Saturday, August 2, 2014

Eric Grynaviski's "Constructive Illusions"

Eric Grynaviski is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. His research interests include studying international security and U.S. foreign policy from sociological and ethical perspectives. His work is forthcoming or appears in International Organization, the European Journal of International Relations, and International Theory. Grynaviski earned a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in 2010.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Constructive Illusions: Misperceiving the Origins of International Cooperation, and reported the following:
Constructive Illusions takes a stab at the conventional wisdom in International Relations, whereby many agree that more information and fewer misperceptions about adversaries enhance the prospects for cooperation.

This book’s central claim is that states can form what French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called "a superb agreement based on complete misunderstanding." Mutual understanding can lead to breakdowns in cooperation by revealing intractable conflicts of interest, identity, and ideology. Incorrectly assuming a mutual understanding exists, in contrast, can enhance cooperation by making actors confident that collaborative ventures are in both parties’ best interest and that both parties have a reliable understanding of the terms of cooperation.

While the best examples likely come from love and friendships, where it is sometimes better not to know certain things about those you care about, I concentrate on cooperation during the 1970s, when the superpowers reached more than 150 agreements on issues ranging from arms control to trade. Often, International Relations scholars suggest that this pattern of cooperation emerged because Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, developed a mutual understanding with the Soviet leadership about the limits of competition. I argue that this is dead wrong. The superpowers never understood what the other wanted out of cooperation. If they had known, they would never have chosen to cooperate. Misperceptions, in other words, can be constructive illusions.

I cannot imagine a better page to turn to when reading Constructive Illusions. Page 99 is in the middle of a chapter talking about the origins of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, where I describe three instances in which Kissinger and the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, failed to reach a mutual understanding about the agreement. I argue that each of these misunderstandings moved the process further along.

To put the page in context, I am referring here to the May 20 agreement, where Nixon and Brezhnev announced publicly that they had finally broken the logjam of arms control, and had reached an agreement about how to settle thorny issues related to the timing of the negotiations. I quote the page in full, with the exception of a sentence carrying over from page 98:
Nixon was ecstatic about making a prime-time television announcement. As Kissinger told Nixon, the agreement would “break the back of this generation of Democratic leaders,” to which Nixon replied, “That’s right. We’ve got to break—we’ve got to destroy the confidence of the people in the American establishment.” After the May 20 agreement, it would have been enormously difficult for Nixon and Kissinger to not conclude an ABM Treaty, especially because they were on record in support of it and had begun the difficult job of explaining to the public why a system that was once so vital to national security was being traded away. The situation was similar for Brezhnev, who declared in March that he was committed to a policy of détente and arms control. As Melvyn Leffler explains, “Brezhnev put the full imprimatur of the party leadership behind the policy of relaxing tensions with the West and negotiating arms-reduction treaties with Washington and NATO.” By issuing the statement that the parties were prepared to negotiate an agreement, Brezhnev invested the process with a sense of purpose that had hitherto been lacking.

Was this breakthrough the result of more information being shared between Kissinger and Dobrynin? Did the development of common knowledge allow a breakthrough toward the first significant arms control treaty of the Cold War? In short, no. Concessions were made to reach the agreement because of its ambiguity. The critical issue was what was meant by the phrase “together with.” The guidance Kissinger gave the US delegation was that “together with” meant simultaneous. As Smith interpreted that instruction, it meant spending a few weeks discussing ABMs, and then a few weeks on offensive limitations, and back and forth.Vladimir Semenov, the chief Soviet negotiator, held a different view. The Russian translation used the word “pri,” which is much weaker than “together with.” He concluded that the agreement implied that an ABM deal and the freeze should accompany one another in the final version but that the ABM Treaty would come first in the negotiations. It was this ambiguity that led each side to publicly back the May 20 agreement.

The ambiguity of the agreement was developed by Kissinger and Dobrynin unintentionally after months of back channel discussions. The back channel began discussions of a limited agreement in the spring of 1970,
I believe this is a success for the page 99 test!
Learn more about Constructive Illusions at the Cornell University Press website, and visit Eric Grynaviski's website.

--Marshal Zeringue