Why Nonaggression Pacts Often Fail

We expect too much of peace agreements between competitors, as a recent feud between Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren illustrates.

By — on / Dispute Resolution

On December 12, 2018, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren had Vermont senator Bernie Sanders over to her house for a meeting, New York magazine reports. There, they each admitted what was already apparent: They were running for president. Friends as well as colleagues, Sanders and Warren agreed to try to protect the progressive movement by not attacking each other on the campaign trail.

The two candidates and their campaigns largely stuck by their informal nonaggression pact amid a crowded field of candidates in 2019. But at the start of 2020, as the field narrowed and the Iowa caucuses approached, Politico reported that the Sanders campaign was supplying volunteers with talking points critical of Warren. At a campaign event, Warren said she was “disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me.” Sanders distanced himself from the script and insisted he’d “never said a negative word” about Warren.

On January 13, CNN reported that during their meeting at Warren’s home in late 2018, Warren told Sanders that she believed she could be a strong candidate in part because she would win over female voters. Sanders reportedly responded that he did not think a woman could win the presidency.

Warren confirmed that version of events: “I thought a woman could win; [Sanders] disagreed,” she
told CNN. Sanders called the idea that he would tell Warren that a woman couldn’t win the 2020 election “ludicrous” and accused the anonymous campaign members who spoke with CNN of “lying about what happened.”

The next day, at the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses, Warren and Sanders were asked about their disagreement. Warren called Sanders a “friend” and said she didn’t want to “try to fight with Bernie.” Sanders again denied saying a woman couldn’t win the presidency, calling the very notion “incomprehensible.”

The niceties ended when Warren approached Sanders after the debate. “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” she said in audio captured by CNN. Sanders suggested they discuss the matter later. “Anytime,” Warren responded. “You called me a liar,” Sanders said before trailing off.

The unofficial nonaggression pact was officially over.

Why not compete?

The conflict between Sanders and Warren raises the broader question of whether nonaggression pacts— promises not to engage in hostilities and attacks—between two players in a broader competitive environment can be worthwhile.

Such pacts have long been employed by military rivals seeking peace—or, at times, more nefarious goals. In the 1518 Treaty of London, 20 European nations agreed not to attack one another; wars broke out between signatory nations within just a few years. In their infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union promised not to attack each other, but also set World War II in motion by secretly coordinating their invasions of the Baltic nations, Finland, Poland, and Romania. Since the end of World War II, bilateral nonaggression pacts largely have been replaced by multilateral security agreements that have proven more stable, including the treaties that established the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Today, in realms such as business and politics, nonaggression pacts could plausibly be employed to help would-be rivals avoid mutually destructive competition. After Amazon invited North American cities and regions to compete to host the company’s second headquarters in 2017, urban studies theorist Richard Florida of the University of Toronto accurately predicted that the contestants would offer huge tax incentives and other giveaways to try to win the prize. Noting that this type of corporate welfare is typically an unnecessary financial drain on local economies, Florida started an online petition urging elected officials from the 20 finalist cities in the Amazon contest to sign a nonaggression pact promising not to offer Amazon tax giveaways and direct monetary incentives. (Only a few council members from finalist cities signed on to the pact.)

A fragile tool

The breakdown of the Sanders-Warren nonaggression pact speaks to the inherent fragility of agreements between rivals. In virtually any multiparty negotiation or competition, alliances and coalitions formed by two or more parties are easily upset by unexpected shifts in relationships, circumstances, and goals. That’s all the more true of nonaggression pacts, which are dependent on cooperation between parties that often have ample short-term—and sometimes long- term—incentives to compete.

Although some on the left lamented the breakdown of the Sanders-Warren nonaggression pact, it was likely an inevitable stage in the presidential campaign. Because only one person can win the Democratic nomination, the two candidates eventually needed to begin distinguishing themselves from each other on policy, governing style, and other matters—to better educate voters and try to win the contest.

The instability of nonaggression pacts suggests they often aren’t worth the time and effort required to negotiate them. If you do see value in securing promises from a rival not to compete, maintain low expectations of the alliance’s likely duration and ensure you’ll be free to abandon it if it no longer proves useful. Moreover, you may need to confirm with lawyers that an agreement negotiated with a competitor doesn’t veer into the realm of unlawful or unethical collusion.

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