Negotiations Theory Goes to War -- Again

With apologies to Mark Twain, rumors of the North Korean bomb's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Hope flared briefly last fall when the protagonists in the "six—party talks" announced that they had agreed in principle on a nuclear—free Korean Peninsula. But last month's unofficial meeting in Japan among representatives from North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, and Russia ended without a breakthrough.

More such disappointments lie in store — and the armistice negotiations ending the Korean War help explain why.

Some common features between the two sets of multiparty talks: high stakes, the same parties (more or less), seemingly irreconcilable interests, and a strong "zero sum" dynamic, meaning that any gain for one side is — or appears to be — a loss for the other. In zero—sum situations, success goes to the side that manages to parley national power — measured in diplomacy, economics, ideological or "soft" power, and force — into a decisive advantage at the bargaining table.

This is trickier than it sounds.

Even a nation with vast physical power won't prevail in negotiations if it can't apply that power to political effect.

Case in point: Americans recoil from hard bargaining, while North Koreans revel in it.

The Truman administration repeatedly relaxed the military pressure on North Korean and Chinese forces — an army of "Chinese People's Volunteers" had intervened to rescue the North — hoping to foster goodwill during armistice talks.

Gen. Matthew Ridgway, the UN commander, privately fumed at Washington's proclivity to stop his "proud Army in its tracks at the first sign that the Reds might be ready to sue for peace." Agreed the military historian Bernard Brodie, the administration should have applied "maximum pressure on the disintegrating Chinese armies as a means of getting them not only to request but actually to conclude an armistice."

By grinding implacably northward, asserted Ridgway and Brodie, the UN would have presented Beijing and Pyongyang with a stark choice: come to terms or face complete ruin. Pliancy at the bargaining table would have been the result.

Conflict as bargaining

Warfare is an instrument of negotiation. In his classic work The Strategy of Conflict, drawing in part on the lessons of Korea, Thomas Schelling declared that "most conflict situations are essentially bargaining situations." Specialists now take Schelling's theorizing a step further, defining "bargaining power" as the ability to modify the parties' alternatives to a settlement — that is, their ability to walk away from the table.

The side that enjoys an acceptable "best alternative to negotiated agreement," or BATNA, can retire without undue political, economic, or military pain; the side not so blessed has little choice but to strike the best deal it can. In hard bargaining, bolstering one's own BATNA is essential, as anyone who's ever dickered over the price of a house will attest. And damaging the other side's BATNA can't hurt.

Changing the North Korean BATNA

An unusual confluence of events broke the Korean War stalemate. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 Republican nomination, and then the White House. He traveled to Korea to survey conditions and mused publicly about using the atomic bomb to break the impasse. As the victor of Europe, his words carried enormous credibility in Soviet—bloc capitals. Coincidentally, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin died in early 1953, throwing the communist bloc into upheaval.

In short, Eisenhower presented China and North Korea with an unpalatable choice: hold out for additional minor concessions, and risk provoking U.S. nuclear strikes, or relent. Absent a good BATNA, and with only minor territorial adjustments along the 38th parallel to fight for, the communist coalition gave in. The fighting halted in mid—1953, more or less on UN terms.

Outlook for the Six—Party Talks

If anything, prospects for a near—term deal in the six—party talks are worse than they were in 1952—1953. First, like the Truman administration before it, the Bush administration has telegraphed its reluctance to use force to modify alternatives. This won't have escaped Pyongyang. The U.S. presidential elections are over two years off, so no latter—day Eisenhower will soon step in to shift the negotiating dynamics.

Second, North Korea is hemmed in, while the Iranian nuclear standoff has fixed American attentions elsewhere. Just as the United States worried about the Soviets invading Europe during the Korean War, it worries today about a high—stakes clash in the Persian Gulf region. For now, events have relegated a nuclear settlement in Northeast Asia to secondary importance.

Third, Pyongyang is in a stronger position than it was during the Korean War talks. Kim Jong—Il's regime has proved surprisingly resilient, defying predictions of its downfall for over a decade. Unlike the shattered North Korean army of 1952—1953, Kim's military probably boasts a small nuclear deterrent, allowing Pyongyang to take a course independent of Beijing. Hopes that China will use its influence to force a deal thus could go unfulfilled.

What About Iran?

The BATNA likewise makes a handy tool for assessing the Iranian nuclear standoff. Assume Tehran is intent on building a nuclear arsenal. If so, it's less interested in reaching a negotiated settlement that terminates its uranium enrichment activities than in buying time to consummate its nuclear R&D efforts. Negotiating is in effect Iranian leaders' best alternative to their main goal: developing nuclear payloads for the nation's ballistic missiles.

While negotiations specialists assume everyone prefers a negotiated settlement, that may not be the case in the Gulf showdown. Viewed in this light, protracting the negotiations without provoking UN sanctions or other punitive measures is Tehran's best strategy. And, indeed, the Islamic Republic does seem to be prosecuting a delaying strategy.

Just as in the Korean War, only more so, Washington will find it difficult to build a coercive element into its strategy vis—`—vis Tehran. Not only must the Bush administration battle Americans' ingrained aversion to force, but the United States' partners in Europe —— most notably Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign—policy chief —— have categorically ruled out the use of force to settle the dispute.

So much for a united front.

Factor in all—but—certain opposition to UN sanctions on the part of China and Russia, which can veto any action in the Security Council, and it becomes clear that mounting an Eisenhower—esque threat of military force is a remote prospect. The administration's alternatives, then, are narrowing to two: inaction and unilateral military action. As Iran nears nuclear—weapons status, the pressure will mount for Washington to choose between unpalatable alternatives.

The prognosis: more wrangling in both nuclear disputes, with North Korea taking a back seat to Iran for now. The United States must figure out how to shift the balance of alternatives in its favor if it hopes to settle these controversies on its terms.

James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security.

If you experience technical problems, please write to