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Appeasement and Diplomacy: When There is a Tempest in a Teapot, Keep Your Eye on the Teapot!

The Tempest

“The two most common elements in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity.” – Harlan Ellison

On May 16, 2008, George Bush visited Israel on the occasion of itsd 60th birthday party and, in a speech to the Knesset conveying best wishes from America, put forward thinly veiled criticisms of Barack Obama suggesting that his willingness to negotiate with Iran and Syria was the “false comfort of appeasement.” Bush managed to invoke the hoary old ghost of Neville Chamberlain who signed The Munich Agreement conceding a portion of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938, and the grim specter one year later of seeing Nazi tanks roll into Poland. Out on the campaign trail, John McCain chimed right in. “The President is exactly right,” he said.

Various Democrats instantly fired back. Joe Bidden called the president’s comments “bullshit.” Hillary Clinton (rising to Obama’s defense) said Bush and McCain failed to understand the distinction between appeasement and diplomacy. Other Dems parsed out Bush’s own strange track record of demonizing countries like North Korea, and then sitting down with them at the negotiating table and offering them what looked like bribes to resolve the very issues that had been raised. The back and forth set off a fierce round of bloviating from the gasbags at CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Which candidate, they asked, is tougher, smarter, and best equipped to be President? Which candidate’s instincts to talk, or not talk, might be most appropriate to the increasing number of enemies arrayed against us?

In a political season filled with accusations about race and gender, the editors of The Nation (May 22, 2009) seemed to have the best take. They accused Bush and McCain of playing ‘The Appeasement Card’. “Like Bush,” said the Editors, “McCain conflates Iran, Al Qaeda, Iraq’s competing militias, Hamas, Hezbollah, Saudi oil sheiks and the Taliban into one big, transcendently evil ball of Islamofascist wax. Perhaps it’s too much to expect voters to sort out the subtleties of Middle Eastern politics in the midst of an election campaign. But it shouldn’t be difficult for Obama to sell the common-sense idea that talking to your opponents abroad isn’t the same as giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler.”

That was the tempest that erupted on May 16. It is one we haven’t heard the last of and it magnifies and strikes to the heart of some of the most challenging tensions we all must own as negotiators.

The Teapot

“I seldom think of politics more than eighteen hours a day.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

At its most abstract, politics is the making of difficult choices regarding the uses of power, rights, assets, liabilities, and obligations. Politics drives decisions on who gets what, for what purposes, and under what conditions. On an everyday basis, political strategies and tactics get played out in the roiling, boiling, bubbling hot water of specific contemporary issues. With hindsight, the decisions that get made in heat of the moment always look better or worse depending on what actually happened afterwards along with the smart and well-spun speculations on what didn’t happen and why. Those judgments and interpretations, however, can always be stood on their heads.

How, for example, would Chamberlain be remembered today if he had actually succeeded in stopping Hitler and preventing what we now call “World War II”? How does Ronald Reagan appear to us today because he railed against the Russians and then chose to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik? Was that diplomacy, appeasement or some other kind of political chicanery? Was Grant soothing and placating Lee at Appomattox when, contrary to the conventions of war, he let Confederate officers keep their horses, pistols, and swords? Would we encourage the Chechnyans to talk with the Russians and would that be appeasement? Would it be an “appeasing” if the Fur people sued to save Darfur and struck a concessionary deal with the Janjaweed and Sudanese military? And if Barack Obama were to offer to pay Hillary Clinton’s campaign bills, or give her a spot as Vice President, in exchange for ending her bid for the White House, is that appeasement?

Diplomacy and appeasement are apples and oranges. Diplomacy is one of a dozen practices used for conducting relationships between nations, organizations, and individuals. Appeasement is yielding to the belligerent requirements of others at the expense of some basic and definable principle of justice. The real problem with Chamberlain was not that he met with Hitler. The “justice” principle was that he gave away a large chunk of German-speaking Czechoslovakia without the consent of the Czechoslovakians who were not at the table. The common ground of both diplomacy and appeasement is negotiation. One of the great challenges in negotiation is offering incentives in ways that don’t look like bribes, and making demands that don’t come across as extortion.

This is why the emerging Obama-McCain dispute is so interesting and will gain momentum. It brings up some of the central paradoxes of negotiation. This debate will continue. It will be framed, reframed, and argued until a winner is decided in November. The teapot in which the tempest is taking place is American Presidency and who will sit in the Oval Office in January, 2009.

Success and Excess in Negotiation

“Dwell in possibility.” – Emily Dickinson

I believe there are four bodies of practical and philosophical thought about how humans behave in the face of real or imagined conflict. Think of these as “schools” that teach us how to think and ripple into behavior long after the learning was acquired. Some of these may have been learned in the sandbox. Regardless, such schools are powerful determinants of how people negotiate and how third parties can help them.(1)

One school presupposes that all of us are fundamentally competitive. A second assumes we are, at core, cooperative. A third takes for granted that all of us will seek to do what is morally correct. A fourth assumes we are rational and pragmatic. These four impulses – pursuing your own fair share, uniting with others to achieve a common end, insisting on doing what is right, and using logic and reasoning to solve practical problems – seem to have evolutionary roots that date back to our origins on the African savannah.(2)

The competitive, cooperative, moral, and pragmatic impulses to which we have been schooled lead us to different theories of conflict, different ideologies of diplomacy, and most assuredly different styles of negotiation. Each has a certain coherence and strength. No one of them is the whole story. And, taken to excess or transformed into orthodoxy, each school runs a severe risk of instability and destructiveness when it plays out in practice. Tough, competitive, goal-oriented negotiators are accustomed to pushing, pulling, probing, bluffing, and feinting. Taken to overkill, the competitive impulse becomes predatory, ruthless, and retaliatory. Taken to overload, cooperative approaches also have risks. One of those is appeasement but it is not the only one. Extreme cooperatives often end up being duped by tough competitors (especially those disguised as cooperators) and cheated by “free riders.”

Beyond competition, cooperation, pragmatism, and moralism there is a fifth possible pathway: the “Protean” negotiator, named after the Greek God Proteus who was a seer and a shapeshifter. The most accomplished negotiators I have ever met in my work across different business and policy domains were adaptive, dynamic, fluid, and shifting. They could compete, cooperate, invoke the high ground, and fashion pragmatic deals, sometimes all at once. In effect, they knew many ways of moving on a dance floor and were able to do the competitor’s jitterbug, the cooperative’s tango, the moralist’s waltz, and the pragmatist’s four step. They could succeed in many different circumstances and with many other sorts of negotiators.

The jury is still out as to what kind of negotiators Obama and McCain will prove to be when confronted with the tremendous foreign and domestic challenges left over from the Bush years. Let us hope that American voters will be able to distinguish between them without bowing to the strange, inhibiting, and ultimately self-defeating conflation of “Diplomacy = Appeasement.”

(1) See “Protean Negotiation: Beyond Orthodoxy and Shifting Shapes” in The Negotiator’s Field Book: The Desk Reference for the Experienced Negotiator , Andrea Kupfer Schneider and Christopher Honeyman and, Editors, American Bar Association, 2007.

(2)See Ridley, M., 1996. The Origins of Virtue , Penguin Books, New York; Dawkins, R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford; Ardrey, R. 1961. African Genesis, Collins Books, New York


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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