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The Geo-political Factor In Negotiation

Chances are, after you wake-up, read the front page of the paper or listen to news about the latest international development or event, you move on without too much thought to negotiate the rest of your day. While important, there is a basic disconnect between those larger events and the nits and grits of your immediate work—-the stuff that pays the bills. What relevance could the issuance of an ultimatum against terrorists by the President of the United States possibly have on negotiations in a personal injury case in Seattle, let alone a divorce matter in Kansas? When there was the announcement that the United States would not comply with the previously concluded Kyoto Protocols on environmental quality or the declaration that there would be a unilateral withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty because it was outdated, why would there be any reason to believe that would give the slightest pause to ongoing negotiations in an environmental or community dispute?

Consider the prospect that people in their daily negotiations take their cues from how they see conflict managed on the national and international stages.

The negotiation strategies and techniques they see practiced by so called master negotiators in the management of issues and conflicts throughout the world seep into the thinking and approach of negotiators and mediators everywhere. Especially with near instantaneous communication, the geo-political twists and turns of the rest of the world have a real and palpable effect on daily negotiations in every conflict context. The style of negotiation in the Middle East can set the tone and color how people think about negotiating a community dispute half a world away. The report of an ultimatum, delivered albeit justifiably, to challenge an ‘evildoer’ on the international stage, becomes a no less valid strategic approach in the backwater theaters of a family or business conflict. The people involved in the local matter are generally as convinced of the malevolent intentions of their antagonists as President Bush is of Osama Bin Laden.

Likewise, unilaterally abrogating an international treaty sends a message about trust and commitment that is heard well beyond the confines of the particular circumstances. If negotiated agreements are viewed to be arrangements that can be broken on whim and with impunity when they no longer suit the purposes of one or another of the parties, then all agreements are similarly at risk of being disregarded.

Negotiation requires a minimum of trust. If the atmosphere is contaminated by a high particle count of cynicism, negotiation can be choked off.

There is resistance to negotiation under the best of circumstances—most people are not disposed to negotiate culturally, morally and personally. Some consider negotiating either inappropriate or unnecessary because their cause is right and just. For others, negotiation is considered strategically unwise—a sign of weakness and the willingness to give-in and compromise. Poorly managed geo-political negotiations can intensify that resistance. Seeing negotiations fail creates a climate of belief that negotiation is useless to manage complex conflicts with difficult people. While negotiations can often breakdown for reasons beyond the control of the participants— timing, politics, or other chaotic events— often impasse is a function of negotiator ineptitude. A steady diet of lousy negotiation breeds a cynicism that spreads like a viral infection and contaminates negotiations everywhere and in every context.

In international affairs, the prevalent negotiation strategy of many leaders appears to be largely comprised of posturing and ultimatums. The antagonist de jour is simplistically cast and dismissed as minimally, untrustworthy, and at worst, a terrorist, fanatic, evildoer, or all of the above. The rhetoric justifies and serves to lock-out the prospect of negotiation. The sediment of that entrenched stance seeps into the local cultural stream and becomes visible in ‘zero tolerance’ policies applied in the workplace, schools, and other settings. Observing how ‘thugs’ are dealt with on the international scene relieves us of the burden to understand the complexity of the conflict. It becomes just that much easier to view our counterparts in business or family negotiations as similarly sinister, and accordingly, to use the same kinds of simplistic negotiation strategies.

After the end of the ‘Cold War’ and prior to September 11th and the current Middle Eastern crisis, we lived in the ‘Age of Negotiation.’ It is not clear that world view will continue.

Historians often decipher a characteristic world view or outlook (“Weltenschaung”), that describes certain eras. Immediately after World War Two, the ‘Nuclear Age’ and the ‘Cold War’ reflected the fear and threat of a nuclear holocaust, and the risks of a simplistic polarized view of the world that separated us and them—the Capitalists and the Communists. That view, however, also gave rise to an increased awareness of the smallness of the planet, and, perhaps more than at any other time in history, a concerted effort to find methods other than war for resolving conflict. The last quarter of the Twentieth Century might eventually come to be known as the ‘Age of Negotiation.” Not just in the United States, but in countries throughout the world, attention has been given to consensus building and dispute management processes of every variety. In the private market, a fledgling conflict management profession has emerged. In many states and countries enabling legislation has been adopted that begins to institutionalize, for better or worse, alternative dispute resolution methods in every context, from civil and domestic matters to some criminal situations. As well, conflict management has become a distinct field of study and is increasingly part of the curriculum in many primary, secondary, undergraduate, graduate and law schools, with degree and certificate programs proliferating. Seldom in history has there been as conscious and concerted world wide focus and effort to bring conflict management to the center stage.

However, with the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the worldview that conflict can be constructively negotiated was deeply shaken. Whether it is to continue or to dissipate into just another historical era to be recorded is yet to be seen. In the first hours afterward, those events seared into our collective consciousness the awareness of the futility of conflict and at least momentarily, appeared to encourage a higher awareness of the need for more sensible conflict management approaches, not just in the world but in our daily lives as well. There was even a reported cessation of gang warfare and other criminal acts. All to soon, however, that civility was lost, as a New Yorker Magazine cartoon aptly reflected with the copy line: “Thank God I can get back to firing people without guilt.” Moreover, in what seems to be a backlash, the very idea of negotiation as a viable means of conflict management came under attack. Political realists counsel a retreat from trusting anything other than military force as a means of quelling conflict and protecting our way of life. Those with a fundamentalist strain assert the power of our God over their God. The idea of negotiation is on the tongues of very few leaders; it is impolitic to challenge the war mode and those who do are branded as naïve dupes at best or traitors, at worst.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East conflict, where any remnant of faith in a negotiated settlement is being shredded by the hour. With every Palestinian human bomb detonated and Israeli savage response, most people in the conflict management field recoil in a, metaphoric but real, collective cringe. In the past a mediator might have remarked to clients facing a difficult issue: “If the Palestinians and Israelis’ or the Irish Nationalists and British can negotiate their differences, so can you—-this is not about being friends, it’s about taking care of business.” Now, at least half of that line of encouragement is in serious jeopardy.

For many, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is proof of the dubious value of negotiation as an effective mode of conflict management. That carries over to every other conflict as well—“lines must be drawn in the sand.’

Amos Elon, a noted Israeli commentator, cut to the heart of the matter, dissecting the dismal negotiations in an article in the New York Review of Books (May 23, 2002). He observed that Arafat may not have ordered this most recent intifada, but he certainly “jumped on the bandwagon,” confirming his lack of good faith with a call for “a thousand shahids (martyrs)” to die for the cause. As for Sharon, “(he) firmly believed he was capable of handling the new intifada with bullets and beatings, without negotiating about the conditions that caused it. ….(H)e continues to believe that where force and coercion don’t work, more force and coercion in the end will.” He concludes, as many other onlookers, “…that it is hard to see any other prospect but more bloodshed.”

There is a time and place for military action—-the need to go to war or “play hardball”—occurs in all dispute contexts, be it international, business or family matters. There is no avoiding that reality. There has always been a dynamic tension between choosing negotiation or warfare. As Sun-Tzu suggested centuries ago, “If you want peace, study war.” But it is regrettable that those leaders who are playing in the sandbox of international geo-political affairs do not act as if they have even a rudimentary understanding of the most basic negotiation strategies. Worse still, none seems aware of the far reaching effects of that conflict spinning out of control. The press statements of Sharon and Arafat, all calculated to incite, with President Bush mumbling on the sidelines, and abandoning any credibility as an honest broker of anything, have become flat-out repetitious and boring. One can only be left to hope against hope that more intelligent negotiation strategy is on the drawing board behind the scenes. But there is little sign or reason for confidence.

There are constructive aspects—if you have a dark sense of humor. After the blood letting has run it’s course, then there is likely to be a negotiated settlement; every conflict is eventually negotiated, it is just a question of when. At some point, as countless times before in history, people will realize that ultimatums do little except to steel the resolve of the party threatened. Similarly, while it is relatively easy to fight identified ‘terrorists’, it is a wholly different proposition to expect military action to be effective against terrorism. Fueled by a whole constellation of socio-political, economic, and cultural factors that have bred deep-seated hatreds and resentments over the years among both sides, this intractable conflict can not be settled with more tanks.

Negotiators and mediators should be mindful of the geo-political factor in their daily work. Some care needs to be taken to assure neither they nor the people with whom they work are sucked into the nihilistic vortex of no-negotiation.

Those who work in the sandbox of the more mundane, day-to-day family and business disputes, need to be aware that watching a newscast the night before we and our clients are set to negotiate, are susceptible to the affective disorder cast by the shadows of the current geo-political climate.

Our strategy may need to be adjusted accordingly, given that there are few positive role models for well managed negotiations available. To overcome the resistance to negotiation and ebbing trust, the negotiator will need to distinguish what is going on in this negotiation from others they have seen ravaged. The line of approach might be, “Look how crazy those folks are and that mess is—-your situation does not have to be like that—you have a choice.”


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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