109 Collateral entanglements

Posted on May 10, 2012 by


When a negotiation is first envisaged, the main objective is identified: say, achieving “free trade between two countries”, or “enhancing security” – whatever.

In deciding whether to undertake this process, one considers the “benefits/costs” of success as well as the consequences of a possible negotiating failure. In some cases “failure” may leave relations between two countries strained, so before engaging one weighs carefully the probabilities of success.

So much in theory – every negotiation takes place in a precise time and place, however, and impacts on actors and bystanders, the public and the economy. A negotiating outcome inevitably yields collateral effects. These are effects that accompany success/failure, but are not the goal of the process. Street-wise negotiators keep an eye on them, distractedly.

I’m not speaking here of “blowback”[1], the “unforeseen” outcome of negotiations, what BASTIAT describes as follows[2]: “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

Nor am I talking of the political price governments pay internally in order to obtain approval of the negotiation result. They are seldom included in the decision, though they may be its most significant aspect. The emergence of the “military-industrial-congressional complex”[3] may have been the most important long-term impact of the US government attempt to deal with communism; and one wonders whether the Vietnam War was not in some sort “shock therapy” for a country traumatized by the JFK assassination[4]

Rather I intend to focus of what happens when main goals and objectives and collateral effects intermingle: we may get “collateral entanglements”, which may derail the process, or highjack it, or even yield perverse results.


“Collateral effects” may be the political mileage the government obtains from the negotiating success – be it at the national or international level. Ministers may profit from a good press, or may be pilloried for failures. Careers are made and undone when it comes to negotiators.

The ranking between main and collateral objectives may be clear at the outset. Though reserved for tactical reasons the readiness to abandon the endeavor if the goal can no longer be attained may be sincere. Once the dynamic starts, however, the ordering may suddenly or imperceptibly shift. A “path-dependent outcome” is in the making.

Once publicly known, the political commitment is perceived as irreversible, and renouncing is no longer considered an option. Fiddling with the outcome starts as ambitions are scaled down. Success is replaced by “perception of success”. “Saving face” suddenly becomes the dominant mode.

As the negotiating goals fades, the collateral effects tend to hog the center of the stage. What was expected fall-out can be achieved only through deliberate and assertive action: saving one’s political or career skin influences or even overwhelms judgment about the negotiation as it reaches critical stage. The process may degenerate into downright fabrication and “cover up”.

In other words: suddenly tactics trumps strategy. In the short run this may sometimes be a winning position – particularly if the press is an accomplice. Deep trouble starts when failure has negative international consequences – as indicated at the beginning. Participants and bystanders are not easily fooled, and failure may harden fronts are create psychological barriers to a new start. At best disillusionment with the international process is the legacy – the complaint that multilateralism is “shadow-boxing”.

Multilateral and public diplomacy emerged from the ruins of secret “cabinet diplomacy” and policy making. When transparency and accountability are the goal, politically self-serving camouflage is not the answer.

[1]           See: Chalmers JOHNSON (2000): Blowback. The costs and consequences of American Empire. Little Brown, New York, N.Y. See also: Graham GREENE (2001): The Quiet American. Vintage, London, UK.

[2]              See: Frédéric BASTIAT (1848): What is seen and what is not seen. http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEss.html

[4]           See: Robert A. CARO (2012): The passage of power: The years of Lyndon Johnson. Knopf, New York.

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