July 27, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Connecting Heads of State in an Age of Photo-Op Summitry

As of late July 2012, worldwide speculation on the intentions of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as he struggles to quell the growing rebellion within his country and maintain his family's longstanding grip on power has exposed a downside to the modern dependency on choreographed summits, one that raises a vital question that has heretofore been poorly answered at best. And it is a question that has lingering relevance in international relations as well as business dealings: How do heads of state fairly gauge the true motivations of their counterparts?

In the case of al-Assad, or any other world leader, the question of motivation is not rhetorical, but rather of paramount importance because without knowing why an individual acts, it would be impossible to realistically anticipate how or when they will act. For leaders across the globe, the Syrian crisis is one of the most pressing issues, yet they attempt to parse the slew of public statements emanating from Damascus without a sufficient understanding of the complex motivations driving al-Assad's decisions. And that requires frequent and continuing interaction.


The Value of Sustained, Non-Scripted Contact

This most basic observation provides a hint of a basic but overlooked tool of statecraft: sustained, non-scripted, purposeful contact. Whether due to the extraordinary demands of modern office or the over-reliance on supporting staff, global leaders spend less time in direct, non-scripted contact, leaving them woefully under-informed about their counterparts until it is too late. What makes matters worse is the marked tendency for leaders, when faced with the myriad challenges of crisis management, to actually withdraw from any meaningful communication or contact with the opposite party under the pressure to regroup or lessen exposure/blame in case the situation worsens. This is clearly an unfortunate scenario as it diminishes sustained contact precisely when that level of communication is essential to adequately assess motivations.

This truism — that to determine motivation it is necessary to spend purposeful time in direct engagement — is not an endorsement for eternal dialogue. Nor does it suggest that talking is always the answer, though it should certainly be continually explored while other possible courses of action are being developed. Rather, it is an observation borne out by history and the universal interpersonal experience that suggests purposeful time spent with an individual is an irreplaceable vehicle for understanding motivations that, in turn, facilitate more accurate assessments regarding possible next steps.

Historic advances, such as the Camp David Accords (1978-1979) — which regardless of its significant shortcomings and still-pending outcomes did help decrease the chance for all-out conflict in the Middle East for several decades — and the Paris Peace Talks (1968-1973) that ended the Vietnam War, involved frequent and sustained direct contact between either heads of states or their most trusted emissaries long before the cameras were rolling. In contrast, the perceived failure of Kofi Annan's repeated, highly-publicized efforts to resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria, which involved sporadic and very brief meetings with al-Assad, further suggests there are no shortcuts to determining motivations and that intermittent shuttle diplomacy is unlikely to be the most effective channel for solving seemingly intractable problems.


The Recent Era of the High-Profile Summit has a Downside.

Much has been made in recent years of the danger of leaders becoming too directly involved in negotiations, or of "personalizing" international dealings. This point of view cites as evidence the collapse of high-level talks, such as the 2000 Camp David talks, as failures or weakness on the part of the various heads of state or even the diminishment of a nation's prestige (or leverage). The uncomfortable exposure on the part of a leader to uncertain public outcomes and the shrill criticisms that are certain to accompany that uncertainty seems to have substantially reduced the willingness of many heads of state to engage directly and consistently with problematic counterparts unless success is all but assured, thus leaving the actual interaction between them as little more than a photo op. Another likely factor for the reluctance of leaders to spend significant time in direct negotiation is the sheer complexity and speed of modern diplomacy, with leaders unable (or unwilling) to carve sufficient time out of their already overtaxed schedules to initiate and maintain regular contact with their counterparts.

The point of view that leaders shouldn't personally get involved in pressing and pertinent international crises until success is already assured — for fear of damaging national prestige — presumes both a limited definition of leadership and an even more limited understanding of how people actually engage effectively with one another. The most productive relationships, friendly or professionally, are rarely preordained, but rather are largely the result of the significant, purposeful time spent together during which an understanding, and an understanding of motivations, is possible. To assume it is any different with conflict resolution ignores this truth and irrationally suggests that complexity and uncertainty in a situation somehow call for less effort to communicate rather than more, a premise that is clearly and widely understood to be false. In the end, the same rules of engagement for resolving conflict on an interpersonal basis also hold true for those on an international level.


Purposeful, Sustained, and Frequent Direct Talks are a Key Component of Conflict Resolution

The term "purposeful" has been specifically used frequently throughout this thesis as an effort to properly characterize the nature of how of the time must be spent between heads of state (or between senior representatives or negotiating parties). Simply sitting next to a person will in no way magically reveal true motivations, nor will a poorly-conceived, last-minute meeting result in anything other than an inescapable sense of futility.

While direct interaction between heads of state is clearly not the alpha and the omega for predicting such a complex dynamic as the planned actions of a given sovereign nation, it must be emphasized that such meetings must be part of a well-researched and well-rehearsed approach to managing and resolving a crisis. Leaders should, by all means, use every tool at their disposal — from intelligence collection to basic psychology — to most effectively educe the deeper meanings that can be drawn from high-level meetings. But they must also readily embrace the potential to be found in scheduling subsequent meetings to gain a more meaningful and ultimately utilitarian sense for their counterpart's intrinsic nature.

Just as modern politicians repeatedly rehearse for debates in their quest to win office, so should they repeatedly rehearse for meetings with heads of state once they are in office. It is a fool's errand to operate under the belief that practice makes perfect and then expect any head of state to be successful in accurately assessing respective motivations in 30-minute blocks of highly choreographed exchanges, commonly conducted via interpreters.  And it is inexcusable in situations where the failure to understand motivation could very well lead to armed conflict.



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