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Playing For Keeps: the Game of Foreign Policy

Christopher Sands

In a recent article for Commentary Magazine, international relations scholar and former Reagan administration official Henry Nau suggested two metaphoric approaches to U.S. foreign policy.

The first is the jigsaw puzzle, where players (governments) work together with the pieces to realize an outcome that all agree to pursue. In jigsaw, solutions come faster if more players contribute, and so efforts must be made to minimize conflict and encourage multilateral participation.

The second is the chess game, where players are rivals and only one can win unless they reach a stalemate. Chess players play offense and defense, think several moves ahead and try to secure advantage. It is a game of power, where stratagems play out slowly or quickly, and it is important to remain focused.

Nau’s analysis is that President Barack Obama has emphasized a jigsaw foreign policy, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, emphasized a chess players’ foreign policy. Accordingly, Obama has made more progress multilaterally while Bush did better fencing with chess-minded rivals such as Russia and China, and going on offense against al-Qaeda. However, Nau argued that the ideal foreign policy strikes a balance between the two approaches, and neither Obama nor Bush seems to have it quite right. It is a thought-provoking article, well worth reading.

How might Nau’s argument apply to U.S. foreign policy regarding North America?

It has been almost a century since the United States used chess stratagems in North America (the United States withdrew its troops from Mexico in 1917; we are nearing the bicentennial of peace with Canada, since the end of the War of 1812 in 1814). The North American agenda—seeking ways to improve regional economies and protect citizens from crime and terrorism—is very much a jigsaw puzzle effort.

Bush approached the North American jigsaw with the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a series of 20 trilateral working groups dealing with economic and security issues. These working groups were overseen by a cabinet-level group of three counterparts from each country, meeting twice a year and preparing a report for the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico who met annually to review progress and set the agenda for the following year.

It was a complex process with many moving parts that was very much a chess player’s approach to a jigsaw puzzle: Bush focused on maneuvering a complicated process rather than on securing agreement on goals.

Obama scrapped the SPP at his first trilateral summit in Guadalajara in 2009, and focused on winning consensus among the three countries on how to proceed. Canada argued for a “three can talk, two can walk” approach under which bilateral talks crowded out trilateral dialogue, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration.

At the recent Washington summit the president insisted on discussing the parallel clean energy dialogues, border and regulatory cooperation initiatives that the United States is pursuing with Canada and Mexico trilaterally—Obama is working hard to get Stephen Harper and Felipe Calderon to see North American competitiveness as a jigsaw puzzle where the three must work together.

Obama’s approach is a good fit for the challenges facing the continental economy. Mexico’s election this summer will replace Calderon with a new jigsaw partner, and the U.S. election in November will determine whether Obama—or perhaps Mitt Romney—will continue putting pieces of this puzzle together, or perhaps switch approaches and work to checkmate the others.

The United States will determine whether it wants to play chess or jigsaw for the future of North America. The question is, will Harper decide to play nicely with the others?

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