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Should We Negotiate with Terrorists?

While it may seem that those of us in the field of conflict resolution have had little to say since September 11, 2001, professional negotiators have not been silent on the subject of terrorism. Roger Fisher addressed this very question in the second edition of Getting To Yes, and in January of 1992, the Negotiation Journal published a special issue called Reflections on the War in the Persian Gulf. The insights found in these publications are just as valid in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack as they were for the terrorism of the 1980s and early 90s.

In answer to the question, should we negotiate with terrorists, Roger Fisher replies with a resounding yes, because the better our communication, the better our chances of exerting influence. But doesn’t negotiating with someone whose behavior you abhor grant them legitimacy that they didn’t have before, and therefore reward criminal activity? Won’t this encourage further bad behavior because it means we have given into pressure? According to Fisher, it may confer a little legitimacy, but this effect can be minimized by involving relatively low level or non-governmental personnel in the initial talks. The effect could actually be eliminated if we had a policy of negotiating with anyone. With such a policy, no one could attain special status just because negotiations were opened.

What is much more certain and important is that a refusal to negotiate indicates rejection of the other side, and rejection creates serious physical and psychological obstacles to problem solving, because it prevents clear communication from taking place, and it guarantees defensiveness and resistance to change. We simply need to make it clear that a decision to negotiate does not mean acceptance of the other side’s behavior. We can in fact love our enemies and hate what they do, but to prove it we need to act in loving ways by accepting their humanity enough to negotiate for mutual gains. Each side need get no more than that to which they are entitled. And we need to remember that regardless of how we respond, there are no guaranteed results, except that forced agreements are always very unstable.

We need not accept their values or their conduct. What we do accept is the humanity underneath as deserving of due process with the realization that we could be at least partially wrong in our perceptions and conclusions (because of stereotyping, attribution bias, projection, misinformation, inadequate data, etc.). According to Fisher and Brown in their 1988 book Getting Together, we should consider all others as equals, that is “equally human, equally caught up in the situation, equally entitled to have rights, and equally entitled to have any interests and views taken into account” (Fisher & Brown, p. 160). In reality, that is a fairly minimal level of acceptance. But shouldn’t the enemy have to give something for this kind of acceptance? No, bargaining over acceptance is like bargaining over apology: acceptance is only effective when freely given, not when it’s withheld. It is coercive to use acceptance as a bargaining chip; it creates distrust and it helps further entrench a defensive, adversarial relationship.

What did we do right in the Gulf War according to Fisher? We strengthened our BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and weakened Iraq’s BATNA by moving our military into Saudi Arabia. We also increased our negotiating power by building an international coalition. Where did we fail? Fisher said: “We failed to maintain effective communication with Iraq, the very actor we were trying to influence. We did not try to understand Iraq’s interests and perceptions. We did not accept the government of Iraq as the one with which to deal. We failed to explore fully options other than war. And, while holding aloft the mantle of the United Nations, we coerced it in ways that undercut its legitimacy and effectiveness” (Negotiation Journal, 8(1), p.17). The same could be said for our current refusal to negotiate with the Taliban government of Afghanistan. There are most always opportunities to negotiate with governments who harbor criminals, and to squander those opportunities, as we have done with Afghanistan, sets a very poor precedent.

One person’s “terrorist” is another person’s “freedom fighter.” Different perceptions and world views abound throughout the history of our small planet, and just as it is impossible to win a marriage, it is impossible to win peace and justice. Neither can be achieved in a competitive battle, and despite our “toughness” neither have been achieved in the Persian Gulf. Because we need to obtain and preserve both peace and justice, we owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to do the hard work of integrative negotiation whenever we possibly can. Getting past the posturing and rhetoric and involving all stakeholders requires skill and patience, so a respected mediator with knowledge of both Western and Islamic culture is probably essential. As a last resort, if power moves must be made (whether to raise consciousness, deliver punishment, or demonstrate our resolve), the goal should always be getting the other side to the negotiating table, not killing or beating them into submission.


Cris Currie

Cris M. Currie has been a mediator and conflict management trainer since 1987.  He holds a Master of Arts degree in conflict resolution from Antioch University.  He co-designed the Certificate in Conflict Management program at Eastern Washington University and teaches courses in conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation.  He is a… MORE >

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