Tacit bargains among rivals
What Joe Biden keeps getting wrong
The United States and USSR agreed that, as much as they wished each other harm, nobody wanted global nuclear war. To help prevent that horrible outcome, they:
Made public statements emphasizing their lack of intention of starting a nuclear war.
Signed a few treaties.
Ensured the other side could see they weren’t moving toward starting one.
Further, the USA and USSR needed to ensure that lower-level (e.g. conventional-weapons) competition wouldn’t escalate to an agreed-to-be-unacceptable conflagration. Thus ensued negotiations, largely implicit – what Tom Schelling and others have called tacit bargaining – as to which actions each side was and wasn’t “allowed” to engage in. Disallowed actions might be as concrete as a military attack or as vague as aggressively heated rhetoric.
In principle, that’s not too dissimilar from a labor-management negotiation, in which both sides are united in wanting to avoid the catastrophe of permanent business shutdown, but otherwise need to reconcile their opposing desires. Still, the differences are consequential. Most notably:
Explicit labor negotiations end with a signed contract. Its terms are precise, and fixed until contract expiration.
Tacit bargaining yields agreements that may not be understood exactly the same way by the parties, and which may evolve over time.
When we frame things that way, the main argument in my previous post on aiding Ukraine can be summarized as:
Russia is violating a variety of tacit and explicit agreements.
In response, we can and should renegotiate our tacit agreements with Russia to lessen limitations on how we can help Ukraine.
As we do that, we should still follow best practices for tacit negotiations.
Unfortunately, the Biden Administration is behaving as if the previous tacitly-agreed limitations on our aid to Ukraine should all still remain in force. That’s an error, and it’s one Biden makes in other venues too. Notably:
Democrats and Republicans used to honor all sorts of norms to keep our democracy functioning and healthy.
Republicans no longer honor them.
Biden is slow to retaliate.
And by the way, both the Ukraine-arming-taboo and Republican-not-ruffling strategies date back to the Obama Administration; Biden surely was involved then too.