Why We Should Appease Iran

A dangerous game is afoot.  With Iran, nearly everyone has an opinion about the best (or perhaps least-bad) strategy.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have – to put it mildly – taken a softer approach than most conservatives (and more than a few centrists) would like, leading to numerous and varied accusations of “appeasement.”

But is this necessarily a bad thing? Is appeasement always the wrong strategy?  Indeed, does “appeasement” really mean what we think it does?

Appeasement has come to be synonymous with weakness.  With abysmally poor leadership.  This is unfortunate, for nothing could be farther from the truth.  When used properly, appeasement should be in the toolkit of every leader.  Trouble arises because leaders misunderstand it, and they misunderstand their adversaries, and they misunderstand themselves.  In short, appeasement is and will be always about human nature.

Appeasement is a tool for the strong.  It is a tool for keeping the weak in line.  You threaten with firm action and bribe with small crumbs, all the while keeping for yourself what is truly important.

But to work, certain conditions must apply: one party must be stronger than the other, and must know it.  The strong party must prefer the status quo but have crumbs to give.  The weaker party must have relatively few options for compromise, while possessing some type of unpleasant nuclear option – which both parties must want to avoid.

If the weaker party is not afraid to use its nuclear option, then it is not the weaker party.  In such a case, appeasement is futile.  If the stronger party does not fear the nuclear option, then the stronger party holds all the cards and need not waste time appeasing.

This combination of circumstances sounds rare but in fact is quite common.  The nuclear option need not be a literal “nuclear option.”  (With Iran, the fact that actual nukes are potentially involved raises the stakes rather higher, making it crucial we get this right.)

In everyday negotiations, walking away from the deal is almost always an option, and is usually unpleasant enough for both parties to make it “nuclear.”  The challenge is in the degree to which a threat of walking away is perceived as real; if it is not, there is no threat, thus there is no power.

Almost by definition, one party has more power than the other.  An employer has more power than an employee.  A bank has more power than a borrower.  The police have more power than looters.  The United States of America has more power than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The first trick to appeasement – this will sound odd – is figuring out whether you are strong or weak.  Strength and weakness are subject to emotion, internal politics, geopolitical shifts, and leadership.  If the “stronger” party acts weak, it is weak.  If the weaker party acts strong – and that apparent strength is accepted at face value – then the weak party is strong.  Even at the highest levels of international politics, there is much to learn from the humble game of poker.

If you try appeasement when you are not the strong party, then you are not appeasing…you are getting bullied.

If you are in a position of strength, use that strength.  One way to leverage strength is through appeasement.

Second, you must understand the nuclear option: more than “know,” you must grasp just how scary it is to each party.  It is easy to project your own fear onto your opponent, and assume that the nuclear option frightens them as much as it does you.  This is common.  It is also a mistake.  Your opponent is not simply your mirror image.

The dangers of failing to fully understand appeasement can be seen in that most famous historical example of appeasement: Chamberlain vs. Hitler.

Here is the conventional view of the appeasement of 1938:

Chamberlain let Hitler have the Sudetenland without making too much fuss, figuring this would satisfy Hitler’s bloodlust – thus avoiding war.

This didn’t work, of course, and here is why: Hitler was not afraid of war.  In fact, it was his assumption all along.  The Sudetenland was an appetizer, not appeasement.  Chamberlain’s mistake was in believing that Hitler wanted what he wanted.  In short, Chamberlain projected his own fear, assuming (against the evidence) that Hitler shared his dread.  Chamberlain sued for peace with Hitler, with the Sudetenland as the morsel.  Because Hitler was not afraid of war (and because any threats by Chamberlain were a nearly transparent lie), appeasement was inappropriate – and ineffective.

But that isn’t all.

France and England were militarily stronger than Germany, even then.  Yet they didn’t believe, and they certainly did not act as if they were.  (Pacifism following World War I was quite strong, and a prelude to what followed: as sheep to slaughter.)

Therefore, even though France and England should have been the “strong party,” they were instead weak.  Chamberlain, for example, had to go to Hitler.  Weak.  Chamberlain wanted peace at all costs.  Weak.

So much for the conventional historical account.

Nineteen thirty-eight was actually a lesson in how effective appeasement can be – and because it was done so forcefully yet subtly, decades later, we still haven’t caught on.  It was Hitler who appeased Chamberlain.

While Hitler should have been the weaker party, he was in fact the stronger party…because his counterpart let him be.  Chamberlain’s weakness made Hitler the stronger party, and Chamberlain’s fear of war made for an effective “nuclear option” that could be used against him.

It was Chamberlain who was appeased: he got a meaningless signature, while Hitler got what he intended all along.  Hitler wanted to avoid premature allied military action, sure, yet the nuclear option was far more frightening to England and France – to the point where Chamberlain was appeasable with a mere piece of paper.  Piece in our time, indeed.

There were thus two appeasements in 1938.  The fake one failed spectacularly; the real one succeeded brilliantly.  Both provide valuable lessons.

Appeasement is the art of throwing crumbs at your opponents, to stop them from exercising their nuclear option.  It is the soothing lullaby, the careful dousing of fires – barely.

The employer does not grant the salary hike, but increases salaries just enough that quitting (or striking) just does not quite seem worth it.  Or he installs a new game machine, or paints the lunchroom.

Crumbs.  Appeasement.

The car dealer agrees not to your price, but instead throws in undercoating at “no charge,” or maybe a CD player at cost – just enough so you don’t walk away.

Crumbs.  Appeasement.

But beware: it is important to know the price.  Appeasement requires you to give small things away, and care should be taken that you give as little as possible, and only what you do not need.  Only when pacification can be purchased for a reasonable price in crumbs is appeasement a wise strategy.

If your opponent is headed for the nuclear option anyway, then don’t waste your time or crumbs on appeasement.  Go nuclear.  (This is not entirely tongue-in-cheek: it was this calculus that kept the world alive for 60 years.)  If your opponent is too weak to exercise the nuclear option, then skip appeasement altogether in favor of outright strong-arming.

Appeasement is not about charity; rather, it is about purchasing compliance at the best possible price.  It is therefore essential to remember to stop giving.  It can be exceedingly tempting to continue granting your opponent’s requests – it seems to make him so happy!  (And goodness, those meetings are long!)  But if you lose discipline, you will quickly appease yourself into a weaker position, which is the source of another criticism frequently levied at appeasement – that all it accomplishes is giving things away for no apparent gain.  If you are not careful, this is exactly what will happen.

Appeasement is the art of saying yes to small, unimportant requests (or better yet, proactively throwing crumbs of your choosing) while standing firm on “No” to the big requests.  You trade small gives for big takes, and if you keep making small gives indefinitely, there will eventually be nothing left of value for you to give – or keep.

So how does this apply to Iran?  Who is the strong party, who is weak, who is really appeasing whom?

Frankly, the world does not know.  It’s not merely that we’re not privy to the details, which is as it should be – and is irrelevant.

The danger?

We don’t even know Who’s on First.

The unique take on negotiation is from Jagged Rocks of Wisdom – Negotiation: Mastering the Art of the Deal, by Morten Lund.  Born in Oslo, Norway, Lund is a graduate of Yale Law School and is the author of three books in the Jagged Rocks of Wisdom series. Used with his permission.

Thane Messinger is the author of several books, including Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold.