The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Bribery Redux

June 1, 2005

Peter Howard has some interesting comments on my post on bribing North Korea. Peter plugs his International Studies Quarterly article, “Why Not Invade North Korea? Threats, Language Games, and U.S. Foreign Policy”. As Peter knows, I believe he downplays the importance of military constraints. Attacking North Korea is a far more dangerous undertaking than attacking Iraq was. The US may have become “discursive entangled” into negotiating with North Korea, but the differing military capabilities of the two states explains a lot about why the Bush administration made the calculation that attacking Iraq was feasible, but has (so far) shied away from a military confrontation with North Korea. Indeed, similar factors should lead us to view rumors of an imminent US attack on Iran with a great deal of skepticism.1

Peter raises an important point when he writes, “what is at stake here, I think, is a question of US identity politics. Are we the type of country that negotiates with ‘terrorists’ and ‘illigitimate governments?'” For whatever reason, there does seem to be a norm in this country against negotiating with – or bribing – certain kinds of adversaries. That doesn’t mean the US hasn’t negotiated in the past, or won’t negotiate in the future, with tyrants and terrorists (we are perfectly willing to deal with tyrants in Central Asia, for example). But it does mean that policy makers usually have to go out of their way to find excuses for negotiating with the kind of people they often categorically refuse to deal with, particularly when the negotiations involve elements of bribery or blackmail.

Moreover, this “norm against bribery and blackmail” seems to operate at the international level.
Australia has refused to negotiate with terrorists in Iraq. There are, of course, conspicuous examples of states that have different norms of conduct. Some will engage in negotiations but not make serious concessions. Others will go futher. Italy, for instance, seems perfectly willing to pay for the release of their nationals. But even the Italians felt compelled to rationalize their departure from “normal principles” of statecraft – which is evidence for the existence of the norm:

Mr Selva, a member of the Northern League, one of the parties in Italy’s governing coalition, told French radio: “The young women’s life was the most important thing. “In principle, one should not give in to blackmail, but this time I think we had to give in – even though this opens a dangerous path because it is obvious that both for political or criminal reasons, this path can make others want to take others hostage to make some money.” (via Outside the Beltway)

This leads us to two puzzles:

• Are there conditions under which this norm is more likely to hold than others?
• Are there characteristics of certain states that make giving into blackmail more or less likely?

I am not aware of any systematic studies of these questions in either International Relations or related fields. Does anyone know of any? If they don’t exist, I think this would make an interesting article for probing deeper into the constitutive and causal impact of norms on foreign policy.

1Consider Kenneth Waltz’s snarky response to the findings of the “democratic victory” research program (the notion that democracies tend to win the wars they fight):

“In the debate between Michael Desch and his critics in a recent issue of International Security, a big point is overlooked. The ‘fair fight’ criterion, the critics say, is misplaced because their theories predict that democracies are good at choosing victims they know they can defeat. But why, when countries are mismatched, need a war be fought? The weaker can hardly threaten the stronger, yet democratic countries go to war against them.

If this is true, it tells us something frightening about the behavior of democratic countries: namely, that they excel at fighting and winning unnecessary wars.”

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.