Friday, July 14, 2006

Zeno diplomacy

No, that's not a typo above. I didn't mean "Zero diplomacy," I meant "Zeno diplomacy."

What's Zeno diplomacy? It's described in this article by Robert Tracinski, a writer with whom I wasn't previously familiar but who appears to be an Ayn Rand proponent (see this).

The term apparently originated with Robert Kagan, who mentions it in his recent article appearing in the Washington Post. It's a reference to Zeno's paradox; remember, the one that was illustrated in your textbooks by the little drawings of the turtle and Achilles, advancing the seemingly logical but obviously incorrect argument that says the turtle will win the race against the warrior?

Here's another way to state the argument:

Suppose I wish to cross the room. First, of course, I must cover half the distance. Then, I must cover half the remaining distance. Then, I must cover half the remaining distance. Then I must cover half the remaining distance . . . and so on forever. The consequence is that I can never get to the other side of the room.

We don't need to worry right now about the flaw in Zeno's argument (although if you follow the link you'll find a good explanation); what we're dealing with today is a flaw in the argument of those who argue for diplomacy, and then some diplomacy, and then some more diplomacy, when dealing with those whose aim is not to come to a peaceful resolution, but to stall for time. Because stalling for time gives the enemy the means to choose to start a conflict at a time more favorable to him, rather than to us. And it's Tracinski's assertion that stalling for time with Iran (otherwise known as "diplomacy") has only given Iran the ability to strike in a way and time of its own choosing, as we see now in the current Mideast crisis.

Those who promote nearly endless diplomacy as a solution to situations in which conflict threatens to erupt often don't seem to see that diplomacy has its downside. After all, what could be bad about postponing a war by talking? Isn't that always good?

It would be good, I suppose, if the negotiations led to an actual resolution or defusing of the situation, if the passage of time led to the situation somehow becoming better and not worse. And, of course, without a functioning crystal ball, none of us can foretell the future; we can only do our best to predict it based on the best evidence we have in the present. That process, of course, is deeply flawed, but it's all we have.

One of my favorite quotations of all time is that of the New England abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who famously said:

With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.

When I first heard the quote I misunderstood it for a moment, thinking Garrison was saying that tyrants always win arguments. No, what he meant by the phrase "they will certainly be lost" is "they will certainly be wasted."

So the key to winning arguments--or to get people to do what you want them to--is to tailor the approach to the problem and to the character of the person or people with whom one is dealing. Tyrants are tyrannical, and neither reason nor pleading will suffice to convince them.

The problem, of course, is in deciding who is that sort of a tyrant, and who is not. It's a bit like end of the first sentence of Niebuhr's well-known serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom to know the difference--yes, indeed! To distinguish when diplomacy has a chance of working from the times when it doesn't is not an easy task, but certainly not an impossible one. And I think it's safe to say that in North Korea and in Iran we are dealing with the sort of tyrants on whom words will certainly be lost.

That's not to say that some tyrants can't be appealed to by coercion or even persuasion that focuses on their own self-interest. That may be true of Iran. But be careful. Look what happened in North Korea, during the Clinton administration. Giving negotiated concessions to a tyrant for humanitarian reasons, ones that seem to be good for the people of the country at the time, can ultimately backfire and end up with the tyrant having bought time to become more aggressive.

It's an interesting balancing act. Tyrants desire power above all, and to get that power they need a country. However, that need for power may be the only reason they care about the welfare of their people at all--if the people disappear, the country disappears, and where would that leave the tyrant? But tyrants ordinarily consider large numbers of their people expendable, as long as enough people remain to maintain the tyrant's country and his power. So the welfare of their people as a whole is not necessarily so much of a bargaining chip.

And be careful even of the logical assumption that tyrants care about the existence of their country at all. Some tyrants are more or less mad--or they become so over time--and when their fortunes are on the wane they want to bring the entire country down with them, in a sort of murder-suicide impulse (Hitler, for example, wanted Germany and the Germans to perish with him when he finally realized that all was lost).

And that brings us to the Iranian mullahs. They've put a somewhat new twist on things, because they are the first tyrannical heads of a country (in modern times, at least) who appear far less concerned with the things of this world than with their vision of the world to come. Therefore all bets are off; their priorities may indeed be focused on the afterlife rather than on protecting their people in this one. This is what makes them especially bad candidates for negotiation, and especially good ones for the problems inherent in Zeno diplomacy.

[By the way, Pajamas Media has some very thorough roundups of breaking news and reactions in the current crisis.]

[ADDENDUM: In another case of psychoblogger unity, Dr. Sanity spotlights the same Tracinski article, although she discusses other aspects of it.]

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