The Slatest

No, Obama and Merkel Are Not Doing a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” Routine on Putin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a joint news conference in the East Room after meetings about the situation in Ukraine and other topics at the White House February 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. 

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

At a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel today, President Obama was asked if the two leaders were performing a “good cop/bad cop” routine on the question of whether to provide weapons to Ukraine.

A number of commentators, including me, have used the term to describe Merkel and Obama’s approach—the U.S. president says he’s open to supplying the Ukrainian military with weapons to counter the Russian-backed separatists while Merkel, who’s been leading the latest effort to secure a new ceasefire, is opposed to the idea. But now I’m not so sure that the description is apt.

Good cop/bad cop has also been repeatedly invoked in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In the Bush years, the U.S. was seen as the bad cop to Europe’s good cop. More recently, the Obama administration has been described as the good cop, with the bad cop role played by either Israel or the U.S. Congress.  In the Iran negotiations, the idea is that one party’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran will only be effective with a credible threat of military strikes or tighter sanctions from another party on the table. In the case of Russia, the idea is that Obama’s threats of sending weapons to Kiev will make Putin more likely to deal with Merkel.

In a 2007 article for Nonproliferation Journal, political scientist Curtis H. Martin looked at the good cop/bad cop strategy in the context of nuclear negotiations with both Iran and North Korea, and pointed out some flaws in the analogy when it’s applied to countries as opposed to used as a plot device in buddy cop movies.

When cops use the routine, it’s just an act: Both the good cop and the bad cop are trying to get the same information out of the suspect or witness. But in diplomatic situations, the two “cops” may have very different interests and goals. For instance, Congress and the Obama administration can’t really pull off a very effective good cop/bad cop routine on Iran since, as a recent L.A. Times editorial argued, congressional Republicans think the deal Obama is trying to reach is a mistake and their opposition makes it harder for him to offer concessions to bring it about. In the Russia scenario, European governments, for both economic and geographical reasons, are much warier than the United States about antagonizing Russia and escalating the fighting in Ukraine. Merkel genuinely doesn’t want to send weapons—it’s not a ploy.

Martin also argues that good cop/bad cop only works if the bad cop’s threats are taken seriously. This probably isn’t the case when it comes to U.S. leaders publicly musing about arming Ukraine. Putin has both the ability and desire to escalate much farther than the U.S. and both sides know it.

Merkel pointed this out herself on Saturday, saying, “I cannot envisage any situation in which improvement in the equipment of the Ukrainian army so impresses Putin that he concedes militarily.”

In the movies at least, it’s the job of the good cop to say, “my partner is crazy. If you don’t deal with me, I have no idea what he’s capable of.” It’s really not as impressive to say, “My partner can’t really hurt you that bad.”

More often than not, it seems like “good cop/bad cop” is an optimistic way for outsiders like me to look at a situation in which allies simply can’t agree on the best strategy for handling an adversary. The reality, unfortunately, is a lot messier.