A Kübler-Ross model for International Politics?

The Syria situation is moving too fast to allow for careful and thoughtful analysis and commentary (or at least that’s the most generous reason I can think of for the poor quality of coverage). But instead of sticking my head in the sand, I want to stick my neck out and offer up a couple of predictions regarding this new proposal by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov suggested that Syria will hand over its chemical weapons, doing away with the rationale for an attack.

As I have already hinted I predict that the proposed deal will fail to resolve the crisis. It will fail not because it’s a terrible idea or a disingenuous proposition, but because it’s “just too good to be true”.

Why it’s a good idea

Right now, Syria’s chemical arsenal is more a liability than an asset. These chemical weapons were first sought as a deterrent against Israel, but Israel is far from being Assad’s main concern right now. Also, giving them up would not leave Syria completely incapable of inflicting damage on Israeli cities. Having their delivery capabilities (which probably would include the capability to deliver conventional ordnance as well) destroyed by an American strike would make Syria much more vulnerable.

As far as the US is concerned, if I’m right and Obama doesn’t want to get involved in Syria in the first place or if the goal is to prevent against use of chemical weapons against civilians, even an imperfectly executed handover/destruction of chemical weapons accomplishes more than an attack would.

Why it probably won’t work

Bargaining and Signalling

It won’t work because finding a peaceful solution to problems isn’t just about being able to point out a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s about getting the players there. One obstacle might be that even though the players prefer a mutually cooperative solution, they might suspect that the other prefers to cheat. For fear of being suckered, no one cooperates.  Under conditions of uncertainty, the greater the payoffs from cooperation, more likely players are to cooperate; but the greater the costs of being deceived, more likely they are to play it safe. Cooperation can be hard to achieve even when all parties want it. A slightly different formulation is what we have come to call the “bargaining model”: states that prefer a peaceful bargain might end up going to war over an issue if they can’t agree on who’s the strongest or the most resolute. If only there were a way to tell truth and lie apart…

Rationalist International Relations scholars tell us that players who are intent on cooperating should be able to signal that intent to others. Seeing as how cheaters would have an incentive to misrepresent their intent (bargaining states have incentives to play up their strength and resolve), talk is cheap and signals must be costly to be convincing — actions must be so costly that an actor wouldn’t undertake them unless they were serious about cooperating. We can see this at play explicitly in British, French and American claims that for the Russian proposal to be taken seriously they need a credible signal that proves that this is not just some delaying tactic. The problem here is twofold.  First, Western powers are essentially asking Assad to agree to a strict and internationally supervised program to destroy his chemical arsenal, and are asking Russia (and China) to give up opposition to the use of force and/or international sanctions if Assad fails to comply with that plan. This isn’t just costly, it’s probably prohibitive and thus unreasonable. These things take a lot of time to set up and execute, would put a toll on the government and open it up to scrutiny in ways that handicap it vis-à-vis the rebels. Russia is also unlikely to want to give Western powers carte blanche at the UNSC. Second, and related, Assad and Russia can’t be certain that Western powers will be content with the relinquishing of chemical weapons. They have, after all, suggested that Assad should abdicate power. After going to great lengths to credibly demonstrate that the US can attack Syria even without support from the UN Security Council, European allies, the US Congress or the American people, there is little Obama can do to assure Assad that it won’t just decide to bomb him anyway. “Bombed if you do, bombed if you don’t”, isn’t very conducive to cooperation.

Denial and Anger

This mutual perception of insincerity will only be reinforced if there is no space for actual bargaining.  While Obama and those who oppose military force might be satisfied with diplomacy and could be willing to accept an imperfect deal, the hawks in the Administration and in the public will probably be assuaged by nothing short of what they’re putting on the table. Deluding themselves that they are bargaining magnanimously but in absolute denial that they might be contributing to the failure of a peaceful resolution, the Russian and Syrian response will do nothing but anger them further and prove to them that Assad isn’t to be trusted. They don’t believe any deal is possible anyway (Kerry said so himself).

Depressing predictions

In the next few days and weeks we’ll probably see the following:

1 – Administration officials claiming that diplomacy is only taking place because of the threat of force, and that the threat needs to be maintained if not increased. (ed. While I was writing this Obama came on TV and beat me to it. Gee, thanks, Obama…)

2 – The talks will fail to secure total and immediate compliance.

3 – When talks fail, we’ll hear things like “I knew it all along”, “it was too good to be true”. And these voices will go right back to pushing for an attack, but with probably even more expansive goals next time around. Some of the more dovish voices will argue that increasing the threat level might produce better results at the negotiating table, but that the “window of opportunity” is short and closing fast.

4 – Despite the failure in continued negotiations and whatever happens after (an attack might still follow, but it might not), if the internal situation shifts in Syria and Assad concedes in any way the US will claim credit, saying that the threat (or eventual use) of force was decisive.

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