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Of War and Negotiation: Lessons From The Europeans (Part 1)

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Part 2

This series of articles is extracted from a longer article titled, “Of War and Negotiation,” and originally developed from a keynote address presented at the European Mediation Conference in the City Hall of Vienna, Austria, September 28, 2007.

The place and setting could not have been more auspicious or meaningful; Vienna has been in the center of wars and treaties from the earliest days of the Roman Empire, the hosting the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna that re-stabilized Europe during the Napoleonic reign, through to the present day where it serves as the base of operations for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The architecture of the City Hall, while perhaps not exceptional by European and Vienna standards, where every block is dense with 18th and 19th Century buildings, still had a bearing that made my presence feel small but honored just to be present. Wandering through huge carved stone colonnades into massive ballrooms, one can’t help but ponder who has danced the Waltz, or was involved in hushed corner discussions concerning some political intrigue of the day. The history of books, too easily dismissed, began to take on a current relevancy. Here, thinking about the connections between war and negotiation, could not have a richer or lusher backdrop, especially in light of present day geopolitics.

And if that history were not enough, Vienna is in the heart of the European Union, the founding of which required complex negotiations across multiple cultures and in the face of difficult and sometimes tortured histories. Ironically, despite the United States’ youthful and exuberant devotion to the future and the idea of progress, and let’s face it, not a little American hubris, old Europe appears to still have a few lessons to teach the United States.

The approach to mediation practice that appears to be taking hold in Europe reflects, dignifies and furthers that history. While they may have taken a few hints early on from the work of mediators and conflict managers in the U.S., they are well on their way to developing their own unique and effective approach to mediation. It is largely a pragmatic and functional approach unencumbered by ideological belief. In the same way Europeans acknowledge the intellectual work of Sigmund Freud, whose home and office on Vienna’s Bergasse Street remains prominent, but have resisted making- over his psychodynamic theory into a quasi religion, they have taken the best of mediation practice without feeling obliged to imbue it with transformational properties.

This series of articles is, in part, inspired by and intended to pay tribute to the power and importance of the emerging European approach to conflict management and mediation practice, that is pragmatic, realistic, and relatively free of ideological trappings. In managing conflict, Europeans seem to sense that war and negotiation are never far from each other. Europeans have learned the hard way, as it would appear Americans have still yet to learn, that too many wars might have been avoided by the use of effective negotiation as a preferred first choice in managing conflict and that in effective negotiation, there is seldom the luxury of choosing those with whom you must deal.

I think that the acceptance of negotiation in general and mediation in particular, as viable modes of conflict management and as a profession, have been stunted by a misapprehension and misconstruction of negotiation. I have lumped mediation in with negotiation because a third party’s presence is mostly that of a negotiation facilitator and mediation is merely a hybrid form of negotiation. War is properly understood as a method of imposing by force or coercion (lawful or otherwise), a non-consensual outcome. Negotiative processes are, by contrast, the use of substantially consensual and deliberative means to settle disputes. Historically, negotiation and war have always been juxtaposed and there has always been an obligation, born out of the need to survive, to negotiate with enemies. Warfare may offer some useful strategies and techniques to negotiators. However, to the extent that current day practitioners present negotiation in rationalist terms that require people to be civil and reasonable to qualify, bind it up in ideological purposes of furthering relationships, or link it with spiritual growth, negotiation becomes less, not more marketable as a realistic option.

This is especially important because war has an allure that gives it an ingrained advantage over negotiation. When people are in conflict, their first choice is whether to fight or settle the matter. Fighting feels better—–it appears simple, final and right. Negotiation seems to be about a bunch of endless talk. And, as much as many rationalists believe they can convince people by logic that negotiation is to be preferred, often calmly reciting the cost-benefit analysis mantra of court versus mediation, they seem to overlook that the brain does not work that way. Logic is often the least effective way to convince anyone of anything.

In “War and Negotiation” I trace the historical record, evolutionary psychological roots, and neuro-biological responses to conflict to establish the depth of the allure of war and why it is not easily subverted. This requires re-examining the basic premise of rational decision making that under girds most conflict management practice. In point of fact, most decisions to go to war, not unlike many supposedly rational business decisions are made, not by studied and disciplined analysis, but on whim.

Finally, I suggest how some of the allure can be stripped out of war and given over to negotiation so that it might become a more viable, realistic and acceptable mode of conflict management.


This keynote address was presented at the European Mediation Conference at the invitation of Ewald Filler, Conference Chairperson, the Conference Committee, Stephan Proksch, Chair of The Business Consultation Group, and Monica Clare. I was most honored to be included and indebted to all of them for the opportunity and their warm hospitality and support.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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