Game Change

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

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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

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

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

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

For at least a decade, U.S. leaders have repeatedly insisted that all options are “on the table” with Iran. In one sense this is a truism: as long as you have certain capabilities, you always have the option of using them no matter what you’ve said in the past. But constantly harping on the possibility of military action is not a good way to build trust — especially when the opponent is already deeply suspicious. It is also a very good way to convince an adversary that it ought to acquire some means of deterring a serious attack, such as acquiring a nuclear weapon, which is precisely what we don’t want Iran to do. In any event, keeping the military option “on the table” doesn’t appear to have achieved very much thus far. 

So what would happen if the Obama administration announced that the military option was “off the table” completely? It could remind everyone that this step did not preclude military action to defend U.S. allies or retaliate against direct attacks on the United States or its forces, but that we were not contemplating any sort of preventive attack on Iran itself, and were going to rely 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 who recognize that crossing the nuclear threshold may not be in their own interest.

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

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

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Hamas Revises Its Charter  

If you’ve never read the Hamas Charter, it’s worth a quick gander. You’ll find it pretty disturbing. Many experts believe that a lot of 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 lot of offensive stuff that has nothing to do with concrete issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. Case in point: the various references to a global Zionist conspiracy (going back to the French Revolution!), along with positive references to long-discredited anti-Semitic forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Check out Articles 22, 28, and 32, for example. In addition to making it easier for opponents to justify marginalizing Hamas, such passages make the organization sound out of touch with reality.

But imagine what could happen if Hamas announced it was dropping the most offensive (and stupid) clauses in its current charter? It could still adopt a hardline position on other matters, and still try to portray Fatah as corrupt, inept, or heavily compromised. But by providing an unmistakable signal that Hamas was willing to dump some of its most extreme claims, revising the Charter could 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 potential game-changer.

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

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The United States Proposes Reciprocal Global Nuclear Arms Reductions

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

So even if you are a fan of nuclear deterrence, you ought to be in favor of shrinking the global stockpile by as much as possible. What if the United States announced that it was prepared to match — on a percentage basis — reductions made by the other nuclear powers? If everyone else cuts by 10 percent, 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 of lots more weapons than anybody else was (except Russia, which has fewer in active service but more in storage).

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

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

A proposal like this sounds utopian, but the United States would have little to lose by making it. At the very least, we’d sound far-sighted, and it would highlight 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.

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Israel Accepts the Arab League Peace Plan

Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia floated a peace proposal that promised full Arab recognition of Israel once a two-state solution was achieved. The proposal was relaunched in 2007 and endorsed by the full Arab League. It is merely a general proposal and not a fully-formed “final status agreement,” but it identified most of the key issues to be addressed and made it clear that these issues (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 is not really interested in a genuine two-state solution, and that all his talk of negotiation is just a smoke screen designed to buy time for more settlement building. But what if he went before the Knesset and declared that he had decided to accept the Arab League offer, and was ready to begin negotiations on the basis of their proposal? I think that could be a game-changer, and it wouldn’t sacrifice any vital Israeli interests. (And if Hamas revised its charter (see above) maybe the Likud Party 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.

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China Proposes Multilateral Negotiation and Arbitration over the South China Sea

China’s rise has fueled growing concerns about its long-term intentions. In recent years, a focal point of these concerns has been conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. These disputes include bilateral contests between China and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands and China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and a multilateral disagreement between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam over the Paracels. These various claims are also bound up in each state’s control over “economic zones” in the region.

Up until now, China has sought to address these issues through bilateral negotiations, for the obvious reason that this approach maximizes its own potential leverage over the other contestants. Its naval activities in the area have increased and it has advanced territorial claims that many observers find dubious, while rejecting proposals to submit the various claims for arbitration. Taken together, these developments have intensified its smaller neighbors’ fears and encouraged them to seek closer ties with the United States.

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

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

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.