Take a number: Diplomacy by the Digits


- In this Sept. 24 photo, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. The diplomatic talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program are known as the “P-five-plus-one.” (Frank Franklin II/AP)
October 3, 2013

If you’re in the business of international problem-solving these days, take a number.

Halfway around the world from the government shutdown, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were on the job Thursday, attending a day of meetings with their Japanese counterparts known in diplomatic parlance as a “two-plus-two.”

The numerical moniker is a handy shorthand for the regular diplomatic meeting, and in certain circles, it is very en vogue.

Indeed, the U.S. government has become enamored with the idea of developing a numerical shorthand for regular international meetings and diplomatic groupings. In addition to the “two-plus-two,” there are the six-party talks (intended to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program) and the “P-five-plus-one” (talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program).

Diplomacy by the numbers can denote an important or prized relationship, as with Japan and a few select allies or partners. But more often than not, the numbers add up to trouble.

The six-party talks over North Korea, for example — a grouping of the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Russia and North Korea — are currently mothballed. The long-running talks with Iran have been mostly fruitless.

All of the nicknaming can lead to some confusion.

Since North Korea is a fickle participant in the “six-party” process, those talks might be better called the five-party talks, but that would risk confusion with the talks over Iran’s nuclear program.

The “P-five-plus-one” refers to the permanent five members of the U. N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany as the sixth negotiating partner. But European countries have their own numerical nickname for the discussions: the “E-three-plus-three,” short for the three European Union nations and everybody else.

Whatever their title, the long-running talks with Iran are looking more promising recently, with new President Hassan Rouhani pledging never to build nuclear weapons and prove to the world that his country’s program is peaceful. The Iranians, for their part, seem not to be attached to any particular numbers.

“We had a very constructive initial meeting of the EU-three-plus-three, or five-plus-one, whatever you want to call it,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters last week at the U.N. General Assembly.

Talks over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the world’s most enduring crises, have been shepherded by a grouping with arguably the most perplexing diplomatic nickname: the Quartet. The grouping refers to the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. The United Nations has 192 member states and the EU has 28 members. (The 220-party talks?)

Until recently, Syria was the crisis without a number. The Obama administration recently addressed the problem: The arms-length support network aimed at helping the moderate opposition is now known as the “London 11,” for a group of key supporters.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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