Obsolete Trade-offs

Matthew Yglesias flags this remark by Randy Scheunemann, John McCain’s top foreign policy aide, in the context of an interview on Georgia and U.S.-Russia relations:

Well, I think first of all the administration has said very clearly and publicly that there will be no trade-offs. Trade-offs like that are kind of a relic of a bygone era of power politics.

Yglesias then responds with a pretty heavy dose of snark:

That’s right, he thinks the entire process of bargaining for mutual advantage that lies at the core of diplomacy — and, indeed, of almost all constructive human interaction — is a relic of a bygone era of power politics. In the brave new future, either the Russians give way on all points, or else we raise up the national missile defense system and it’s bombs away.

Now, I’m not a big fan of John McCain’s foreign policy proposals, in particular as regards Russia, so I’m probably closer to the broader lines of Yglesias’ vision than those of Scheunemann. But I think Scheunemann might be right here, and Yglesias wrong, but for reasons that neither seem to recognize.

The Bush administration’s stance on trade-offs that Scheunemann cites is based on the misguided notion that each dossier can somehow be approached “objectively,” and decided on the merits, independently of other dossiers. From this perspective, trading off concessions on one dossier (e.g. Kosovo) against advantages on another (e.g. NATO expansion) is unnecessary, because each individual conflict will be resolved based on a universal (and universally accessible) standard of fairness and justice. That turns a willfully blind eye to the fact that interests often determine values, or at least the perception of values, and that no nation will willingly sacrifice its interests, much less its advantages, based on notions of right and wrong with which it either disagrees or believes are not equally applied.

Nevertheless (and this gets back to the point I made here about America being a necessary but no longer a sufficient power), as the potential configurations for sufficient multilateral coalitions multiply, each individual crisis will increasingly determine the particular coalition necessary to reach a tipping point for its resolution, independently of other crises. The proliferation of regional multilateral institutions to confer legitimacy on a coalition-based intervention, for instance, will increasingly dilute the veto-power of the permanent Security Council nations. Obviously, there will still be overlap; Russia’s stance on Georgia can only be understood as a reaction to Kosovo’s declaration of independence. But the opportunities for blocking diplomatic progress that make trade-offs necessary and possible will become increasingly rare as the available detours around them become more accessible.

This kind of strategic environment almost demands that trade-offs be replaced by short memories and the ability to compartmentalize both crisis interventions and conflict resolutions, in order to resist the inherently destabilizing effect such a fluidity of tactical alliances might have. The alternatives, whether to impose a declining American hegemony or to resist the emergence of alternate avenues of consensus, are simply no longer possible.

[Updated for clarity.]

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