The Role of Diplomacy vs Force

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            Historical episodes suggest that the use of military coercion as a means of political maneuvering not only diminishes the bargaining range and increases the risk of the very outcome (i.e., unwanted war) state leaders seek to avoid, but also is essentially equivalent to starting a war.  In fact, just as wars are typically preceded by a period of coercive bargaining (i.e., crisis bargaining involving military coercion), the resort to military instruments is also typically preceded by a period of diplomacy in crisis bargaining. The record of international history shows that states usually do not resort to military coercion as a bargaining instrument from the outset of international disputes, but instead they first conduct diplomatic negotiation. According to a data set of 348 territorial dispute from 1919 through 1995 compiled by Paul K. Huth and Todd L. Allee (2002), in 56% of the disputes (196 cases) states did not even resort to military coercion to settle their disputes. Further, evidence shows that diplomatic negotiation preceded the resort to military coercion in nearly 60% (91 cases) of 152 territorial disputes that eventually involved (at least) military coercion. Moreover, in about 38% (58 cases) of the disputes involving military instruments, states had attempted diplomacy for more than five years before resorting to military coercion. And yet, very few militarized international disputes become wars.

As he Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) data set shows among 2,331 disputes in the 1816 — 2001 period, 1,230 cases (53%) involved the use of force and 105 cases (4.5%) ended up in a full-scale war (Ghosn, Palmer and Bremer 2004). War, therefore, can be seen as failure of diplomacy, and the logic of success and failure of diplomacy in international disputes is at the core of our understanding of the origins of war and peace. The fundamental question about the origins of war and peace, therefore, becomes the question of why diplomacy sometimes fails to reach a peaceful settlement that (presumably) all the parties to a dispute would prefer to the game of military coercion. Why do political leaders frequently rely on military coercion that entails a risk of war in seeking a peaceful settlement of a dispute? In other words, why can peace not be sought peacefully rather than forcefully? Until this dilemma of diplomacy is adequately addressed, the problem of war cannot be fully solved.  Furthermore, the fact that about 56% of territorial disputes in the 20th century did not involve military coercion in their settlements cannot be adequately explained by the conventional rationalist account of war and crisis bargaining, which suggests that leaders take costly actions (typically publicly demonstrated military operations) and make demands that carry risks of war in attempts to settle a dispute.  Until this puzzle is satisfactorily answered in a theory and practice, we would not be able to understand more substantive questions such as why the Bush Administration decided to resort to military coercion in dealing with the Iraqi questions, while pursuing peaceful negotiations vis-a-vis North Korea.

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            The term diplomacy is one of the most undefined concepts in the international relations literature in spite of its frequent mention in the ordinary language. Diplomacy can be spotted in the literature in various guises but is often mixed with a myriad of other social behavior and activities. In particular, as a British diplomat Harold Nicolson pointed out, diplomacy unlike military force can take many different forms such as communication, negotiation, ceremonial protocol, peaceful means among others: “Of all the branches of human endeavor, diplomacy is the most protean” (in Steiner 2004). To add to the confusion, as Nicolson (1963, 3-5) also noted over several decades ago, the terms “diplomacy” and “foreign policy” are often used interchangeably, and perhaps the most (in)famous example of this interchangeable use of the term is by Henry Kissinger in his book titled Diplomacy (1994).   Nevertheless, there are primarily three distinctive literatures (or subfields) that address the issues on diplomacy, including the rationalist literature on cri­sis bargaining, coercive diplomacy and deterrence, and the English school. As we shall see, the conventional wisdom that emerges from these literatures—that diplomacy by itself is ineffective and secondary to military might—is almost certainly wrong. The main implication about diplomacy from the conventional rationalist approach to war and crisis bargaining is that diplomacy is ineffective and secondary to military might in international relations. A typical argument in this regard is that normal diplomacy is ineffective since it is not informative because diplomacy is essentially “cheap talk.” Sartori (2005, 10) notes that “Diplomacy is the epitome of cheap talk; it includes speeches, communiques, and diplomatic notes.” Hence, one of the most frequently cited articles in the theoretical study of international security argues that states intrinsic incentives for strategic misrepresentation makes normal forms of diplomacy incapable of locating mutually preferable peaceful settlements in international disputes; rather the only feasible way to avoid war is to take actions that produce a real risk of inefficient war:

            “The problem … is that states can also have strong incentives to misrepresent their             willingness to fight in order to gain a better deal. Given these incentives, quite      diplomatic exchanges may be rendered uninformative about a state’s preferences….   States in a dispute thus face a dilemma. They have strong incentives to learn whether t   here are agreements both would prefer to the use of force, but their incentives to             misrepresent mean that normal forms of diplomatic communication may be            worthless…. States resort to the risky and provocative actions … because less-public     diplomacy may not allow them credibly to reveal their own preferences concerning        international interests or to learn those of others” (Fearon 1994, 578).  Guisinger and Smith (2002), Ramsay (2004), and Sartori (2002, 2005) all commonly conceptualize diplomacy as pre-crisis announcements by political leaders, and identifies the conditions under which cheap-talk diplomacy can be effective in crisis bargaining. The hidden assumption common to the cheap-talk conceptualization of diplo­macy and the recent formal work on pre-crisis diplomatic announcements is that all of these studies focus exclusively on the information role of diplomacy.

            Coercive diplomacy and rational deterrence theories were borne out of the renaissance of security studies in the late 1970s and 1980s (Walt 1991). In particular, Alexander George and his associates have coined the phrase “coercive diplomacy” to denote the use of threats and limited force as instruments of forceful persuasion in deterrence and compellence. Contrary to the appearance of “diplomacy” that the term “coercive diplomacy” carries, its focus is primarily on how military coercion can be effectively utilized in statecraft. Coercive diplomacy therefore is typically defined as the art of coercion through threats of force to influence calculations and behavior of an adversary in persuading the adversary to alter its behavior. That is, coercive diplomacy is based on the “power to hurt” (Schelling 1966, 3). The nature of coercive diplomacy is eloquently articulated in the opening pages of the seminal work on coercive diplomacy by Thomas Schelling, “The Diplomacy of Violence.” Coercive diplomacy relies so much on military force in the conduct of foreign policy that the concept of diplomacy in this literature is indistinguishable from statecraft though military instruments:

            “Diplomacy is bargaining… The bargaining can be polite or rude, entail threats as well      as offers… The power to hurt can be counted among the most impressive    attributes of     military force… The only purpose … must be to influence somebody’s        behavior, to     coerce his decision or choice. To be coercive, violence has to be anticipated. And it          has to be avoidable by accommodation. The power to hurt is bargaining power. To             exploit it is diplomacy—vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy” (Schelling 1966, 1-2).  Hence, coercive diplomacy marks a sharp contrast to the hallmark of diplomacy-peaceful instruments. That is, although its peaceful nature makes diplomacy distinctive from other statecraft instruments such as military and economic coercion, the literature on coercive diplomacy does not observe this difference.

            Scholars associated with the English school and other European scholars have produced a large volume of writings on the reflection of the history of diplomatic practice and institutions, rather than work of diplomatic history per se. The English school envisions that world order exists in the international system in the form of the international society, despite the anarchical nature of the system.  Given this, the main thrust of the English school is to uncover the nature and function of the international society and to trace its history and evolution. According to Hedley Bull (1977), there are a handful of key institutions that maintain order in the anarchical society. Diplomacy is one such institution along with war, sovereignty, the balance of power, power hierarchy, and international law among others. It is institutionalization of these shared norms, rules, inter­ests, and identity that create and maintain the international society. It is in this context that diplomacy has long been a subject of study in this tradition because of this school’s substantive interests in the evolution and practice of the international society and diplomacy is understood as one of the institutions in the international system whose evolution and expansion of the practice and norms have defined the international society. The common denominator for the English school’s understanding of diplomacy is also well articulated by Bull (1977): diplomacy is conceptualized as an institution of the same kind as war and military coercion, and basic functions of diplomacy consists of intelligence (or information-gathering), communication among political leaders, negotiating agreements, and diplomatic manipulation to minimize fraction.

            Hedley Bull considered the main task of diplomacy as reducing the “effects of the frictions in international relations” (Bull 1977, 165): “The diplomatist … helps to minimize friction through the conventions he observes in dealing with foreign officials, and also through his influence upon his own state’s policy.” If diplomacy is an institution of the same kind as military coercion, alliance, deterrence, and other conflict resolution institutions, how is diplomacy different from these institutions? The natural history of diplomacy above suggests that the empirical literature seems to agree on the one key aspect that distinguishes diplomacy from other conflict resolution mechanisms: its commitment to peaceful means.

The emphasis on peaceful means is also the main theme of Morgenthau’s writing on diplomacy, as he notes: “For a diplomacy that ends in war has failed in its primary objective: the promotion of the national interest by peaceful means” (Morgenthau 1973, 519).  Sir Ernest Satow, the author of one of the most adopted reference textbooks on the practice of diplomacy, offers a renowned definition of diplomacy which reads “Diplomacy is … the conduct of business between states by peaceful means” (Bull 1977, 157). The emphasis on the peaceful means commonly implies its contrast to military instruments. Hedley Bull (1977, 157) says “War … exemplifies the conduct of international relations by official agents; diplomatists differ from soldiers in that they confine themselves to peaceful means,” he continues, “[the diplomatist] seeks always to reason or persuade rather than to bully or threaten” (Bull 1977, 165). As these citations indicate, the premise of diplomatic institutions has historically been understood as the use of peaceful means to settle a dispute among political entities short of war, and these authors regard diplomacy in contrast to military coercion.

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