‘Liberal Unilateralism’

‘LIBERAL UNILATERALISM’…. The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb raises an interesting argument: lefties like me endorse U.S. negotiations with foreign rivals, but balk at the idea of Democratic policy negotiations with Republicans. Goldfarb calls this “liberal unilateralism,” and frames the point in a familiar metaphor.

Look around, the left has already tired of multilateralism, compromise, negotiation — they want action, with or without the help of potential allies. The Huffington Post has a banner headline “Ignore This Man,” a reference to this piece in the Hill about liberal activists pressuring Senate Democrats to move forward without Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. “We are encouraging Finance Committee members and Senate Democrats to do their own bill and not compromise with a bunch of Republicans who are not going to vote with them anyway,” Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, tells the paper. There was some talk like that on the right about a second security council resolution on Iraq prior to the invasion.

Washington Monthly blogger Steve Benen asks, “shouldn’t this tell Democrats something about the utility of negotiations, and the futility of finding a bipartisan compromise?” Benen and other “progressives” support negotiation and compromise with Iran and North Korea, but Republicans? Forget about it.

This isn’t an entirely unreasonable observation. It’s wrong, overly simplistic, and easily dismissed, but it’s not unreasonable.

So, let’s flesh this out a bit. First, I’m actually supportive of both — U.S. engagement with rival nations and Democratic engagement with Republicans. Spirited discussions, good-faith negotiations, honest search for common ground … it’s all good stuff. That said, in either situation, there’s a reasonable limit on the efforts. In the case of Democratic talks with Republicans, we have one party that isn’t interested in negotiating in good faith, and has rejected the very idea of common ground. After months of efforts, a party necessarily needs to cut its losses and recognize when an obstinate rival isn’t interested in reaching a sensible solution. (Saddam letting in weapons inspectors is not evidence of a party disinterested in a sensible solution.)

Second, there’s the question of consequences to consider. Pursuing talks with, say, Iran, strikes me as a wise move. The alternative is a likely military conflict, international instability, and a whole lot of deaths. Conversely, should Democrats give up on talks with congressional Republicans on health care reform, we’ll have to endure John Boehner and Eric Cantor whining that the big bad White House hurt their feelings.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s game theory. Responding to an unrelated story, Matt Yglesias recently explained, “In foreign policy, liberals often believe that disputes with foreign actors can and should be settled through negotiation and compromise. That’s because international relations isn’t a zero-sum affair. Conflict is costly to both parties, good relations bring benefits to both parties, so disagreement is generally amenable to compromise. Ideological disagreement isn’t zero-sum either. Neither conservatives nor progressives are wedded to principles that require defense of wasteful Medicare spending. But partisan politics is zero-sum. A ‘win’ for the Democrats is a ‘loss’ for Republicans. And the predominant thinking in the Republican Party at the moment is that inflicting legislative defeats on Democrats will lead to electoral defeats for Democrats. That makes the GOP hard to bargain with.”

It’s the same dynamic that makes Iran, Cuba, and Syria easy to bargain with.