Hitting “Pause” On International Negotiations

By — on / International Negotiation

On August 7, President Barack Obama canceled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for this month in Moscow, citing a lack of progress on a variety of issues. The announcement came on the heels of Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who made confidential data on American surveillance programs public. Obama still plans to attend the annual conference of the Group of 20 nations in Russia in early September.

“We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearances,” U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes told the New York Times. Moscow and Washington have failed to make headway on a variety of issues, including arms control, missile defense, trade, human rights, and Syria.

Both sides blamed the other for the breakdown in the international negotiations. Russian officials accused Obama of being too distracted by domestic politics to give the planned summit his attention. Meanwhile, Obama aides said Putin and his administration had stopped responding to their proposals.

Speaking of Obama’s decision to cancel the talks, one administration official said it was prompted by Russia’s Snowden announcement but “rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment” in Russia’s engagement in the agenda facing the two nations.

During his first term as president, Obama made significant headway with Putin’s successor and predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, on issues such as nuclear arms reductions. But after Putin returned to power, he made a series of decisions perceived as hostile toward the United States, such as skipping a Group of 8 summit hosted by Obama at Camp David in 2012 and banning American adoptions of Russian children, write Peter Baker and Steven Lee Myers in the Times.

Days after Obama canceled the Moscow summit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went ahead with scheduled talks with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. But the so-called “two plus two” negotiations produced only a promise to increase official meetings regarding security and other concerns.

Obama’s snub of Putin was both practical and symbolic. On the one hand, the American president made a calculated decision not to waste precious time on negotiations that seemed unlikely to advance. At the same time, the very decision not to negotiate could be seen as an aggressive negotiating tactic. As Russia expert Andrew Kuchins said to the Times, “Why don’t we let [Putin] hang in the breeze for a while?”

The story suggests a strategic reason for breaking off ties, if only temporarily, with a counterpart. If you perceive that the other side has dug in his heels and refuses to cooperate, ending the negotiations could halt a destructive and time-wasting cycle—and perhaps motivate your counterpart to extend an olive branch.

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