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Diplomacy’s Chessboard

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford questions what we might learn about diplomacy from the strategic manoeuvring of the grandmasters of chess

One cliché of diplomacy is that it is like chess. It combines patient strategic manoeuvring with sudden flashes of sharp decisive action. In chess, as in diplomacy, there is ‘objective’ strength: political and economic assets and their mobility. But what (perhaps) really counts are ‘subjective’ factors: skill, calculation, determination, boldness and bluff, and how far other players muster their own talents to achieve their goals.

There’s also the important idea of scale. Countries and governments vary vastly in size and ‘weight.’ That does not mean that the biggest, meanest countries always get their way: their huge resources may not be easy to apply on the scale that counts. A hammer works well if you have a nail. It’s a bad tool for dealing with ants. Washington, Moscow and the European Union all wanted tiny Montenegro to stay with Serbia. Montenegro voted itself its independence.

What might we learn from grandmasters of chess about diplomacy?

  • Here’s the great early twentieth century chess theorist, Russian/Danish Aron Nimzowitsch: The threat is stronger than the execution.
  • Former Soviet world champion Mikhail Tal: You must lead your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.
  • Former American world champion Bobby Fischer: I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.

Let’s look at them in turn.

The threat is stronger than the execution.

The sense of Nimzowitsch’s enigmatic proposition is that a chess player gains sustained advantage by threatening to play a strong move – once it’s played, that tension is lost.

Take the EU. As it has grown, its decision-making has become ever-more elaborate. Some decisions (eg on the EU Budget) still require unanimity: one disgruntled capital can say no. Other decisions are taken by a ‘qualified majority vote.’ Note that in either case, the minority country or groups of countries that are ready to block a decision decide the result. By threatening to block a decision as per Nimzowitsch right to the bitter end, they win concessions.

Arms races emerge from a similar logic. Once one country starts to buy bigger, better weapons, its neighbours start to wonder what’s going on. There is a potential new threat next door. Perhaps they should step up defence spending too.

Asymmetric demographic trends are especially unsettling for the modern state. What if your neighbour’s population is growing much faster than your own? There is no ‘threat’ now, but is one coming? If so, what to do?

In much of the former Yugoslavia (most notably Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia/Kosovo, and Macedonia) such concerns make it next to impossible to identify stable outcomes that all sides trust. If today’s minority is tomorrow’s majority, what sort of political deal might the current majority community sensibly offer? Why should the current minority accept it anyway? Hence, this region of Europe fails to develop strongly despite colossal outside support. There’s no local trust in what a cooperative future might mean.

On the global scale, this century will see Africa surging ahead: it’s where the planet’s young people are. Nigeria is on track to be the world’s second biggest country in about a hundred years’ time. Young people dominate its population; some 75 million Nigerians are under 16. Older people increasingly dominate the European Union; in demographic terms, some European countries are wheezing to stay alive at all. All the talk of ‘migrants’ and Brexit and Europe’s role in the world is in fact about what these numbers will mean for our children and grand-children and their identity.

A deep dark forest where 2+2=5 …

Latvia’s Mikhail Tal was an exuberant genius who reached the pinnacle of world chess in the 1960s, then smoked and drank himself into an early grave. His chess style was to create drastic unfathomable complications where the path to victory was more about instinct and nerve than logic and precision. Part of Tal’s success lay in making his opponents fear the unexpected before the game even started.

Most governments are highly risk-averse when it comes to diplomacy. Better the devil you know. The expected is good: a nudge here, a visit there. Stability allows you to plan and invest.

All true. But this cautious approach offers opportunities to leaders willing to take risks within the rules – and with the rules. This is where Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is making an impact. In annexing Crimea and sending Russian troops into Ukraine, he has challenged head-on the rules of European and international order. Yet in Syria he boldly (and not unreasonably) claims that Russia is doing the right thing under international law by supporting President Assad.

While the United Nations ponders such contradictions, Moscow makes barely concealed intelligence-style oblique moves to influence events in different democracies. Paid armies of internet trolls infest Western media comment boxes. Russian intelligence agencies probe our emails and infrastructure looking for potential cyber-warfare weaknesses.

All this amounts to a brand new idea in diplomacy: unpredictable ‘non-linear conflict,’ all the more unnerving for appearing on many layers simultaneously. As the tumultuous US presidential election and its angry aftermath of Russian ‘hacking’ allegations show, the confident, controlled unpredictability of Russian diplomacy is making an impact.

Moscow’s machinations come at a formidable cost. Russia will lose trillions of dollars in lost growth in the years and decades to come because of sanctions and the lost investment caused by uncertainty about its current policies. Is that a price worth paying? What in fact is being won? Over what timescale should we (and the Russians themselves) judge success?

Two other countries, Iran and North Korea, are doing well in different ways (in the terms defined by their respective ruling elites) by playing with unpredictability, and winning concessions from other countries that prefer things calmer.

The trick lies in not overdoing it. Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević ingeniously became the centre of attention by creating all sorts of illogical chaos, but eventually crashed himself and his country. The world waits with keen interest to see what quixotic US President Trump brings to the global policy table.

Psychology – or good moves

Bobby Fischer famously won the world chess championship in 1972, ending a long run of USSR champions, then blew up and scarcely played another serious game. His psychological power at the board was second to none: he evinced an intense if not manic will to win, but also showed remorseless logic and precision in driving to victory.

How far is strength and weakness in diplomacy about ‘good moves’? This takes us deep into diplomatic technique. Why exactly is a ‘good move’ good?

In classic diplomacy, good moves help develop situations to improve relationships between countries and peoples. All sorts of subtle technique factors come into play at the highest level, right down to the way meetings between leaders are organised and who is (or is not) in the room. Sometimes a national leader calls another leader privately to warn that an unwelcome decision is about to be taken that might cause that other leader some new problems. Sometimes such a friendly personal telephone call is deliberately not made, signalling that, for a while, private and international relationships alike are moving into a gritty, disagreeable business phase.

Timing is all-important: choosing just the right moment to make a proposal while being alert to where others, for their own reasons, may be flexible. Often it takes gruesome failure to help all concerned be realistic about what can be achieved now, and what needs to be left for later. The Copenhagen Climate Summit debacle in 2009 led to the Paris climate accords six years later: the Paris deal could happen only when it was obvious that strict, legally binding obligations would not be agreed.

That sprawling example shows that in diplomacy, a good move can be to Just Say No. You make progress by being cooperative. But that comes at the cost of being cooperative. Maybe success as the rest of the world defines it could be politically risky for you? Perhaps for now it’s better to be uncooperative and see what might be offered? What’s the rush anyway? See successive doomed attempts to resolve the Cyprus or Nagorno-Karabakh questions. And how Syria’s President Assad assesses the fate of the erstwhile Colonel Gaddafi.


Let’s leave the last word to Germany’s world chess champion from a century ago, Emanuel Lasker: On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not last long. Hmm. Maybe chess is not like diplomacy at all.



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