Mitchell’s Musings: June 4, 2018 – Watch the Donut

31 May 2018 12:15 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings: June 4, 2018 – Watch the Donut

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

When you go through life make this your goal,

Watch the donut, not the hole.  ---  The Donut Song[1]

After much fanfare from the president about his planned “summit” meeting with the leader of North Korea, he appeared to be walking away from the negotiations before they formally began. President Trump suddenly seemed to announce that there would be no meeting. This seeming reversal led to learned analyses of why the process had failed – and was always doomed to fail. Example:

…(The) heady dream is over — or at least indefinitely deferred — done in by an intractable issue that proved more complex than Trump had understood and the conflicting agendas of other nations, whose leaders did not respond to the mix of threats and blandishments he deployed.[2]

The problem with this sort of analysis should be apparent to anyone who is familiar with labor negotiations. Walking away from the table is, or can be, a form of negotiations. Negotiations consist of more than parties meeting in person in a room and exchanging demands and offers. What they do and say outside the bargaining room is a form of communication that can be as important as any face-to-face exchanges of words.

In the context of collective bargaining, there is the concept – including a legal concept - of an “impasse.” Reaching an impasse does not mean that no agreement will ever be reached. Instead, it means that in current circumstances, no further progress can be made. When one party declares an impasse, it is saying that it cannot make further concessions. In collective bargaining law, when an impasse is reached, both sides are free to take unilateral action. The employer can put in place terms and conditions of employment. The union can reject those terms and strike in response.

There are obvious limits to applying the collective bargaining analogy to international negotiations. But ultimately in each case, what surely matters is the eventual outcome. There is a difference between the goals the parties are separately trying to achieve, the outcome at the end that is collectively achieved, and the tactics that produced the outcome.

I am no fan of President Trump. It may well be that his goal with regard to the Korean situation is the wrong one. For example, his goal might be any outcome that makes the president look good domestically, especially before the 2018 or the 2020 elections, regardless of its substance or long-term implications. It could also be – due to unknown future events - that the eventual outcome with North Korea will be bad for the U.S., even if the goal of president were a good one.[3] But walking away from the table, or - in this case - threatening not to arrive at the table, is potentially just a form of communication to the other side. And note that it was accompanied by a letter that provided a rationale for walking away. Saying the meeting is off is not in itself a failure, nor a victory, nor anything in between. It’s the hole; it is not the donut.

From a domestic political point of view, criticism based on a tactic which is a commonplace in negotiations could easily prove to be counterproductive for Democrats. Within a short time after the articles analyzing the purported failure of the process were published, word came that planning for the summit meeting was still being carried out by both sides. The meeting might yet take place as originally scheduled. Or it might take place later at some date to be determined.

I have no knowledge as to whether there will be a meeting or when it might occur. I have no knowledge of what the actual goals of the two sides are. I have no way of knowing what the outcome might be, if there is a meeting. But I do know the difference between tactics, goals, and outcomes. And I know that I have yet to see those pundits who quickly analyzed the seeming failure of the process publishing anything that admits they were too hasty in their evaluations. They have yet to admit they were watching the hole and not the donut.





[3] In prior musings, I have expressed the view that issuing military threats without doing such credibility-building things as moving ships and troops, is not a good tactic. It suggests that threats are not to be taken seriously which can be dangerous if in fact they are serious. Misjudgments over what is credible and what is not could lead to the parties stumbling into a conflict by accident. In contrast, the president can credibly threaten not to show up at the negotiations. Troops and ships are not needed to not show up.

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