Game Change–Five Bold Moves That Could Change World Affairs

From reciprocal nuclear reductions to making nice with Iran,5 bold moves that could change the world.

BY STEPHEN M. WALT | DECEMBER 13, 2011

What are some potential game-changers in contemporary internationaldiplomacy? By “game-changer,” I mean a bold and risky initiative thatfundamentally alters the strategic landscape, creating new possibilities andforcing others to rethink their own positions.

I’m thinking about the kind of bold stroke that the late Michael Handelanalyzed in his book TheDiplomacy of Surprise: Hitler, Nixon, Sadat. He was interested inhow certain leaders launched faits accomplis or other unexpectedmaneuvers to break out of diplomatic gridlocks. Obvious examples are Richard Nixon’sopening to China, Anwar Sadat’s surprise announcement that he was willing to go toJerusalem in search of peace, or (less positively) the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that briefly united Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union andhelped open the door to World War II. These initiatives often involved advanceplanning behind the scenes, but they were unexpected at the time and haddramatic effects as soon as they were revealed.

So I’ve been trying to imagine other steps that contemporary world leaderscould take that might have equally dramatic effects. This sort of initiativecan be risky, of course, and there’s no guarantee that a bold gamble willsucceed. With that caveat, here’s a short list of five potential”game-changers,” in no particular order.  

AFP/Getty Images

The United States Takes the Military Option “off the Table”with Iran   

For at least a decade, U.S. leaders have repeatedly insisted that alloptions are “on the table” with Iran. In one sense this is a truism: aslong as you have certain capabilities, you always have the option of using themno matter what you’ve said in the past. But constantly harping on thepossibility of military action is not a good way to build trust — especiallywhen the opponent is already deeply suspicious. It is also a very good way toconvince an adversary that it ought to acquire some means of deterring aserious attack, such as acquiring a nuclear weapon, which is precisely what wedon’t want Iran to do. In any event, keeping the military option “on thetable” doesn’t appear to have achieved very much thus far. 

So what would happen if the Obama administration announced that the militaryoption was “off the table” completely? It could remind everyone thatthis step did not preclude military action to defend U.S. allies or retaliateagainst direct attacks on the United States or its forces, but that we were notcontemplating any sort of preventive attack on Iran itself, and were going torely on diplomacy instead. I doubt this would cause a sudden U.S.-Iranian thaw,but it might clear the air somewhat and strengthen the hand of Iranians whorecognize that crossing the nuclearthreshold may not be in their own interest.

I don’t for a minute think Obama & Co. will do any such thing betweennow and November 2012 (and probably not afterwards), and I certainly can’timagine any of the GOP candidates (save Ron Paul) acting along these lines. Butthat just shows you how little imagination our foreign-policy establishment hasthese days.

Above, President Obama prepares to deliver a statement on the U.N. Security Council sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program in June 2010.

Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

Hamas Revises Its Charter  

If you’ve never read the Hamas Charter, it’s worth a quickgander. You’ll find it pretty disturbing. Many experts believe that a lotof its elements (including the explicit rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, etc.)are not a true indication of Hamas’ bottom lines, but, even so, there’s a lotof offensive stuff that has nothing to do with concrete issues that divideIsraelis and Palestinians. Case in point: the various references to aglobal Zionist conspiracy (going back to the French Revolution!), along withpositive references to long-discredited anti-Semitic forgeries like the Protocolsof the Elders of Zion. Check out Articles 22, 28, and 32, for example. Inaddition to making it easier for opponents to justify marginalizing Hamas, suchpassages make the organization sound out of touch with reality.

But imagine what could happen if Hamas announced it was dropping the mostoffensive (and stupid) clauses in its current charter? It could still adopt ahardline position on other matters, and still try to portray Fatah as corrupt,inept, or heavily compromised. But by providing an unmistakable signal thatHamas was willing to dump some of its most extreme claims, revising the Chartercould open a path towards the organization’s participation in the peace process(which is probably necessary if it is ever to succeed), and thus be a potentialgame-changer.

Above, Palestinians walk past Hamas posters in Gaza City in March 2011.

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Proposes Reciprocal Global Nuclear ArmsReductions

The American and Russian nuclear arsenals have declined significantly sincethe end of the Cold War, but are still far larger than either country needs fordeterrence. In any case, the greater danger today is not some sort of greatpower nuclear war, but rather that a terrorist group will one day get a hold ofa nuclear bomb or sufficient weapons-grade material to make a crude bomb oftheir own. 

So even if you are a fan of nuclear deterrence, you ought to be in favor ofshrinking the global stockpile by as much as possible. What if the UnitedStates announced that it was prepared to match — on a percentage basis –reductions made by the other nuclear powers? If everyone else cuts by 10percent, so will we. If others agree to cut by 50 percent, or even 80 percent,we’re down with that too. And because our arsenal is larger than most, we would be getting rid oflots more weapons than anybody else was (except Russia, which has fewer inactive service but more in storage).

This proposal need not lead directly to total disarmament, however. Inparticular, the United States could make it clear at the outset that there is afloor below which it will not go (perhaps a couple of hundred weapons). But thebasic idea would be to challenge the other nuclear powers to get serious aboutreducing their own arsenals, by making it clear that we were willing to makeeven deeper cuts to our own.

This idea rests on two important realities: 1) the United States is theworld’s strongest conventional military power, and doesn’t need an enormousnuclear arsenal in order to be secure, and 2) states only need a small numberof survivable nuclear warheads to inflict massive damage on another country,which means you don’t need thousands of bombs to have an effectivedeterrent. 

A proposal like this sounds utopian, but the United States would have littleto lose by making it. At the very least, we’d sound far-sighted, and it wouldhighlight the importance of the broader issue of nuclear security. And, hey,we’d save a bunch of money too.

Above, President Obama meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC in April 2010.

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Israel Accepts the Arab League Peace Plan

Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia floated a peace proposal that promised full Arabrecognition of Israel once a two-state solution was achieved. The proposal wasrelaunched in 2007 and endorsed by the full Arab League. It is merely a generalproposal and not a fully-formed “final status agreement,” but itidentified most of the key issues to be addressed and made it clear that theseissues (including controversial topics like the so-called “right of return”)would be resolved via negotiations. So far, Israel has rejected the initiative.

Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often claim that he isnot really interested in a genuine two-state solution, and that all his talk ofnegotiation is just a smoke screen designed to buy time for more settlementbuilding. But what if he went before the Knesset and declared that he haddecided to accept the Arab League offer, and was ready to begin negotiations onthe basis of their proposal? I think that could be a game-changer, and itwouldn’t sacrifice any vital Israeli interests. (And if Hamas revised itscharter (see above) maybe the LikudParty could revise its platform too!)

Above, Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during trilateral peace negotiations in September 2010.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

China Proposes MultilateralNegotiation and Arbitration over the South China Sea

China’s rise has fueled growing concerns about its long-term intentions. Inrecent years, a focal point of these concerns has been conflicting territorialclaims in the South China Sea. Thesedisputes include bilateral contests between China and Vietnam over the SpratlyIslands and China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and amultilateral disagreement between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, andVietnam over the Paracels. These various claims are also bound up in each state’scontrol over “economic zones” in the region.

Up until now, China has sought to address these issues through bilateralnegotiations, for the obvious reason that this approach maximizes its ownpotential leverage over the other contestants. Its naval activities in the areahave increased and it has advanced territorial claims that many observers finddubious, while rejecting proposals to submit the various claims forarbitration. Taken together, these developments have intensified its smallerneighbors’ fears and encouraged them to seek closer ties with the UnitedStates.

But what if China took a longer view, and concluded that a more conciliatoryapproach would undercut balancing tendencies in Southeast Asia and allow it toconsolidate its position over time? In other words, what if Beijingsuddenly announced that it wanted to begin multilateral negotiations for afinal territorial settlement in the South China Sea, and that it was willing tosubmit the matter to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seaif the negotiations failed?  It might end up with a smaller share of theareas in dispute, but the diplomatic benefits from a more conciliatory policymight outweigh the drawbacks by a wide margin.

I can think of other issues that cry out for a “game-changer” — theongoing euro crisis, the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, the legal limbothat persists at Guantanamo, etc. — but I’ll stop here. The floor is now open:What are some other “game-changers” that might make a dramaticdifference if some leader were creative enough to imagine a different approach andbrave enough to try it? And don’t worry if your proposals sound far-fetched; boldattempts to break free of the existing status quo will always appear a bitcrazy at first.

Above, China’s Lin Zhen Min and Vietnam’s Pham Quang Vinh pose after an Association of South East Asian Nations meeting in July 2011.

Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images

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