Biden’s BATNA

Biden’s BATNA


Leonard Zwelling

BATNA: Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement.

What’s BATNA? It’s the point in a negotiation when one party to the talks determines that doing nothing is a better choice than any likely agreement.

Obviously, from President Biden’s behavior on June 16, he has not reached his BATNA with Putin, even if Putin has reached his with America.

The place to see BATNA in action is the Middle East.

Israel and the Palestinians have been at each other’s BATNA for over 50 years. Once Israel recaptured the Old City, the Golan Heights and much of the West Bank in 1967, there really was no benefit to be derived for the Israelis on making a deal with the Palestinian Authority. Despite that, it was continuously tried, most conspicuously in 1993 surrounding the Oslo Accords. Nonetheless, as Abba Eban said, the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Yasser Arafat never could finish up the land for peace deal and then came the Second Intifada and the current state of BATNA was established.

Is the United States in a position with the Russians that the Israelis are with the Palestinians?

It seems so.

I really have no idea what the President of the United States expected to get out of his meeting with Putin in Geneva. It seems that he got nothing and came with nothing. He gives the distinct impression that he is ever more liberal in his approach to the world and thinks any talking with an enemy is better than no talking, but no talking was the right way to go this time.

Russia has interfered with our elections, cyber attacked our infrastructure, imprisoned Putin’s enemies and killed others. I am not exactly sure what Biden thought he would gain from a face-to-face meeting with Putin. I know what Putin got. He appeared to be on equal footing with the United States on the world stage when America’s chief rival is China, not Russia, although I don’t see what a meeting with Chairman Xi would do for Biden either.

The Israelis are perfectly content to grow the power of their country without a deal with the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas who leads the Palestinian Authority sure doesn’t want to rock the boat as Hamas could throw him out as soon as he sanctions new elections on the West Bank. Israel would rather have the PA there anyway than have to deal with Hamas on two fronts. Thus, the BATNA in the desert is what everyone wants. Biden could learn something from the Israelis. Don’t be in such a rush to meet with your adversary. Wait until that adversary makes a big mistake or until you want something of significance. There is a risk to an empty meeting. Now Biden looks as if he was kowtowing to Putin, raising Putin’s profile, giving Putin a huge stage for what “what aboutism” (the January 6 Insurrection was just a political demonstration put down by the central government—no different than what happens in Russia), and generally elevating the Russians to look like the equals they are not.

Russia is a failed autocratic regime barely hanging on to its place in the world using oil and gas revenue. Russia is not on the same level as the United States and not at the same level as China. The Russians are spoilers and Biden has given them legitimacy. Why bother?

Biden’s BATNA should have arrived already and it was not to go to Geneva at all.

The American democratic experiment is at a precarious point because it is hard for freedom to out pace autocracy. But we have to try. Giving autocracy a seat at the table is not the way.

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