Michael KreponArms and Influence

Aspiring Wonks: Time once again to whet your appetite by dipping into a classic text waiting for you online or at the library – one that applies to the P-5+ 1 negotiations with Iran. These passages are from the first chapter of Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling’s Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966).

“Diplomacy is bargaining; it seeks outcomes that, though not ideal for either party, are better for both than some of the alternatives. In diplomacy each somewhat controls what the other wants, and can get more by compromise, exchange, or collaboration than by taking things in his own hands and ignoring the other’s wishes… Whether or not there is a basis for trust and goodwill, there must be some common interest, if only in the avoidance of mutual damage, and an awareness of the need to make the other party prefer an outcome acceptable to oneself.”

“The purely ‘military’ or undiplomatic’ recourse to forcible action is concerned with enemy strength, not enemy interests; the coercive use of the power to hurt, though, is the very exploitation of enemy wants and fears.”

“Opposing strengths may cancel each other; pain and grief do not. The willingness to hurt, the credibility of the threat, and the ability to exploit the power to hurt will indeed depend on how much the adversary can hurt in return; but there is little or nothing about an adversary’s pain and grief that directly reduces one’s own… With strength they can dispute objects of value; with sheer violence they can destroy them.

And brute force succeeds when it is used, whereas the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve. It is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply. It is latent violence that can influence someone’s choice… Whether it is sheer terroristic violence … or cool premeditated violence… it is the expectation of more violence that gets the wanted behavior, if the power to hurt can get it at all…”

“The victim has to know what is wanted, and he may have to be assured of what is not wanted. The pain and suffering have to appear contingent on his behavior; it is not alone the threat that is effective – the threat of pain or loss if he fails to comply – but the corresponding assurance, possibly an implicit one, that he can avoid the pain or loss if he does comply. The prospect of certain death may stun him, but it gives him no choice.”


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The quotes above start with talk of diplomacy, but are mainly about force and the threat of force, the pain and grief that may result, and how to gain a bargaining advantage therefrom. Until we apply these words to a case study (e.g., Iran), it is difficult to say how relevant, adequate, or useful they may be.

    Force is mostly off the table at this stage in the Iran negotiations. Arguably a threat of potential war may still lurk in the background, but it is primarily about economic sanctions — whether, when, and how they will be lifted and in exchange for what concessions from Iran. Obviously, sanctions (like force) are both costly and painful, albeit not quite as painful and not quite as effective in obtaining either concessions or regime change.

    “it is not alone the threat that is effective – the threat of pain or loss if he fails to comply – but the corresponding assurance, possibly an implicit one, that he can avoid the pain or loss if he does comply.” In other words, significant sanctions really must be lifted, if Iran really does comply as its part in a negotiated settlement. It is not enough simply to sanction and threaten, one must also provide assurance of benefits from good behavior, to get the maximum negotiating leverage.

  2. Jeannick (History)

    I cannot but feel uneasy about this balanced calculation , a party might see outcomes with a different emphasis , if the outcomes don’t appears to have the same weight , for the parties , there is strong chances that the terms on offer might not be appropriate .

    certainly the essence of diplomacy is an accurate perception of the “opponent” position and the various influences shaping its reponses

  3. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    A pitty it only works for entities that think and act rationally…

    • N S (History)

      Whose not rational and why in this conversation?

    • Tobias Piechowiak (History)

      Religious fanatics are not rational by definition. IS is a bad
      example because I think they are pursuing rational goals. Hitler would be a good example especially in his last year. He would have used a nuclear device without hesitation…

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      In nuclear discussions, “rational” seems to be a code-word for non-suicidal. The vast majority of people, whether rational or irrational, tend to avoid their own death, but there are exceptions. Even someone who is both rational and non-suicidal may risk his/her life for the sake of another, or for a cause.

      Schelling talks, for the most part, about nuclear war and explicit or implicit threats of nuclear war. Iran is not being presented with a “prospect of certain death” or “the expectation of more violence,” so the relevance of these Schelling quotes to the P5+1 negotiations is far from crystal clear.