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Of War and Negotiation: Part 3, The Allure of War: If You Want Peace, Study War

Links to the entire series

Part 1, Lessons From The Europeans

Part 2, The Passion Play—Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Fighting, often including war—or flight, the avoidance of conflict, are the biological and emotional responses of animals and humans to a perceived threat or attack. Neuro transmitters fired in the brain correspond with feelings of fear or anger. This first response is triggered by the hot blood of righteousness, the desire for revenge for a perceived injustice, or to protect ourselves to assure survival in a hostile world. While fighting is sometimes a calculated pre-emptive strategy, conveyed in bits of conventional wisdom such as, “a good offense is the best defense,” neuro-scientific studies strongly suggest that animals and humans are hard-wired to fight and there is a biological basis for the allure of war.

By contrast, there is no corresponding neuro-biological inclination to negotiate. While there is clearly well established evolutionary psychological basis for humans to engage in cooperative behavior for their common security, those acts still require more deliberative brain work. In short, humans must consciously and intentionally will themselves to negotiate, or at the very least, be forced to do so by circumstances. For humans and animals, negotiation rituals have evolved to moderate the fight or flight instinct. As Franz de Waal has established, almost every species engages in some rudimentary form of negotiation behavior to minimize risk and allow for safer engagement within and outside their groups. (de Waal, Franz, and Aureli, Fillippo, eds, Natural Conflict Resolution, University of California Press, 2000) Likewise, humans negotiate to protect themselves from themselves and to exercise some self restraint.

For humans, however, the practice of negotiation remains uneven. Circumstances such as an individuals’ neuro-chemical make-up, cultural expectations and other factors make some people or groups more disposed than others to negotiate. In addition, negotiation has historically, seldom been the first preference of nations to settle conflicts. Thus, while negotiation may come more easily to some people or cultures than others, it is not a natural or instinctual act.

The primary attraction of war, or lashing out at someone who offends, whether that is by means of litigation, verbal insult, or even heated argument, is the pursuit of the simple, obvious, and final solution to a problem or a threat. The knockout punch, as it were. It is a gut level action, more often than not, done on whim without much forethought or concern for consequence. Negotiation, on the other hand, entails a more thoughtful and conscious choice and requires, at least when done well, reflection, strategy, disciplined technique and practiced skill. The suggestion of negotiation is generally contrasted with litigation or other more aggressive and confrontational action. This has given rise to a false dichotomy to be drawn between war and negotiation. The fight is about standing for principles and is visceral and emotional, while negotiation is about tempered and reasoned compromise. Fighters are heroic and noble, negotiators are often thought to be appeasers, if not worse, sellouts.

Literature, history, philosophy and folklore have buttressed this polarized view. Negotiation is the mainstay of the pragmatist philosophies of Hume and James, and reinforced by basic economic theory and a capitalistic, free market system that presumes a rational man acting out of self-interest, will dispassionately calculate the costs and benefits of his or her actions, seeking to maximize benefits and reduce risk.

Negotiation is often associated with peacemaking. It is theologically underpinned by many religious teachings that purport to espouse moral principles, such as, the value of human life and the importance of peaceful co-existence and cooperation. For some who approach negotiation from a moralist perspective, there is a belief that war can be avoided by prayer and appeals for peace. Those noble entreaties are laudatory but seldom enough, at least alone, to counter the strength of instinctual allure of war. Even the power and moral authority of non-violence practiced by M.Ghandi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were laced with keen strategic political calculations.

War and negotiation, far from being dichotomous and an either/or proposition, may be complementary approaches to conflict management. Throughout history, up to and including the present, hawks advocating war have been at odds with the doves who advocate negotiation and settlement. The allure of war has always been difficult to resist and the resistance to negotiation has always been considerable. The choice has been framed between listening to the devil on one shoulder encouraging the strong temptation to fight against the angel on the other shoulder pressing for reason and restraint.

But the dichotomy drawn between war and negotiation is a false one that must be pierced. The best fighters do so with a carefully devised strategy and practiced discipline to focus their passion, and the best negotiators appreciate the necessity of bringing passion and emotion to bear if they are to be effective in their deliberations.

Despite the profound need for negotiation as a means to settle conflict, their remains an underwhelming demand for those services and relatively few people prepared to offer them effectively. There are two parts: leaving for a later discussion the examination of the psychological, cultural and moral resistance to negotiation that continues to be prevalent in our culture, the first task is to more completely consider the foundations and strength of the allure of war. Too many people seem to facilely think that given the opportunity, most people or countries will opt for the seemingly logical and reasoned alternative of talking and negotiating a settlement rather than fighting.

The conflicts in present world, however, compel acceptance of the reality that fighting and war, while perhaps anachronistic and downright stupid, still remain common, if not preferred. Yet, insufficient attention has been given to understanding the energy of the allure of war might, how it might be countered and even turned and used to advantage by those who would encourage negotiation. This entails examining the history and economics of warfare, considering why some people seek out risk and live to ‘win,’ the affective neuroscience that challenges the myth of the ‘cool headed reasoner,’ and the evolutionary psychology of the human need for revenge and forgiveness, among other topics. The allure of war is neither inevitable nor immutable. In fact, recent neuro scientific study suggests that the human brain has a considerable degree of plasticity and that learning, memory, and skill acquisition can be effected. With conscious intentionality and disciplined exercise, even the long standing instinctual fight or flight responses might be over-ridden by a concerted effort to advance negotiation as an effective and viable mode of conflict management. Curiously, the effort has been given attention in fits and starts over the centuries, as long 2500 years ago.

If you want peace, study war…

Sun Tzu, reputed to be a great Chinese general from the Fifth Century B.C., in gathered writings called The Art of War, was one of the first to recognize the value of military strategy and preparation as a means of reducing the risk of war—-the deterrent effect. (Griffith, Samuel B., Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Oxford Univ Press, 1963.)

Despite humans presumed ability to rationally understand the destructive consequences of war, they do not always act rationally. People appear to have an infinite capacity to deny or delude themselves about how dirty and ugly war can be. Sun Tzu’s writings clearly suggest, as have been many military people since, that he was realist about the limits of warfare and the price of victory. Similarly, in the current day, setting aside the propriety of the present War in Iraq, Colin Powell, a former General and most recently the U.S. Secretary of State, and General David Petraeus, the present military Commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, share that realism.

. As well, Sun Tzu recognized that despite their different purposes: the prosecution of a war being to dominate your adversary by force, whereas in negotiation, the intention is to engage and finesse the other party toward a workable agreement and management of the conflict, both share many of the same strategies, techniques, and skills. That overlap offers intriguing opportunities for understanding how negotiation might be done more effectively and wars fought more sparingly. In fact, General Petraeus has gone so far as to formalize and employ the use of negotiative and mediative strategies and techniques that might well have been lifted wholesale from a training manual, and incorporated them in the text he wrote, The U.S.Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. (Univ of Chicago Press, 2007.)

Setting aside, for the moment, the political and policy considerations of the Iraq War, military tacticians, like Petraeus are moving toward the use of negotiative techniques to build alliances and consensus with and among former adversaries, effectively developing ‘weapons that don’t shoot,” as they are termed. Obversely, negotiators and mediators would do well to incorporate time tested warfare strategies in their pursuit of workable settlements. (Petraeus, D., 2007) The elements of surprise, constructive deception, speed, and the assessment of the ‘geometry’ of the conflict terrain, are examples of tactics that are as useful to the ‘guerrilla’ negotiator as they are to the army commando. Both must be able to survive by his or her wits in the middle of a confused and chaotic circumstance and feels as though one is behind enemy lines without air or artillery support. (see “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Tricksters, Mediators and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” Benjamin, R.D., in Bringing Peace Into The Room, eds. Bowling and Hoffman, Jossey-Bass, Publishers, 2004; and, “Guerrilla Negotiation: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict,” Benjamin, R.D.,, 1999)

For the choice of negotiation to better compete, and potentially overcome the allure of war, it must co-opt some of the latters visceral energy. Both in practice and in marketing, negotiation must lose the taint of being little more than endless dialogue that works only when people are reasonable and cooperative, and be presented as a potent, effective, efficient, expeditious and realistic mode of conflict management.

Next: Of War and Negotiation Part 4, From the Peloponnesian War to the War in Iraq: Why Hawks Win.

April 8, 2008


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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