Putnam Two-level games

Application of the two-level game approach by Robert Putnam to a recent negotiation case

Term Paper 2009 4 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories


Natalie Züfle International Negotiation

Task: Please apply the two-level game approach by Robert Putnam to a recent negotiation case involving your home country. (1000 words)

Robert Putnam’s two-level game approach implies that conflicting pressures on different levels exerted by different groups have to be taken into account regarding negotiation processes on the international stage. Subsequently, I will sketch the general principles of Putnam’s approach and apply them to Germany’s decision, not to participate in the US-led war in Iraq 2003.

When a state or government engages in international negotiation, it becomes exposed to international and domestic pressures at the same time, its leader being situated amid two camps: “Across the international table sit his foreign counterparts, and at his elbows sit diplomats and other international advisors. Around the domestic table behind him sit party and parliamentary figures, spokespersons for domestic agencies, representatives of key interest groups, and the leader's own political advisors” (Putnam 1988, p. 434). This leader (or more precisely the representing negotiator) is now in the tricky position to satisfy, simply spoken, either camp in some degree, because “at the national level, domestic groups pursue their interests by pressuring the government to adopt favorable policies, and politicians seek power by constructing coalitions among those groups. At the international level, national governments seek to maximize their own ability to satisfy domestic pressures, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments” (ibid.).

For reasons of clarity, Putnam divides the international negotiation process into two stages: on “level I”, i.e. on the international stage, negotiations between foreign negotiators result in a tentative agreement (“negotiation phase”), while on “level II”, which accommodates separate negotiations among societal groups and leaders on the domestic sphere, this tentative agreement has to be ratified (“ratification phase”). Both levels interact and influence each other (Putnam speaks here of a “reciprocal causation”, p. 433; p. 436).

As illustrated in the case of Germany, it was then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who had to balance such conflicting pressures regarding the decision of going to war in Iraq. On the international stage (= level I) he faced the desire on the part of the United States to be supported by its allies in this mission, on the other hand he was simultaneously exposed to various, generally opposing groups inside the country (= level II), in Germany’s case resulting in a 2/3rd majority of the population rejecting this idea (Bosolt and Oppermann 2006, p. 8). Actors like churches, unions, human rights groups and the Green Party initiated demonstrations and protests, hence massively raised public awareness and mobilizing the German people against war (EKD 2003, Uni-Kassel 2003, Der Spiegel 2003), even though the German press remained rather controversial about abstaining from participation. Hafez notes thereto that important conservative newspapers like FAZ criticised Schröder for “harming German-US relations through his heavy-handed diplomacy” (Hafez 2003, p. 5).

The circumstance of the above described double pressure implicates that in this two-level game the interests of neither group should be neglected too much. Otherwise, a concession made to one group might have negative consequences for the group on the other level, which in turn would finally result either in (worst case) no agreement at all or in disciplining the negotiator, respectively the leaders, e.g. within the next elections (see Putnam 1988, p. 434).

This is what Schröder had to fear in 2002, when according to polls majority was not yet secured. Germany was about to hold its federal elections – just in the days when the international community bargained national military participations as to Iraq. Since two thirds of Germans repudiated a commitment of own troops, ratification would never come about. Hence, one could conclude that Schröder, in order to secure votes, had to limit his cooperation on the international stage, as he didn’t get the necessary approval on the domestic level. In this case, public opinion played the crucial role for Germany’s final decision not to send troops to Iraq – an important aspect Schröder had to consider for negotiations on the international stage.

In fact, the German “win-set” was very small. According to Putnam, a win-set is “the set of all possible Level I agreements that would ‘win’ – that is, gain the necessary majority among the constituents – when simply voted up or down (1988, p.437). The larger such a win-set is, the more likely a level I agreement will be reached, i.e. when the win-sets of the negotiating states overlap. The size of such a win-set depends on various determinants: on preferences and coalitions on level II (like interests, power distribution, homogenous or heterogeneous electorate) as well as on the nature of domestic institutions (e.g. ratification process), and last but not least on the bargaining tactics applied by the negotiator on level I (among others expectations, insecurities, using side-payments or the generic “good will”, Putnam 1988, p. 441f.). Thus, the German win-set was relatively small in particular due to the fact of the majority’s interest not to participate in war. Likewise one could argue that it was small because of a rather obstructive bicameral ratification process (separate powers Bundestag and Bundesrat with veto-power) and perhaps also on the account of good negotiation strategies.

By referring to domestic restrictions Schröder could use such a small win-set in compliance with Putnam as “bargaining advantage” to influence international negotiations on level I, thus expecting more concessions from the other party (Putnam 1988, p. 440). Hence, Germany in the end did not send troops, but agreed upon providing military infrastructure for war preparations to the US, giving permissions to fly-by and deploying ABC-tanks in Kuwait to support US soldiers (Schröder 2003, Pflüger 2003). Nevertheless, such “divisions within the sides may result in rigid, lowest-common-denominator demands that severely constrain negotiating representatives” (Watkins 1999, p. 261). In this case, Germany’s decision not to participate resulted in a temporary cooling-down of transatlantic relations between the two countries.



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Free University of Berlin – Center for Global Politics
Putnam two-level game negotiation Verhandlung international relations internationale Beziehungen




Title: Putnam Two-level games