One of the themes of the Kerry campaign has been that Bush has damaged American international relations through his “unilateralism” with regard to the Iraq campaign. The large number of allied nations in the coalition is dismissed on the grounds that most of them were “bribed, bullied or coerced” into joining. Something about this claim has always bothered me, and last night I finally figured out what it was.

Diplomacy, as Steven Den Beste has observed, is the art of getting another party to do what you want through the application of what he calls “carrots” and “sticks”. A carrot is something valued by the other party. In international diplomacy, carrots can include things like improved trade status, foreign aid subsidies, favorable terms for government contract bidding, grants of foreign territory, etc. A “stick” is something the other party views as a disvalue; in international diplomacy sticks are things like the revocation of trade status or foreign aid, threats of the use of military force, etc. Basically a carrot is something you promise to the other guy if he does what you want; a stick is something you threaten the other guy with if he does not do what you want.

Now, to the problem with Kerry’s critique: it characterizes the normal processes of diplomacy as though they are illegitimate. An ally who joins the coalition to gain something we offered to them in return is “bribed”. An ally who joins the coalition to avoid something we threatened them with if they did not is “coerced” or “bullied”. On Kerry’s terms, the only legitimate allies are ones who support us simply because we asked. But what avenues of diplomacy are left if we simply ask and they say no? We can’t offer them anything on pain of having “bribed” them into supporting us. We can’t threaten them on pain of having “bullied” or “coerced” them. The only thing left is to say “Pretty please?”, and if that doesn’t work to ask again with sugar on top. At that point we’re basically no different from the European Union.

The implicit model of diplomacy underlying the “bribed, bullied or coerced” charge is no model at all. Either Kerry knows this, in which case attacking Bush on that basis is dishonest political pandering, or he doesn’t know it, in which case his claims of being able to do diplomacy better than Bush should be taken with a CostCo-sized shaker of salt.

3 Responses to “"Bribed, Bullied and Coerced"”
  1. Denis says:

    Great post!! Very thoughtful and persuasive. Intelligent too! I’m going to link it if you don’t mind. It’s very relevent to Bush’s speech tonight.

  2. Jumping To Conclusions says:

    Bush’s Speech

    Well, as expected, the president’s speech was good, not great. Still, the wife and I loved this part: Another drag on our economy is the current tax code, which is a complicated mess — filled with special interest loopholes, saddling…

  3. brian says:


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