Netanyahu and Two-level Games

In an article for International Organization entitled “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” Robert Putnam argued that international negotiations was a two-level game.  The chief negotiator had to work with actors at the domestic level to form coalitions of mutual interests, i.e. win sets.  The chief negotiator then also worked with other chief negotiators at the international level to form win sets.  International agreements are overlapping domestic and international win sets that complement and support each other’s politics – often times, without this complementary support, the results of the international agreement would have been impossible. The larger the win sets, the more likely there will be an overlap. Conversely, the smaller the win sets, the less likely there will be an overlap. In addition, small domestic win sets could signal that the chief negotiator might have to resort to “involuntary defection” at the international level, which hurts their credibility for reaching an agreement. A good chief negotiator could also use the small domestic win sets as leverage for getting a better deal, especially if the other parties have larger win sets and more room to be “pushed around” (look up page 441 of the article for a nice summarizing graphic). The article also discusses a version of ordered preferences among domestic factions, arguing that even if different parties disagree on what deal is preferable, if no deal is the least preferred outcome for all parties, than at least some deal is likely to be reached.

Analyzing the triad of interests between the US, Israel, and Iran (as epitomized in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to the US Congress) works well in the two level game framework. It is important to note that this is not a three way deal – Israel and Iran have ruled out that they have overlapping win sets with each other. A simplified order of Iran’s preferences could be outlined as follows:

  1. Lifting of sanctions
  2. Militarizing the nuclear program
  3. No deal

A simplified order of Israel’s preferences could be outlined as follows:

  1. Maintain alliance with the US
  2. Ensure a non-nuclear Iran

(Notice that “no deal” is not even in the ranking of preferences – as Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear, negotiating with Iran is not worthwhile, since they cannot be trusted).

A simplified order of the US preferences regarding Iran could be outlined as:

  1. Demilitarizing Iran’s nuclear program
  2. Maintaining the alliance with Israel
  3. Keeping or increasing the sanctions on Iran
  4. No deal

Both Iran and the US are willing to give up their second choice preferences in return for their first. This acknowledgement is what brought them to the negotiating table in the first place. The question now is whether both parties can find domestic win sets that overlap with their international win sets. Both parties are also constrained by domestic politics, albeit through different mechanisms, so the domestic win sets are small. But it is not inconceivable that some overlap can be found.

The Israel and US pairing provide a good example of having room to “push around.” Israel is highly reliant on the US for military support, so while it may push the US to walk away from the Iran deal in an attempt to attain both preference 1 and 2, it won’t push so hard as to endanger the long term relationship. The US is highly reliant on keeping Israel within its good graces for the sake of the influential Jewish American civil society constituents, but the US also knows that Israel relies on its support, it is no secret that the two current leaders dislike each other (i.e. no love is lost with a more pragmatic pursuit of interests), and that there is a considerable constituency that believes the US should be more even keeled when it comes to Israel. Therefore, while Israel might protest the US negotiating with Iran, it will not protest too loudly, and while the US might want to find a solution that does not anger Israel too much, angering them a little will not destroy the relationship. Therefore, the primary course of action left for Netanyahu to pursue achieving both his first and second preferences would be to make the US domestic win set smaller, and therefore lowering the statistical probability that there will be an overlapping win set at the negotiating table. Whether he managed to persuade anyone to switch to his camp or if he was merely preaching to his choir of supporters is a matter of opinion in the meantime. We have to wait until later this month to see if a deal goes through – if it does, Netanyahu’s mission was in vain. If it doesn’t, then the next debate could be what effect, if any, his speech had on the outcome.


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