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Use Of The Media In Us Negotiating Behaviour: An International Perspective

Presentation by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group and former Australian Foreign Minister, to United States Institute of Peace Workshop on Cross-Cultural Negotiation, Washington DC, 25 July 2000


I. Things Change

One of my most enduring images is of Secretary of State James A Baker III, at a press conference we did together somewhere in Asia in the early 90s, commencing proceedings by opening a roll of mints - and slowly, methodically, flipping one to each of half a dozen US journalists sitting in the front row, with them accepting the offering like altar boys taking wafersÖ

In Australia we've sometimes had politicians who have talked about briefing the media as "feeding the chooks" ( chooks being chickens, for the Australian-language challenged among you), but this relationship was clearly something else again. In my own culture, deference is never offered and incapable of being earned: when a bilateral problem arises the Foreign Minister is blamed for the row, and if he avoids or fixes it, he's usually charged with kow-tow. But this wasn't just deference: it was something close to reverence. And not just because they liked mints.

Baker was both the architect and beneficiary of an extremely sophisticated and professional approach to dealing with the media. He and his three closest aides - Denis Ross, Margaret Tutwiler and Bob Zoellick - were a formidable team, on the face of it never leaving much to chance, and always having a well developed strategy, both in policy terms and politically, for advancing or defending the cause of the day. They focused meticulously not only on substance but on follow through - how the issue would play internationally, and above all the domestic politics. They briefed and backgrounded the press exhaustively, particularly the agenda setting prints in New York and Washington, and spent a lot of well-rewarded time intellectually courting influential columnists like Tom Friedman.

They didnít get everything right. Staying out of Bosnia in 1992 - because of an almost pathological fear of another Vietnam-type entanglement - was a particularly bad call, and seemed so to many at the time, not just in retrospect. There were certainly plenty of smaller issues on which other countries, including my own, were less than enchanted. But for the most part the performance - whether managing the end of the Cold War, responding to Iraq, rebalancing Middle East policy, or responding to economic and security issues in the Asia Pacific - looked and was quite impressive.

I was Australia's Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996, which allowed me to see and work closely with not only the Bush Administration, but nearly the whole of the first Clinton Administration. Although as a good social democrat it pains me to admit it, and the Democrats did have their moments (particularly when playing third party mediation roles of the kind we are now seeing at Camp David, where a good deal of discipline has prevailed), there was a rather stark contrast between the smooth professionalism of the Baker team - which always gave at least the appearance of knowing its way - and the rather chaotic ad hocery which has seemed to prevail since.

It's fair to say that by the time the Democrats arrived the end-of-Cold-War party was over, and having missed the euphoria they were left with the clean-up. But with both Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright - and in the larger policy teams in the White House and elsewhere of which they have been part - it has been hard to see any very clear or consistent directions set, or any similarly sustained effort made to develop implementation strategies, through the media or anywhere else. Debacles like the failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would have been scarcely imaginable just a few years before. On issues like China and the WTO and humanitarian intervention and missile defence and UN reform, the administration has both tried to have it every which way, and at the same time failed to explain itself very well.

So these days not many peppermints are being exchanged. While individuals like Dick Holbrooke (who work at it so hard) will always have their moments, the notion of US negotiators presently being able to exercise any kind of systematic persuasive authority over the key national media, or being able now to rely on that media for any kind of general support, either domestically or internationally, seems faintly ludicrous.

So the first point that I make is simply this: it's dangerous to generalise . The willingness and capacity to use the media in the conduct of foreign policy will vary from administration to administration and from principal to principal. That said, let me offer two more generalisations - from my outsider's perspective, and with every chance that I have it quite wrong. The first is that in the conduct of its foreign policy, the US doesn't really bother all that much at all about using the media. And the second is that when it does bother, it's almost invariably because of the domestic rather than international consequences.

II. Out There

In all the negotiations and discussions, both bilateral and multilateral, with the US in which I have been personally involved, across both Republican and Democrat administrations, I have never really had a sense that US negotiators, and those standing behind them, were in fact very much concerned about using the media in any very direct way to influence the outcome of those negotiations.

If one thinks hard enough, there are no doubt plenty of individual examples of the media being used to set agendas; to raise or lower pre-negotiation expectations; to reinforce messages, by fair means or foul; to provoke or destabilise the other side; to float trial balloons; and to reinforce assertions that the limit of negotiating flexibility has been reached; and other ways mentioned in the textbooks.

On the question of reinforcing messages, for example, I seem to recall, in the context of the Cambodia peace negotiations in early 1990, a number of hints appearing in the US press - not officially sourced to Dick Solomon or anyone else - that if China and the Khmer Rouge did not endorse a political solution, but instead continued with the military option, then the West would counter by simply recognising Hun Sen's SOC. I don't believe the US had any such intention, but neither China nor the Khmer Rouge could have known that for sure, and the recognition message would certainly have concentrated their minds. On the subject of trial balloons, a very big recent one may have been the suggestion that Slobodan Milosevic could be offered a safe haven if he stepped aside: although I am one who has difficulty in believing that this could have come in any serious way from a US source.

My overall impression is that when it comes to deliberate use of the media to advance or defend US negotiating positions, the most significant thing, most of the time, is that the dogs don't bark at all. If that is right, and one asks why, the short answer maybe is that they don't need to. Big confident guys can go it alone; by contrast, little guys and medium sized guys and biggish-but- unsure-of-themselves guys need all the help they can get.

There is no doubt that in dealing with small-to-medium guys like the one I used to represent, the US tends to positively exude confidence. There's not much effort expended in softening up, indirectly persuading, indirectly warning, or even deniably floating propositions through the media or anyone else: you tend to hear it directly, and you hear it clearly: "This is where we are at, and this is where you should be at. And if you didn't get the message the first time, here it is again. For the sake of good and loyal old friends, yes we can bend our preferred position a little (provided it doesnít involve any trade concessions on our part), but that's it." Being, in Australia, of a similarly robust and direct cultural bent, we do some biting and scratching back: but at the end of the day, size and muscle prevails, and we withdraw to fight again another day.

Many other countries are rather less philosophical about all this. There is growing irritation with the apparent double standards involved in the US preaching international virtue but standing alone and uncooperative on issues like land mines, the international criminal court, global warming and United Nations dues. The core of the problem is the US disposition to believe that what's right for it must be right more generally. Samuel Huntington describes this rather gently as the "benign hegemon illusion":that a natural congruity exists between their interests and values and those of the rest of the world. The less gentle characterisation is Garry Wills's "bully of the free world" - a US taking the view that it acts authentically only when it acts independently, and believing its own rhetoric about being "leader of the free world".

There is no need to go further into this debate for present purposes. The point is just that so long as the US sees itself in these terms, its negotiating behaviour will be coloured accordingly. And that means, among other things, feeling that it doesnít need to work indirectly through the press, certainly in smoothing the way for discussions, or sending potentially unpalatable messages to negotiating partners: for better or worse, it will just go on communicating those messages directly.

III. At Home

To the extent that US negotiators and foreign policy makers do use or focus on the media in defining positions or making decisions, it is almost invariably in a domestic context. From an outsider's perspective, there seem to be at least five important ways in which the media is relevant here.

First, there will always be some attention as to how a position or decision will play in general political terms. For the most part there is little cause for concern, as foreign policy issues generally pass by utterly unnoticed in the media, with remarkably little (by most other countries' standards) reporting of anything, except in the handful of quality broadsheets, and even there not much. It's different when there is a domestic angle, with action being generated by Cuban emigres, the Christian right , labour unions or the like, but those cases are exceptional. From time to time there are attempts by policy makers and negotiators to improve, through public diplomacy initiatives, public understanding and acceptance of positions on delicate issues - for example the North Korean nuclear deal - but such efforts, at least under the present administration, also seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

What has been consistent in recent times is extreme anxiety about the domestic political consequences of American casualties incurred in foreign adventures.It is certainly the case since Mogadishu in 1993 (which itself raised unhappy memories of Vietnam, and also Beirut in 1983) that many American negotiating positions and reactions in the context of possible military intervention, through the UN or otherwise, have been generated by a fear of press and public reaction to any casualties that might occur. While this is not the place to explore this issue, what deserves more attention here than it usually gets is the abundant public opinion poll evidence that, whatever media orthodoxy and received wisdom may say, public tolerance for casualties is in fact reasonably high - provided that, and itís a big proviso, military operations are clearly explained, well handled, and seen as having a reasonable chance of success.

Secondly, there will often be a concern by some individuals involved in the negotiating process as to how they personally will be perceived. General self-promotion through interviews and the like (common in the US, but in lots of other countries as well) probably does no great harm, except often to the person doing the self-promoting. It is when confidential negotiating material is leaked for self-aggrandisement purposes, particularly at the expense of some other member of the team, that more substantial damage can be done, because it provokes a perception of disarray and weakness. Balkans negotiations seem to have been not entirely unfree of this phenomenon, but it doesnít seem to be a particularly acute problem for the US.

A third issue, which does seem to be quite significant in the US, is the use of the media to advance inter-agency dialogue and, more often, disputation. One of the few cheering features of the national missile defence debate - which continues to leave most of America's friends around the world sadly shaking their heads - is the volume of leaking and counter-leaking going on as the foreign policy, military and intelligence agencies fight the issue out, a good deal of which leaking has usefully exposed the general idiocy of the whole enterprise, and in particular the highly dubious quality of many of the results from tests which have been claimed to be successful.

A fourth issue is the extent to which media reporting - the so called "CNN effect" can and does itself force government action in areas where there is an initial reluctance to act. Views are divided on the power of this effect, and it is not necessary for present purposes to take the question further - but there may again be some reason to suppose that the impact of the media here has been somewhat exaggerated.

A final issue that needs brief mention is the extent to which US media reporting, effectively unconstrained as it is, can actively undermine legitimate US and indeed international policy interests. A clear recent example was the extensive coverage given to the allegations of Scott Ritter about US manipulations of UN operations in Iraq for national spying purposes, which totally undercut Richard Butler as head of UNSCOM, weakened the position of the US in the Security Council, and helped precipitate the effective closure of that operation, with consequences that are just beginning to become apparent.

Overall there is no doubt that official secrecy tends to conceal a multitude of sins, and better policy is made in the light than the dark. But sometimes I - like I suspect a number of others here - can't help but feel a little nostalgia for the days when negotiators could actually negotiate, without having to sit in a spotlit glass-house wired for sound and vision.