The Art of Compromise: The Fiscal Cliff, Switzerland and Israel


The United States government narrowly avoided the fiscal cliff. At the last moment, the very last moment, members of Congress and the President agreed on a package that avoided tax raises and drastic cuts in spending. That is definitely positive. However, the measures taken, unlike the Grand Bargain hoped for, fall well short of a sweeping reform. Indeed, the measures passed are to some extent temporary since hard decisions on spending cuts were put off for two months when the question of the debt ceiling will also come up. 


What happened? Once again American politicians were unable to seriously compromise. From the Republicans’ side, there was some movement on raising taxes for the wealthy. From the Democrats’ side, there was little movement on spending cuts on social programs. In other words, there was not much movement on either side. Even worse, a reliable news source published the following exchange between two “leaders” in Congress:

House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t hold back when he spotted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the White House lobby last Friday. It was only a few days before the nation would go over the fiscal cliff, no bipartisan agreement was in sight, and Reid had just publicly accused Boehner of running a "dictatorship" in the House and caring more about holding onto his gavel than striking a deal.

"Go f— yourself," Boehner sniped as he pointed his finger at Reid, according to multiple sources present.

Reid, a bit startled, replied: "What are you talking about?"

Boehner repeated: "Go f— yourself."

I have often criticized the Swiss political system for its rigidity. The Federal Council has both a geographic distribution as well as a magic formula for party distribution. Neither the geographic nor party distributions put a primacy on merit, although that is certainly one of the factors. What has amazed me is that it is not the primary factor, only one among others. Yet the strength of the system is that it seems to favor compromise, often called consensus. The geographic and party distributions encourage cooperation, working with the Other.

The American system has become polarized. Politicians sign pledges never to vote for raising taxes as if it was written in stone as an absolute. Politics as the art of the possible has taken second place behind ideology. There seems to be little room for cooperation in the general interest. The common good has taken a back seat to one dimensional positions.

On a more international note of the same phenomenon, the Universal Peer Review (UPR) process has been one of the real successes of the Human Rights Council. States prepare documents on their human rights record and present them to the Council which makes recommendations based on the documents and other sources. For the first time, a State has announced that it will not participate in the review. Israel has not handed in its country report, nor did it attend its UPR pre-session. On January 14 a decision will be made by the Council on how to proceed. Whatever decision is taken, Israel has refused to participate, cooperate or compromise. The very basis of the UPR has been called into question.

The art of the possible seems to be a disappearing art. Here’s hoping that 2013 will see a reversal of this trend.


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