The filmmaker Woody Allen is often quoted as saying that “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” One can quibble with the percentage, but Allen’s insight is important: You have to get in the game — be a player — to have any chance of obtaining your objectives.
The same is true of world affairs. If showing up is 80 percent of life, at least 80 percent of foreign policy is following up. Smart plans, good intentions and strong negotiating skills are essential, but they are never enough — not even close. As with business, education, and much else in life, most of what makes foreign policy work — or not — is a matter of implementation and execution.
This observation will be tested more than once in 2016 and subsequent years. One prominent example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact signed in October by 12 Pacific Rim countries in Asia and the Americas. If the accord enters into force, it will expand world trade, boost economic growth, and strengthen the US’ ties with regional allies who would otherwise be tempted to move closer to China.
The agreement’s entry into force, though, is subject to ratification by most of the 12 signatories’ legislatures. The outcome in the US and Japan will be particularly consequential. Indeed, everyone is waiting to see what happens in the US.
But approval by the US Congress is far from certain, especially as the presidential candidates — all of the Democrats and the leading Republicans — have come out against it. The vote, if it takes place, will be close, and the stakes are high, as failure to ratify the TPP would raise fundamental questions about America’s political effectiveness and ability to be a reliable partner to its allies.
A second test will come in Syria, arguably the biggest international failure of recent years. In December, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, which establishes a political framework for a civil war that has raged for nearly five years, claiming as many as 300,000 lives and creating millions of refugees.
A framework, however, is nothing more than an outline. In this case, it was less than that, because the resolution was silent about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s political fate and the timing of his departure. It also raised more questions than it answered about which Syrian opposition groups would participate in negotiations. Given the many divisions both within Syria and among its neighbors, getting from the resolution to a cease-fire and political settlement is likely to take years — and even that assessment may prove to be overly optimistic.
Yet a third test for diplomats also stems from the climate agreement reached in Paris in December. The agreement comprises voluntary pledges by governments that amount to no more than promises to do their best. In many cases, there is a lack of specificity about what is to be done. And, because the agreement is not legally binding on its signatories, the only sanction it permits is to “name and shame” countries that fail to deliver.
A fourth test stems from the agreement signed over the summer by the Security Council’s five permanent members, Germany, and Iran limiting Iran’s nuclear program. There are sure to be numerous disagreements over whether the parties in general, and Iran in particular, are meeting their obligations. At some point, the implementation challenge will include additional measures to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons once the agreement’s time limits on specified programs expire.
There are a few lessons to be learned from all of this. For starters, while international accords are rarely reached easily, no one should get carried away at the signing ceremony. The negotiators still must be able to deliver their governments’ full backing, and this is never automatic, especially when it comes to democracies such as the US, where different branches of government are often controlled by different political parties.
A second reality is that there is an unavoidable trade-off between negotiations and implementation. In many cases, agreement is possible only if critical details are left unresolved. But such “creative ambiguity” also ensures that the implementation phase will be more difficult, as tough choices that were postponed suddenly must be addressed.
Third, there will inevitably be moments when one or another party does not implement the pact in a manner judged to be adequate. Dealing with episodes of alleged non-compliance can prove to be every bit as demanding as the original negotiation.
Which brings us back to where we began. All four of the major international accords reached in 2015 — the TPP, the Security Council’s Syria resolution, the Paris climate agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal — required great effort to negotiate. Making them work in 2016 and beyond will prove even harder. As Woody Allen could tell you, it is akin to the difference between writing a screenplay and making a movie.
— The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.