What are some potential game-changers in contemporary international
diplomacy? By "game-changer," I mean a bold and risky initiative that
fundamentally alters the strategic landscape, creating new possibilities and
forcing others to rethink their own positions.
I'm thinking about the kind of bold stroke that the late Michael Handel
analyzed in his book The
Diplomacy of Surprise: Hitler, Nixon, Sadat. He was interested in
how certain leaders launched faits accomplis or other unexpected
maneuvers to break out of diplomatic gridlocks. Obvious examples are Richard Nixon's
opening to China, Anwar Sadat's surprise announcement that he was willing to go to
Jerusalem in search of peace, or (less positively) the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that briefly united Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and
helped open the door to World War II. These initiatives often involved advance
planning behind the scenes, but they were unexpected at the time and had
dramatic effects as soon as they were revealed.
So I've been trying to imagine other steps that contemporary world leaders
could take that might have equally dramatic effects. This sort of initiative
can be risky, of course, and there's no guarantee that a bold gamble will
succeed. With that caveat, here's a short list of five potential
"game-changers," in no particular order.
The United States Takes the Military Option "off the Table"
For at least a decade, U.S. leaders have repeatedly insisted that all
options are "on the table" with Iran. In one sense this is a truism: as
long as you have certain capabilities, you always have the option of using them
no matter what you've said in the past. But constantly harping on the
possibility of military action is not a good way to build trust -- especially
when the opponent is already deeply suspicious. It is also a very good way to
convince an adversary that it ought to acquire some means of deterring a
serious attack, such as acquiring a nuclear weapon, which is precisely what we
don't want Iran to do. In any event, keeping the military option "on the
table" doesn't appear to have achieved very much thus far.
So what would happen if the Obama administration announced that the military
option was "off the table" completely? It could remind everyone that
this step did not preclude military action to defend U.S. allies or retaliate
against direct attacks on the United States or its forces, but that we were not
contemplating any sort of preventive attack on Iran itself, and were going to
rely on diplomacy instead. I doubt this would cause a sudden U.S.-Iranian thaw,
but it might clear the air somewhat and strengthen the hand of Iranians who
recognize that crossing the nuclear
threshold may not be in their own interest.
I don't for a minute think Obama & Co. will do any such thing between
now and November 2012 (and probably not afterwards), and I certainly can't
imagine any of the GOP candidates (save Ron Paul) acting along these lines. But
that just shows you how little imagination our foreign-policy establishment has
Above, President Obama prepares to deliver a statement on the U.N. Security Council sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program in June 2010.
Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
Hamas Revises Its Charter
If you've never read the Hamas Charter, it's worth a quick
gander. You'll find it pretty disturbing. Many experts believe that a lot
of its elements (including the explicit rejection of Israel's legitimacy, etc.)
are not a true indication of Hamas' bottom lines, but, even so, there's a lot
of offensive stuff that has nothing to do with concrete issues that divide
Israelis and Palestinians. Case in point: the various references to a
global Zionist conspiracy (going back to the French Revolution!), along with
positive references to long-discredited anti-Semitic forgeries like the Protocols
of the Elders of Zion. Check out Articles 22, 28, and 32, for example. In
addition to making it easier for opponents to justify marginalizing Hamas, such
passages make the organization sound out of touch with reality.
But imagine what could happen if Hamas announced it was dropping the most
offensive (and stupid) clauses in its current charter? It could still adopt a
hardline position on other matters, and still try to portray Fatah as corrupt,
inept, or heavily compromised. But by providing an unmistakable signal that
Hamas was willing to dump some of its most extreme claims, revising the Charter
could open a path towards the organization's participation in the peace process
(which is probably necessary if it is ever to succeed), and thus be a potential
Above, Palestinians walk past Hamas posters in Gaza City in March 2011.
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The United States Proposes Reciprocal Global Nuclear Arms
The American and Russian nuclear arsenals have declined significantly since
the end of the Cold War, but are still far larger than either country needs for
deterrence. In any case, the greater danger today is not some sort of great
power nuclear war, but rather that a terrorist group will one day get a hold of
a nuclear bomb or sufficient weapons-grade material to make a crude bomb of
So even if you are a fan of nuclear deterrence, you ought to be in favor of
shrinking the global stockpile by as much as possible. What if the United
States announced that it was prepared to match -- on a percentage basis --
reductions made by the other nuclear powers? If everyone else cuts by 10
percent, so will we. If others agree to cut by 50 percent, or even 80 percent,
we're down with that too. And because our arsenal is larger than most, we would be getting rid of
lots more weapons than anybody else was (except Russia, which has fewer in
active service but more in storage).
This proposal need not lead directly to total disarmament, however. In
particular, the United States could make it clear at the outset that there is a
floor below which it will not go (perhaps a couple of hundred weapons). But the
basic idea would be to challenge the other nuclear powers to get serious about
reducing their own arsenals, by making it clear that we were willing to make
even deeper cuts to our own.
This idea rests on two important realities: 1) the United States is the
world's strongest conventional military power, and doesn't need an enormous
nuclear arsenal in order to be secure, and 2) states only need a small number
of survivable nuclear warheads to inflict massive damage on another country,
which means you don't need thousands of bombs to have an effective
A proposal like this sounds utopian, but the United States would have little
to lose by making it. At the very least, we'd sound far-sighted, and it would
highlight the importance of the broader issue of nuclear security. And, hey,
we'd save a bunch of money too.
Above, President Obama meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC in April 2010.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Israel Accepts the Arab League Peace Plan
Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia floated a peace proposal that promised full Arab
recognition of Israel once a two-state solution was achieved. The proposal was
relaunched in 2007 and endorsed by the full Arab League. It is merely a general
proposal and not a fully-formed "final status agreement," but it
identified most of the key issues to be addressed and made it clear that these
issues (including controversial topics like the so-called "right of return")
would be resolved via negotiations. So far, Israel has rejected the initiative.
Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often claim that he is
not really interested in a genuine two-state solution, and that all his talk of
negotiation is just a smoke screen designed to buy time for more settlement
building. But what if he went before the Knesset and declared that he had
decided to accept the Arab League offer, and was ready to begin negotiations on
the basis of their proposal? I think that could be a game-changer, and it
wouldn't sacrifice any vital Israeli interests. (And if Hamas revised its
charter (see above) maybe the Likud
Party could revise its platform too!)
Above, Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during trilateral peace negotiations in September 2010.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
China Proposes Multilateral
Negotiation and Arbitration over the South China Sea
China's rise has fueled growing concerns about its long-term intentions. In
recent years, a focal point of these concerns has been conflicting territorial
claims in the South China Sea. These
disputes include bilateral contests between China and Vietnam over the Spratly
Islands and China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and a
multilateral disagreement between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and
Vietnam over the Paracels. These various claims are also bound up in each state's
control over "economic zones" in the region.
Up until now, China has sought to address these issues through bilateral
negotiations, for the obvious reason that this approach maximizes its own
potential leverage over the other contestants. Its naval activities in the area
have increased and it has advanced territorial claims that many observers find
dubious, while rejecting proposals to submit the various claims for
arbitration. Taken together, these developments have intensified its smaller
neighbors' fears and encouraged them to seek closer ties with the United
But what if China took a longer view, and concluded that a more conciliatory
approach would undercut balancing tendencies in Southeast Asia and allow it to
consolidate its position over time? In other words, what if Beijing
suddenly announced that it wanted to begin multilateral negotiations for a
final territorial settlement in the South China Sea, and that it was willing to
submit the matter to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea
if the negotiations failed? It might end up with a smaller share of the
areas in dispute, but the diplomatic benefits from a more conciliatory policy
might outweigh the drawbacks by a wide margin.
I can think of other issues that cry out for a "game-changer" -- the
ongoing euro crisis, the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, the legal limbo
that persists at Guantanamo, etc. -- but I'll stop here. The floor is now open:
What are some other "game-changers" that might make a dramatic
difference if some leader were creative enough to imagine a different approach and
brave enough to try it? And don't worry if your proposals sound far-fetched; bold
attempts to break free of the existing status quo will always appear a bit
crazy at first.
Above, China's Lin Zhen Min and Vietnam's Pham Quang Vinh pose after an Association of South East Asian Nations meeting in July 2011.
Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images