Diplomacy: What is it Good For

I was on a radio show last night where I wound up in a debate about whether or not diplomacy was likely to be able to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue in a satisfactory manner. It occurred to me that one issue I was having that, in retrospect, often fogs these issues, is that my interlocutor wanted to conceive of diplomacy as a kind of poor man's coercive tool. Sloppy use of the term "soft power" (which is supposed to mean something quite specific and not really related to this) seems to me to have encouraged people in this error. Like military force is this really awesome coercive tool that maybe you're hesitant to use, so instead you might try diplomacy, but maybe diplomacy's not tough enough so we're back to force.

This is just the wrong way to think about it. The aim of diplomacy in this kind of situation is genuine bargaining aimed at reaching a mutually advantageous agreement. You're trying to cooperate and realize positive-sum gains, and diplomacy is the process by which those opportunities are identified and exploited. Obviously, such efforts sometimes fail and then maybe you look at coercion, but the diplomatic effort is not, as such, an attempt at coercion. If you think of it as one, you'll wind up thinking of it as a really shoddy attempt at coercion, and wind up rejecting it out of hand. But making a deal wherein you give someone money in exchange for something you'd rather have than the money it cost to buy doesn't exist on a continuum with knocking the guy over the head with a sock full of quarters and stealing his stuff -- they're entirely different kinds of interactions.