Bush and the Old Hands

The report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) in November of 2006 laid open a split in the Republican Party, as has been widely noted. James Baker is a negotiator and George W. Bush is, as he himself has insisted, a decider. The contrast speaks volumes. The two men have, of course, much in common: they are both Republicans, they both see the same other nations as friendly and the same ones as hostile, and the Negotiator is hardly indecisive, nor is the Decider loath to make deals. So what is the big fuss?

The difference has to do first with perception and then with style. That may sound at first superficial. But the morality of both everyday life and political life is, one might say, profoundly superficial. Or as Mies van der Rohe once put it, in a brilliant variation on a familiar adage, “God is in the details.”
Defining the Difference

For the Decider the world is black and white, for the Negotiator it is shades of gray. For George Bush and his crowd, anyone who stands contrary to him or his policy is black. We have seen this in his remarks (or those of his staff) about people who have left his administration because of disagreements. In nearly every case we have an instance of denigration of the person’s character or competence, or both. There are no honorable dissidents or defectors. When we expand our scope to the whole globe, the contrasts are even starker, the emblem of his manner of perception being the famous “axis of evil” remark in his first inaugural speech. The contrasts between black and white, once made, seem curiously independent of actions. So Hamas and Hezbullah remain black even when they participate in democratic elections, and no action whatever would convince the White House of Iran’s worthiness to remain an Islamic state, whereas Israel stays white as a Jewish state even though killing hundreds (perhaps thousands) of innocent civilians.

For the Decider, the challenge is to increase the areas of white and reduce the areas of black. Removing Saddam was a good thing because it removed an area of black, and it remains a good thing because even though Iraq is in a kind of Limbo, not at the moment pure white, but no longer all black either. The rhetoric of the Decider is one of ideals, such as freedom and democracy, and the Decider sees his pursuit of these ideals as far loftier than the dirty gray pragmatism of the Negotiator.

The Negotiator sees shades of good and evil, and is comfortable with the world remaining various shades of gray. Power is always some shade of gray or other. The great advantage of political power is not that it brings either freedom or democracy, let alone justice, but stability. It is stability that lightens the darker shades of gray, and it is instability that sullies what might seem like promising ideals. Pure white is an illusion, as is pure black. The challenge is to discern where there are lighter shades of gray, and to enlarge them by increasing stability among those who have power. An important part of such discernment is recognition of who it is that actually has power – – and hence has the capability of entering into an agreement that promises stability.

It is entirely right to understand the contrast between the Negotiator and the Decider as one form of the contrast between pragmatism and idealism, as well as one of perception. So manners and style are a crucial aspect of the contrast.

With respect to style, the Negotiator works through apparent differences to a consensus on which all can agree. In the process he normally hides his own deepest fears and aspirations, so that in representing the group he becomes a spokesperson rather than a decision-maker. Baker did this brilliantly in hammering out a unanimous report from the ISG. The style of the Negotiator requires careful listening to other viewpoints and incorporating them – – perhaps not in their original formulation – – in the final negotiated agreement. The handbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes (Fisher, Ury, and Patton; Penguin 1991), lays stress on distinguishing between positions and interests, insisting that a serious negotiator always looks behind conflicting positions fo convergent interests. Such, indeed is the style of the report of the ISG. The report notes that it is in the interest of both Iran and Syria, as well as Turkey, that Iraq not erupt into such chaos that refugees flee into neighboring countries. This interest might well be convergent with US interests, however much current rhetoric suggests that the parties are mired in incompatible positions.

The style of the Decider is to dismiss and denigrate divergent positions rather to work through differences. This has been apparent since the first notes of tension and disagreement emerged from the Beltway, with the departure of the first Treasury Secretary, the denigration of various arms-control experts, and the exposure of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent following her husband’s candid report on alleged uranium shipments from Niger to Iraq. There can be no such thing as honorable disagreement with the Decider. That is part of what is meant by Bush being the Decider: disagreement is betrayal, just because disagreement refuses to acknowledge the decisions the Decider has made. It is not a shade of gray but jet black. Therefore the Decider is undermined by negotiators as much as by dissidents.

This style is equally apparent in foreign policy, especially in those domains of foreign policy that are in the news. The nations of the world are generally either black or white. A flagrant example, at the time of acrimony over the invasion of Iraq, was the division of NATO into Old Europe (black) and New Europe (white), based simply on whether or not they supported the invasion. Israel is white, Iran, Syria, and North Korea are black, and Hezbullah and Hamas and very black. In Latin America Cuba and Venezuela are black, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador and turning black, Colombia and Chile are white, while Mexico, Brazil and Argentina are in Limbo. Latin America has been severely neglected by Washington in recent years, as never before in the previous century, in that there have been no major economic or military moves in that region, Bush’s early visit to Mexico proving to be mere show. There have indeed been significant decisions made in Latin America, but with the Decider’s attention focussed elsewhere, the decisions are being made by others.
Domination vs. Prosperity

The aim of a negotiated agreement is enduring cooperation, which is incompatible with domination. There is of course a form of pseudo-cooperation, whereby what the stronger party means is obedience to the dominant power. That is what parents have in mind when they ask their young children to cooperate. In genuine cooperation, on the other hand, the parties begin with more balanced powers, at least in the sense that either can effectively nullify the proposed cooperation. In such a case domination is out of place, and therefore decision-making is shared. There can be no Decider where there is genuine cooperation.

It is a famous thesis of Hobbes, taken over by nearly all political philosophers, that cooperation will never work where there is no overarching dominating authority (the “sovereign”) to which all the cooperating parties are submissive. The fruits of cooperation are stability and prosperity, and Hobbes claimed that in a state of nature (that is, where there is no sovereign authority), there is bound to be a “war of all against all”, and “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That dismal thesis was brilliantly challenged several decades ago by Robert Axelrod in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books 1984). The challenge was presented by means of game theory.

One basic distinction in game theory is that between zero-sum games and variable-sum games. In a zero-sum game the size of the pie is fixed in advance, and there can therefore never be a winner unless there is also a loser. That is, I cannot get a bigger slice of the pie unless you get a smaller one. In a variable-sum game, on the other hand, the total payoff is not determined in advance, so that there can be win-win outcomes, as we have learned to say. That basic distinction, about which there is no theoretical dispute or obscurity, allows us to restate the distinction between the Decider and the Negotiator. The Decider believes that political life consists always and only of zero-sum games, while the Negotiator believes that most of political life (he is not such an absolutist as the Decider) consists of variable-sum games. The Decider is with Hobbes.

Axelrod focussed on a variable-sum game called “The Prisoners’ Dilemma” (PD). PD is a two-player game defined in game theory by the proportions in which various payoffs stand to one another. The payoffs that Axelrod used are that if both players are “mean” (try to dominate or “win”), each gets one point; If both are nice (try to cooperate), each gets three points; and if one Is mean and the other nice, the meanie gets five points and the nice guy nothing. In that simple form, the rational outcome seems a clear vindication of Hobbes, and it really makes no sense to be nice.

Axelrod, however, studied a variation called “The Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma” (IPD). In this variation, the players encounter each other over and over, and what counts is the total score in the end. Though neither version is a perfect model of life, IPD clearly corresponds to many life circumstances. How do you act towards people you expect to encounter over and over?

Axelrod could not figure out the answer to this question from his armchair, so he devised a tournament. He asked colleagues in game theory, policy studies, and politics to submit programmable strategies for an IPD tournament in which each strategy would play against each other, and also against itself, for 200 encounters, and the winner of the tournament would be the strategy that had accumulated the most points at the end of the tournament. Each strategy needed to specify precisely at every given move whether its current move would be mean or nice, based on a rule that could take account of some or all of the prior moves. Axelrod included a strategy he called RANDOM, that chose whether to mean or nice in a mathematically random succession. Altogether there were fourteen entries.

The winning strategy was submitted by Anatol Rapoport, himself a fascinating scholar, since he was a mathematician and pacifist who also wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of On War by Karl von Clausewitz. Rapoport’s strategy was the simplest of all those submitted: it started by being nice on the first move, and then on every subsequent move did whatever the other player had done on the previous move. A moment’s reflection on the payoffs shows that this strategy can lose by five points (but never by more than five points) or can tie the other player, but can never get more points than the other player.

So we have the seeming paradox that the winner of the tournament never won any of the individual matches! That could never happen in a tournament consisting of zero-sum games, such as all the sporting tournaments of our culture. Nor in a chess tournament could a player with the simplest strategy ever win, since the opponent would win soon after figuring out the strategy. In the IPD tournament, however, Rapoport hoped that his opponents would figure out his strategy, since they would then realize that they could attain more points by cooperating than by overwhelming wins, or whatever.

Axelrod published an extensive analysis of the results of this tournament and announced a second round of his IPD tournament. There was a slight change in the rules, in that each match would end at some randomly selected number in the area of 200 encounters. The apparent paradox of the winner of the first round never winning even a single individual match led to a great increase in interest, and there were 62 entries for the second round, coming from six countries and representing eight academic disciplines. All sorts of people thought that must be a way to do better than a very simple strategy that never outscored any other strategy in one-on-one encounters. It made no sense to the experts that you could win tournaments without winning any individual matches.

They were wrong. Rapoport submitted the same strategy and won again. Overwhelmingly. And Axelrod then experimented with evolution, changing the population in each generation so that those most successful in the previous generation had a correspondingly greater representation in the next. Most of the meanies quickly became extinct, and the strength of Rapoport’s strategy increased with each generation. The conclusion for evolutionary studies: There are certain circumstances, perhaps not too rare, in which nice guys do not finish last but rather they flourish and multiply. As Axelrod usefully puts it, Rapoport’s strategy is not strong but it is robust. And it is robustness rather than strength that leads to long-term stability and prosperity.

Cooperation and long-term stable arrangements are generally the aim of negotiation, but a Negotiator is not necessarily a Cooperator. In diplomacy, a Negotiator normally combines a fairly fixed conception of “national interest” with a more flexible conception of prosperity and well-being as competing goals of the negotiation. Consequently IPD is not always a reliable model of real-world negotiations. But the Negotiator remains much closer than the Decider to the wry wisdom of Anatol Rapoport’s winning IPD strategy.
The Poverty of Unilateralism

To be a Decider is to be a Unilateralist. The Bush administration has augmented this American tendency, exempting the US from the International Criminal Court and other international jurisdictions having to do with war crimes and unfair trade practices (such as our agricultural subsidies).

An instructive but little-known example of obstructionist unilateralism has been the Bush administration’s stance on the 2001 UN Program of Action on small arms and light weapons (SALW), a segment of the UN’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. Every year since 2001 three of our allies, Japan, Colombia, and South Africa, have introduced an omnibus resolution about illegal trade in SALW but have failed to find the consensus they desired. Finally in 2006 they gave up on consensus and put the measure to a vote – 172 in favor, no abstentions, and only the US opposed. A similar obstruction, not quite so flagrant, occurred with respect to a resolution pertaining to the Arms Trade Treaty, to set up a process for establishing common international standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms. The vote on this resolution was 139 in favor, 24 abstentions, and one (the US) opposed. Would it be unreasonable to conclude that the US on principle will not cooperate on any issue in the First Committee, at least not if there is a hint of any impending obstacle to selling arms?

Such action puts us in the position of a meanie in Axelrod’s IPD tournament, with the prospect progressive impoverishment. We already see signs of that process in the decline of the dollar and the rapid rise of US indebtedness to China. Fortunately the posture of the Bush administration is partially compensated by commercial cooperation on a global scale, and it may therefore take a long time of the negative effects of going it alone to take effect.

Stability can accompany the rule of a Decider only if the Decider is sovereign, as Hobbes envisioned. If the Decider is not sovereign – that is, if there are other persons or states that make effective decisions altogether independent of the Decider – then strife and conflict concerning who is dominant and who is independent is bound to lead to instability. Such instability exists in the Middle East and looms in the rest of Asia. For 2007 we can look forward to continuing prosperous relations with China and India and Korea and Japan, in spite of their independence, but also to continuing costly and abrasive relations with Iran and Iraq.

Cooperation is pragmatic, not moral. Cooperation is generally preferable to war, but there are limits to its merits. One genuine drawback to cooperation is uncertainty about the morality or justice of cooperative arrangements. It is therefore reasonable that there be moral strings attached to cooperation, something that is left entirely out of the picture presented in Axelrod’s study. When we take matters of justice and morality into account, we again see not only the difference between a Negotiator and a Cooperator but also the sharp contrast between a Decider and a Negotiator.

Cooperation is often the door to corruption – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Trade agreements between large corporations and emerging states have often resulted in huge bribes to third-world officials as well as to flagrant neglect of basic working standards and environmental concerns. Collegial cooperation among corporate executives in the US has led executive pay to soar from 20 times a worker’s pay to 400 times a worker’s pay, in just a couple of decades. Such cooperation is only partial, peasants and workers being left out, and a seasoned Negotiator, having read Fisher and Ury, will realize an inherent instability in such partial cooperation. That is a good part of the reason that the ISG strongly recommends serious talks with Iran and Syria. But confronting considerations of morality and justice is not simple or easy.

Two reasons why morality and justice present genuinely tough problems are, first, that claims of justice or morality are often fraudulent masks for power grabs, and, second, that they may conflict even when they are based on sound principles.

The obstacles presented by considerations of morality and justice again show the contrast between the Decider and the Negotiator. The Decider, to preserve his own status as Decider, has no recourse but to articulate and insist on his own conception of morality and justice, which quicky leads to impasse. The Negotiator proceeds by listening to the other party and then trying to separate out positions from interests. There is no guarantee for success through negotiation, but there is a richer array of possibilities.

When the ISG presented its report, President Bush slapped down the Negotiator, almost rudely, certainly with all the arrogance that normally accompanies unilateral action. His 2007 State of the Union address may have lacked the vigor and bluster of the Decider’s earlier pronouncements, but he did not back away either from his role as Decider or from any of his unilateral decisions. We can hardly expect that he will be more accommodating toward Nancy Pelosi than toward James Baker. Even if the Peace Fairy were to resolve matters in Iraq tomorrow, the pattern would remain, and there are many issues to resolve before we sleep. It is likely, therefore, that we can look forward to another year of impoverishment.

NEWTON GARVER is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at University at Buffalo. Eleven of his essays on war, power, ethics, truth and justice in the US during the Bush years, and the recent struggle for human rights and political decency in Bolivia, were recently published in Limits of Power: Some Friendly Reminders.