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Obama’s “Red Line”: The Use of Ultimatums and Strategies of Commitment in Negotiation

September 4, 2013

To many, an ultimatum — “drawing a line in the sand” — is a blunt, if not primitive, negotiation tactic. But it continues to serve a purpose and remains in use in the refined form of a strategic commitment. It is an evolutionary cross between the human desire to honorably defend a principle and the enforcement of a blood oath that demands a vengeful honor killing. To be taken seriously and gain credibility, a negotiator or mediator must strategically demonstrate commitment.

President Obama’s current stated intention to direct a military strike against Syria, is an act to make good on his promised consequence for crossing his previously set “red line” by the argued “proven” use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against Syrian citizens in the ongoing civil disturbances. Obama asserts that the enforcement action will be a deterrent to the breach of a fundamental norm of international law and moral conduct, and is also essential to maintain the credibility of the United States that “it is good to it’s word” and can be relied upon in future dealings. “A line drawn in the sand” by one party or another has been the starting point of countless wars between nations as well as schoolyard fights throughout history. The metaphor’s originated in the Old Testament but the action predates Biblical times. In fact, animal ethologists have observed similar rudimentary forms of this kind of negotiative behavior in many animal species suggesting that it is a function of evolutionary psychological and biological process.

To be clear, President Obama’s “red line” declaration was, in plain language, an ultimatum. This negotiation tactic is a curious one because, despite being commonly used, it is not often acknowledged or discussed. Often maligned, many present day practitioners consider it at best an unhelpful and anachronistic, and associate it with a “hardball” style of negotiation that borders on being unseemly, if not unethical. Nonetheless, ultimatums of every variety either linger covertly in the shadows, or are overtly expressed, in many, if not most, negotiations, regardless of the matter.

Thomas Schelling, a 2005 Nobel Laureate in economics, effectively brushed away some to the dust and disapproval of the use of ultimatums in his book, The Strategy of Conflict, in 1960, by introducing the more refined concept of a strategic commitment. He suggested that a negotiator can set the parameters of the discussion in a bargaining situation by committing to a future course of action and thereby obligating the other party to respond by taking or leaving the offer. He came to the notion in large part of the necessity to deal with the tense and sometimes overwhelming social and political threats that were present from and after World War II that saw the development of the atom bomb and gave rise to the Cold War that held sway for 50 years thereafter. His study and professional work, reflects a curious mixture of a realpolitik, pragmatic thinking frame cultivated by the need to survive in a world threatened by nuclear war, together with the Rational Choice Theory in which he had been schooled, while maintaining an awareness of the influences of evolutionary psychology and biology on peoples’ behavior and decision making.

Schelling, along with such other notables like his colleague Howard Raiffa (The Art and Science of Negotiation, 1982), were the first generation of theorists in what would become the present day modern, high-tech study of negotiation and warfare strategies. In the 1950’s and 60’s, in the wake of World War II and the development of the atom bomb, with the Cold War looming, he worked with the Rand Corporation and the then new NATO (North American Treaty Organization) defense establishment. There was an urgency about formulating strategies to “win,” or alternatively, to avoid a nuclear war. The same scientific thinking frame that had gone into the creation of the hydrogen bomb was now being directed to game theory and applications to negotiation and warfare.

The integrated study of warfare and negotiation strategies was not by coincidence, even though many present day practitioners and teachers view warfare and negotiation as polar opposites. Schelling’s study of commitment strategies compels an awareness of how warfare and negotiation strategies are more similar than dissimilar and often complementary. Negotiation is essential for the successful prosecution of war, whether done with ones’ allies, or the enemy, and sometimes force can be a deterrent and is required to bring about negotiation. Force and coercion, of which military action is but one kind, is common not just in geopolitical matters, but a factor in all negotiations. Some negotiators and mediators suggest that the use of negotiation should be limited or made available only in circumstances where the people at odds are adjudged to be reasonable, trustworthy and capable of being civil. Historically, however, as often as not, negotiations were between enemies—people who distrusted and detested each other. The ends of most wars or hostilities, as brutal as they may have been, were negotiated. The survival of the vanquished and the recuperation by the victors, after a conflict, are always at stake. The purposes, many of the strategies, and the kinds of decisions made in war are the same as those made in negotiation; only the kinds of weapons and degree of force the parties are willing to use to obtain their ends or protect themselves, and the extent of the emotional and economic costs differ. (Benjamin, R.D., “The Natural History of Negotiation and Mediation: The Evolution of Negotiative Behavior and Rituals,” 2012)

Even though Schelling’s primary career focus has been international and geopolitical issues, his intentions and the scope of his thinking extend well beyond those matters and apply to the dynamics and strategies of conflict management regardless of context. In a discipline being formally, intensively, and systematically studied for effectively the first time, he was among the first to articulate the core principle, that “(c)ommitment is central to promises and threats, to bargaining and negotiation, to deterrence and arms control, (and) to contractual relations.” (Schelling, T., Strategies of Commitment, 2006, italics added)

Many present day negotiators and mediators specialize and limit their focus a particular area of practice, whether out of familiarity, interest, or for marketing reasons. As a result, they tend to assume that their specialty, be it family, divorce, business, legal, workplace, legal or other, requires a unique form of negotiation. Subject area familiarity is helpful, but as Schelling’s work suggests, negotiation is about how people think, feel, react and make decisions and the strategies, techniques and skills are largely the same in controversies. His concept of strategic commitment, formulated in the geopolitical arena, applies equally to day-to-day negotiations. In divorce and family matters, for example, notwithstanding the presence of “no-fault” laws in many states that theoretically make the parties behavior legally irrelevant, negotiations frequently include impassioned discussions of the emotional “pain and suffering” caused by one party’s betrayal and the other’s demand for compensation of some kind. Demands, ultimatums and threats traded freely between them, and each will be assessing the other’s commitment, determination, and credibility. What is most unique about President Obama’s “red line” promise and current threat of punishment against the Syrian government is the opportunity to observe the dynamics and reactions to an ultimatum/strategic commitment strategy up close. However, as most experienced negotiators know, negotiations open to public view—especially done in under the glaring lights of the media and with the second-guessing by Congress—are all the more difficult. Few negotiation processes can easily withstand the pressures of that kind of ongoing scrutiny. While negotiation may be an eminently sensible means of settling controversies, it is not an entirely rational process, at least by the conventional meaning of what is considered “rational.” Thus, there are more than a few turns of what appears to be “illogical” thinking that occur in negotiations that are open to criticism. For example, in hind sight Obama’s issuance of an ultimatum and the setting of a “red line” is being questioned; while it seemed plausible at the time it was given, considering the increasing gravity of the Syrian Government’s use of force against citizen protesters. In retrospect, some believe that by drawing a line, the President effectively hemmed himself—always a risk in the use of ultimatums— was ill advised because he is now obligated to act on his threat of a “severe consequence.” As a result, he is open to criticism from all sides, liberal Democrats, neo-cons, libertarian, and conservative Republicans, and even moderates, about every aspect of this matter. The use of commitment negotiation strategies, even when used with sincerity and the best of intentions, almost always raises one or more moral, legal, practical, political, or economic issues. There are questions concerning whether the President’s threat constitutes an act of war and his legal authority to engage such an act, the specifics of his intended purpose and actions, the estimated costs and probable, possible and unintended consequences of any such action, among many others. As is always the problem with negotiations, and especially difficult ones, the right way to proceed and the relative success of the process can not be known until the end, and sometimes not until years later.

Negotiators and mediators must necessarily take a different view of conflict from that of politicians and the general public. The latter have the luxury of framing complex issues in stark and simple terms—to we invade another country or not— assume there are predictable outcomes, and not obligated to give much thought to the ramifications and consequences, both knowable and unintended, of even a small action taken. Negotiators, on the other hand, quickly come to appreciate that outcomes are not predictable, and that decisions must often be made in a constantly shifting and uncertain terrain and their power and authority to compel or direct an outcome is inherently limited. The negotiator’s or mediator’s primary tool is his or her credibility.

Negotiation, unlike other disciplines where the practitioner is allowed to limit their focus as a lawyer doctor, or policy analyst, is a nuanced and complex process that requires a practitioner to be at once analytically prepared and emotionally attuned to the issues and dynamics between the parties. The emotions, law, economic, moral and political issues must all be accommodated more or less together. In difficult, multi-variable matters there is always a fog that descends over the process as negotiators become caught up in the constant balancing of the risks and benefits attached to any utterance or intervention they make, and managing responses and outcomes that are different than they expected. The use of commitment strategies are perhaps the most risky of all because the strength of an ultimatum can often bring as strong, or an even stronger retaliatory response. The escalation of a conflict is one of the highest risks.

A strategic commitment, not unlike other ultimatum forms, is an assertion of raw power: it is effectively a demand to do (or not do) some act, or face the consequences. Often a negotiator’s credibility lies in having the available force to back up their promise or threat. Richard Holbrooke’s laid, at least in part, his ability to successfully negotiate an agreement between the Serbs and Croats to end the Bosnian War in the 1995 Dayton Accords, to the threat of an American military (Air Force) intervention.

A strategic commitment, most effectively employed, requires a good measure of risk. It requires a negotiator to be willing, or appearing to be willing, to “burn bridges behind you” to demonstrate a sufficient level of being serious and committed to the actions threatened or promised. For negotiators and mediators alike, this is how they gain credibility as trustworthy and honest brokers and insure the integrity of the process. This level of seriousness was evident in two instances where the negotiator raised the stakes. The first is the Berlin Crisis of 1961, in which Thomas Schelling played a part in devising the NATO’s approach to the defense of West Berlin. The city was completely surrounded by a Soviet directed East Germany; by design it was especially vulnerable and could have easily been overtaken. Only a modest 30,000 troops were stationed there. Their presence, however, successfully deterred any action because they were a statement of commitment by the West to the defense of West Berlin. Any Soviet aggression would mean all out war. There was a clear demonstration of the NATO countries determination to act. Similarly, in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis President John F. Kennedy made a strategic commitment by running a naval “blockade” against missile laden Soviet Ships bound for Cuba, raising the specter of a nuclear war as a consequence.

Many strategic commitment strategies, however, fail, especially when they are ill conceived and prematurely set. The use of force, especially military force, is a blunt instrument and their use in delicately balanced and complex political situations can quickly become problematic. President Carter’s ill fated attempt to rescue Americans held hostage by Iran in 1980 resulted in a lessening of his negotiation credibility and authority to act and a general weakening of the U.S. power and influence. There are any number of variables that can go wrong. A misreading of those against whom the strategy is used can cause a redoubling of the adversary’s resistance. As in the Syrian matter, gauging an act that is sufficiently forceful so as to place Assad on notice, but not so strong so as to incite an escalation, is particularly difficult. “Take it or leave it” negotiation strategies, where the only options allowed are to take the deal or defect, are high risk and the negotiator considering their use does well to be extra cautious, because once used, the future of a negotiation is often irreparably compromised. For example, in divorce matters, an over-zealous ultimatum frequently engenders a blow back of greater resistance that often stalls or ends further negotiation.

Because strategic commitment strategies are high risk, negotiators need to consider their use with care and use then sparingly. A negotiator should consider before making a commitment whether or not they will be willing to enforce it. At the same time, there is also risk in a negotiator being too cautious and not willing to make a strategic commitment when the circumstances call for it. Being noncommittal can be perceived as a sign of lack of resolve and result in a loss of credibility. Many practitioners are hesitant to use such strategies and even disavow their use only because they do not fit the model of a more reasoned, rational, and interest based approach to negotiation. President Obama has been castigated by some for his “cavalier/ cowboy” attitude demonstrated by imposing the “red line” and even more so for pursuing an enforcement action.

Schelling’s strategy of commitment is a refinement of the ancient notion of drawing a line in the sand, retrofitted for 20th Century circumstances. It is worthy of note that while it has a solid rationale and has been proven useful, strategies of commitment do not easily fit the prevailing rational theory of negotiation. The willingness to act forcefully in defense of a position and risking the escalation of the conflict does not appear to be reasonable or logical at first glance. It is, however, “rationally irrational.” A sufficiently convincing display of determination by a negotiator to “stick to his or her guns” can work counter-intuitively as a deterrent to other peoples’ behavior. Raising, or intensifying, a risk, which appears to be an irrational act, can work to at least place a check on the conflict, if not reduce it. The negotiator is rationally engaging the ‘irrational” emotional responses that come about when someone feels at risk. The dynamic appears to be similar to the “Mutual Assured Destruction” developed during the Cold War: when all parties recognize they are subject to the same overwhelming risk, then they will choose to reduce the threat. Schelling observed, however, that the effectiveness of commitment strategies is largely dependent on the personal traits of a negotiator:

“Just as there is a gamut of devices and techniques and arrangements by which persons may deliberately commit themselves, knowingly and consciously and deliberately…in order to influence the behavior of others…. So also is there a spectrum of personal traits, qualities and abilities, handicaps, compulsions, idiosyncrasies, and superstitions that allows them or helps them become credibly committed….” (Schelling, T., Strategies of Commitment, p. 17, 2006).

Notwithstanding his rationalist training in economics, Schelling recognized that an irrefutable part of negotiation is emotionally based. For a strategic commitment to be effective requires a negotiator to prove—appear authentic enough—that he or she is serious about the demand made and the intention to follow through with a threat for non-compliance. This leaves room for the prospect that the appearance of commitment can be fabricated. Sometimes the authenticity necessary to convince another party of one’s commitment to stand behind a demand needs to be bolstered by theatrics. As Schelling noted, much earlier than most, such deceptions are a natural part of human relationships and are not always, or necessarily, disingenuous. (Rue, Loyal, By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs, 1994) Schelling suggested that, mindful of the risks, there is a need for some measure of deception in negotiation and that it can serve a constructive purpose.

“Evolutionary theory suggests that if humans had acquired, because of the fitness advantage it conferred, a capacity for persuasive commitment, they may also have acquired a capacity for faking. And if faking becomes a significant capability, the species may as a result have also developed at least some capacity to detect falsity.
(Schelling, T., Strategies of Commitment, p.21, 2006)

The rational model of negotiation does not sufficiently account for the emotional processes that give rise to this reality. Curiously, not infrequently, the success of a negotiation or mediation process, especially in protracted and difficult matters, relies on the parties’ willingness to suspend their disbelief that the process can work. More than a few who have negotiated have commented on how they could never have believed an agreement was possible. The re-construction of reality in a manner that allows for the settlement an issue or controversy to occur is a basic and essential part of a negotiators responsibility.

While there is little reason to doubt President Obama’s setting of a “red line” with regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons was well intended, some question can be raised as to how well considered that action was in fact. Suffice it to say, without entering the substantive discussion about the balance of the risks and benefits of a military stake, that all of the options appear problematic. This quandary is not an unusual one for a negotiator considering the use of an ultimatum.

Finally, the commitment strategy of one party can be countered by a commitment strategy from another party making the situation more confusing. In an effort to understand President Assad’s use of chemical weapons, assuming he has done so, when it appears to make no sense for him to flaunt Obama’s “red line,” some have conjectured his action is his retaliatory strategic commitment. that President Assad’s use of chemical weapons was itself intended as a strategic commitment. His action, not unknown in history, may be to effectively “burn any bridge of retreat” thereby demonstrating his resolve and commitment to his largely Alawite base of supporters. By placing himself at risk, he reinforces their awareness that as a minority group they are at greatest risk should he be deposed.

Commitment strategies and ultimatums can sometimes work as an effective deterrent and can often reveal a party’s biggest concerns and worst fears. They are also high risk. At the same time, there is little chance their use in negotiation will lessen anytime soon, regardless of how practitioners and theorists think negotiations should be conducted in a more reasoned and rational world. This leaves practitioners with the responsibility to better understand the dynamics of commitment strategies and how they might best be managed in complex negotiations where the stakes are high.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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