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In diplomacy, the "zero-sum game" attitude leads to zero achievements

As a retired diplomat, I am often asked what the most valuable trait for successful diplomacy is. My answer is that it is diplomacy that leads international relations to the realm of a win-win situation, and distances them from the "zero-sum game".


Many may think that this answer sounds trivial, but the human nature actually leans towards trying to win the other, rather than aspiring to promote one’s interests without doing It on the other party’s expense.


This insight became clear to me during an exercise made by a Harvard law school professor, at the beginning of a negotiation workshop. The professor asked us to pair up in couples and prepare for arm wrestling. He said that each time, one of us succeeds in pushing down the other's hand to the table, he will receive 10$. Most of the couples in this class immediately started to wrestle with their partners. Only a few realized, that if they cooperated and enabled each other to win, they could make much more money than by just wining the contest.


This was a group of Harvard students, expected to make rational decisions based on calculation of cost and benefit analysis; and still, most of us were wrong. The human inclination leans towards the attempt to win, and not to the creation of common value.

Maybe it is the instincts that remained in the human race since the times when man struggled to survive in the jungle and the choice was between victory or death. However, in the modern world, this inclination does not serve us well – on the contrary.


The interesting fact is that in Hebrew, there is a translation to the English term – "Zero sum game" but there is no translation to the term "win-win". Maybe the reason is that the Jewish people remained in survival mode later into the modern age, and also, now that we have our own state and the strongest army in the region, we are still instinctively feel that our existence is threatened.


The realization that there is no conflict between empathy and assertive advocacy of our interests, is necessary for effective diplomacy. The job of a diplomat is to advance beneficial arrangements with friends as well as enemies. Understanding the other side's interests, even when the other side is an enemy, improves our ability to advance our own interests and to create a joint value.


There are joint interests with enemies, as we can learn from the way Israel promotes rightfully its relations with Qatar, even though Qatar supports the “Muslim brothers”' movement that is hostile to us. This is based on the understanding that Qatar has leverage on Hamas, that we do not have and neither our Egyptian partners, and that we need this kind of leverage and mechanisms to prevent and end the cycles of fighting. It is a shame that specifically out natural partners for an arrangement in the Fatah movement we ignore and use Qatar to strengthen their rivals, Hamas, on their expense.


Another example to a correct win-win attitude is in the attempt to advance the relationships with The United Emirates and Qatar simultaneously, even though they represent opposite coalitions in their approach. On the other hand, the attempt to market the agreement with the Emirates as a victory on the Palestinians is contradicting Israel's long-term interests to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians.


The challenge is that an attitude of finding the common ground is in many cases less popular politically because the public expects to see “victories” and not compromises that are less dramatic and "sexy".


The following are some examples from American diplomacy:

The trade war that Trump declared on the Chinese economy, even if the USA has some arguments that can be justified in its demand to change the Chinese conduct, hurt the world and the American economy, instead of improving the situation by conducting negotiation with the Chinese interests in mind.


Trump preferred to blame China, and the World Health organization, for the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic, instead of trying to advance international cooperation in preventing the spread of the virus. In contrast, the Obama administration succeeded to overcome the Ebola pandemic by international cooperation, when it appeared in Africa, instead of blaming the Africans.


President Bush's attempt to defeat terrorism by eliminating the Baath regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, brought the rise of Al Qaida and ISIS and the empowerment of Iran's due to the defeat of her enemies on both geographic borders. Iraq - Iran’s former nemesis – turned into a chaotic country under the Shia control.


In contrast, stands the unpopular decision of President Obama not to attack Syria after using chemical weapon, and the choice to cooperate with Russia in clearing the chemical weapon form Syria. This decision did not eliminate all chemical weapons completely, but it did dispose most of it, an essential change that enables the state of Israel to stop producing and distribute gas masks to the Israeli citizens. Trumps choice, on the other hand, to launch 59 cruise missiles onto Syria achieved no change, and the US lost all leverage which turned into the hands of Russia, Iran, and Turkey.


Another example is President Trump's decision to quit from the JCPOA agreement between the P5 + 1 and Iran, which resulted in Iran advancing closer to have the Nuclear bomb; crushing the international coalition that was created by the Obama administration and empowering the extreme forces in the Iranian regime headed by the "Revolutionary guards", At the same time, the moderates who preferred a functioning Iranian economy over regional hegemony, were weakened.


It is obvious that we can’t ignore domestic politics, and that leaders have a need to provide their citizens with victories, but it is the leaders' responsibility to explain to the Public that compromises are indeed the way to achieve more.


This attitude is true also in matters of Public Diplomacy. Many think that the main role of diplomats is to win in arguments on the legitimacy of Israeli policy. My own experience taught me that the role of Diplomats is not to win the debate, but to win "hearts and minds". Winning “hearts and minds” is achievable through dialog and engagement, and not through debate. The debate only helps to persuade the ones who are already persuaded but cannot persuade the target audience.


Based on the current reality of our Populistic leadership, the role of diplomats is to insist on advancing solutions that lead to the creation of value. The futile attempt to win the “blame game” does not solve anything and is not progressing the state's true interests.


The classical example of a "win-win" approach is the "two state solution" to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It will enable Israel to be the state of the Jewish people, and a democracy at the same time, according to the Zionist vision, while enabling the Palestinians self-determination and the end of the occupation. The Israeli diplomacy should strive to achieve this solution as a main goal of the state of Israel.

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©2020 by Nadav Tamir - what's on my mind?

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