What to do about Iran Part III: The case for a compelling alternative (or building the conceptual basis for why the US needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse’)

As the November election approaches and no actionable alternative vision for Iran emerges, the cloud of resignation descending over the liberal elite in Washington is palpable. Will Obama choose to support the use of force simply because action is preferable to inaction in an election year? Or can the case be effectively made that we have already been down this route with Iraq? The short-term gratification of bombing Iran now will give the American population its quick fix, but it will not provide a long-term solution. But what other alternative is there?

The United States has a military solution for almost any international problem, and as we all know, if all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail. Looking at the shape of the public debate in the US about how to engage Iran, there are few concrete diplomatic proposals for resolving the current conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a recurring discussion about whether to use preventive force now to deter—or at least delay—the development of Iran’s nuclear program by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, or rely on nuclear deterrence to contain Iran once it has successfully weaponized its nuclear program. In the mean time, the US is enhancing international economic sanctions against Iran—which may or may not be having an impact on Iran’s strategic calculus with regard to its nuclear program—and Iran has agreed to return to the negotiating table. Although there is no way to tell what lies behind Iran’s desire to engage again diplomatically with the P5+1, the willingness to resume talks nearly a year after the previous round collapsed presents the Obama administration with another opportunity to implement a powerful solution that conserves force and re-establishes America as a visionary world leader. However, in order for the US to make use of this opportunity, the Obama administration must to be prepared to articulate to itself, the American public, and the world a vision of what will work and why.

Unfortunately, there are few conceptual tools available with which to build a strategically effective diplomatic vision. Right now there are excellent proposals from nuclear experts about what the technical substance of an agreement should entail, as well as diplomatic analyses of what is at stake politically for Iran. However, the analysis of how these technical proposals can and should be brought together with what is at stake politically in order to produce a long-term strategic vision is lacking. Unlike in the realm of military-strategic discourse where the concept of deterrence provides an overarching framework for a conversation about where and when to apply military force or hold it in reserve, there is no similar strategic logic driving a debate within the American national security establishment about various diplomatic solutions.

Developing conceptual tools is the first step towards having an intellectual infrastructure on which to draw when conflict arises. Without those resources, we are likely to return to what we know because policymakers have neither the time nor the patience to listen while concepts are built, nor should they. It simply takes too long to form a concept from a group of principles or ideas. The concept of deterrence was built and disseminated methodically over 50+ years through hundreds of briefings, thousands of conferences, millions of pages, and many lifetimes of intellectual work. It is now the intellectual tool available to us on short notice when we are called on to articulate three possible responses to Iran in one page or less—which brings us back to Maslow’s aphoristic hammer: If all you have is the concept of deterrence, every proliferation threat becomes a conversation about the relative merits of preventive force versus containment.

In order to build actionable diplomatic alternatives for the future, I propose that we fill the conceptual gap with deterrence’s misunderstood, and often overlooked, fraternal-twin: compellence. On the most basic level, deterrence and compellence are two sides of the same coin. Deterrence is about making sure the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits; compellence is about making sure the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. While deterrence emphasizes what to avoid, compellence offers an alternative to embrace. When used effectively in tandem, deterrence and compellence make for “an offer that can’t be refused.”

Compellence as a strategic concept makes its debut appearance in Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence. My word choice is intentionally drawn from his lexicon, in spite of the fact that compellence is not a term that captured imaginations or migrated into idiomatic parlance. Even Schelling himself was dissatisfied with it, lamenting that we have no “obvious counterpart to ‘deterrence.’ He then runs through a list of possible alternatives including “coercion,” which he interprets as capturing what he wants to say, but he rejects it on the grounds that it does not exclude deterrence. Next he turns to “intimidation,” which “is insufficiently focused on the particular behavior desired,” and “compulsion,” which he deems “all right but its adjective is ‘compulsive,’ and that has come to carry a quite different meaning.” Finally, he concludes quite simply: “‘Compellence’ is the best I can do.”

My suspicion is that Schelling’s dissatisfaction stems as much from problems with the distinction itself as it does from word choice. Schelling wants to distinguish between types of threats, explaining that the “threat that compels rather than deters often requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts, rather than if he acts.” “Therefore,” he continues, “deterrence and compellence differ in a number of respects, most of them corresponding to something like the difference between statics and dynamics. Deterrence involves setting the stage…and waiting. The overt act is up to the opponent… Compellence, in contrast, usually involves initiating an action…that can cease, or become harmless, only if the opponent responds.” In other words, deterrence is about erecting a barrier. It is the social analog to a moat with a wall and cannons. Thanks to Glenn Snyder and his book Deterrence and Defense, we have terminology for this analogy: deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. You can defend against attack either by threatening unacceptable punishment in return, or by building defensive barriers that appear too difficult to overcome. Compellence in this schema is the analog to offense. It is the ability to not simply defend, but to fight an enemy back until she gives up or surrenders.

The problem with Schelling’s interpretation comes from the fact that, while seemingly clear in theory, the distinction breaks down in practice. Schelling tries to explain that “to deter continuance of something the opponent is already doing—harassment, overflight, blockade, occupation of some island or territory, electronic disturbance, subversive activity, holding prisoners, or whatever it may be—has some of the character of a compellent threat.” The mental image Schelling’s version of this distinction produces is of a body at rest. Deterrence in its simplest form keeps that body at rest. Compellence, from this perspective, meets the body at rest and applies additional force to create motion. The problem comes when the body is already in motion. Is it deterrence or compellence that brings a body to rest?

In contrast, I argue that the difference between deterrence and compellence is not in terms of how active a threat is, but rather is in the nature of the action itself. Whereas deterrence is about manipulating fear, compellence is about manipulating desire. Deterrence is divisive. It is the ability to convince someone to refrain from violating your borders. Compellence, on the other hand, is the ability to convince someone to give you what you want. Whereas deterrence is about ensuring that the costs of an action outweigh the benefits, compellence is about ensuring that the benefits of an action outweigh the costs. In contrast to Schelling’s idea of compellence as imposing greater and greater costs until your opponent chooses to submit, what I am proposing is an idea of leading someone to an action through making that action either the only viable alternative or just too good to pass up.

It is very difficult to make your opponent submit through force because you are manipulating only one end of the equation. The most effective diplomatic strategies manipulate both. Take, for instance, a bank heist. The bank robber uses force to deter the occupants of the bank from leaving. If they try to leave, she will kill them. Explicit in that statement is the manipulation of fear; implicit is the manipulation of a compelling desire to live. This is why the robber also says to the bank manager, “If you give me the money, I will let you walk out of here alive.” That’s the compelling alternative. If the robber were more sophisticated, the heist could be done in ways that co-opted the desire of the manager in the first place—for money, power, or prestige—and would have required less force.

The distinction is captured by the proverbial story of the wind and the sun. The wind bets the sun that he can remove a passing traveler’s coat. The wind blows harder and harder, colder and colder, trying to blow the coat off, but only succeeds in convincing the traveler to pull her coat closer and tighter. When it’s the sun’s turn, she shines warmly down on the traveler. Perspiring, the traveler stops and simply removes his coat.

We have a tendency to use the verbs “force” and “compel” interchangeably in American culture. We also use the nouns “force” and “power” as if they were synonyms, but all of these terms are distinct. Force is but one means to an end. Power is an end in itself. We tend to conflate them through the practice of nuclear deterrence, which is about the manipulation of superior force in pursuit of power. Deterrence has a natural affinity to force because deterrence is about punishment. In contrast, compellence is not about force; it’s about power. Compellence is about drive, desire, and hunger. They key to compellence is to know what your opponent wants (or wants to avoid) and manipulate it to your own ends.

Acknowledging that the ultimate weapon exerts this effeminized form of power is what makes the punch line from this New Yorker cartoon so funny:

From www.newyorker.com

From www.newyorker.com

This cartoon captures something about the power countries like Iran experience by attracting international attention through their pursuit of the bomb.

Schelling’s analysis of deterrence and compellence does include the notion of positive incentives in his analysis through the idea that both require assurances to be effective. He argues that your opponent must have a reason to believe that whatever pain and suffering you are inflicting (or further threat thereof) will cease in the event of compliance. In contract, I am arguing that assurances are not a component of deterrence. They are a component of compellence.

The point here is that deterrence and compellence always operate in tandem. If you are not managing both, one is being done to you. While the USSR was deterring the US, the US was simultaneously compelling the USSR to maintain an unsustainable arms race, and vice versa. Someone is always doing the deterring and someone is always doing the compelling. You cannot have one without the other. Unless you preserve your own ability to walk away from a relationship at will, you are experiencing the costs and benefits of being on both ends of a compelling struggle for power.

At this point in time, Iran is not convinced that the benefits of complying with the NPT outweigh the costs it pays in terms of the status it gives up. Bombing Iran into temporary submission is not likely to change that calculus, but rather to compel Iran to pursue its goal of constructing a robust nuclear program because the benefits of achieving the status of a nuclear weapon state are just too good to pass up. Continuing down the path of blowing harder by ratcheting up sanctions is unlikely to produce the desired result of Iran giving up its enrichment without offering a compelling alternative.

The problem with the current situation between the US and Iran is that Iran is undeterred and enjoying all the power by compelling the US to take action. The more force the US has to use in order to deter Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the less powerful the US is (think of the parent who says, “don’t make me take off my belt” versus the parent who can ask a child to do something and the child willingly complies).

This, of course, is a dangerous game. It could end very badly for Iran, but so far Iran has managed to maintain the upper hand, and it will continue to do so even in the event that the US decides to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Finding a solution to the conflict with Iran needs to be about more than deterrence. The solution needs to be more complex than a line in the sand that the Iranians are told not to cross. Deterrence is something that the US does very well, but there are limitations to a strategy that equates power with the threat and/or use of force. It is appropriate for the US to prepare its deterrent strategy, but deterrence alone will not bring about a solution. A solution will come from the ability to combine deterrence with a positive diplomatic vision in which the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. In other words, the Obama administration needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse.’

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