a deal not a deal…? I heard this story from a friend of mine the other week; there are some lessons to be learned! So, my pal is a developer and is building some houses on what is essentially a square site. Two sides of the square can be accessed from the road in a neighboring housing estate and the other two are beside a field owned by another developer. There is a huge pile of muck to shift before the actual building project; this phase is known in the trade – and not unreasonably - as a "muck-shift"! As there will be 80 -100 lorries coming in and out each day for 6 weeks, it was considered more convenient to access the site over the field, so an approach was made to the developer to discuss the terms under which he would allow access. This is a standard arrangement and the deal typically is that the field would be returned to the owner in its original condition. Developer makes a bit of money, where otherwise he wouldn’t; homeowners in the adjoining estate are less inconvenienced; builder does not need to spend money cleaning the streets and getting them back to a usable state at the end of the project. Win-win.

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