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Thoughts on Mediation, Barack Obama, and Our Political Future

The emergence of Barack Obama as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and thus for the Presidency of the United States, presents us with unprecedented opportunities to influence global dispute resolution strategies and shift the prevailing paradigm of adversarial politics and diplomacy.

I believe there are four fundamental issues underlying this Presidential campaign, though they are somewhat broader in scope than what the candidates and pundits have been discussing:

1. What will the future relationship be between the United States and the rest of the world in addressing global problems, from global warming and environmental devastation to war, hunger, and disease?

2. Will it be possible for us to significantly reduce the worst forms of prejudice, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and national origin?

3. Will it be possible to shift our economic priorities from maximizing corporate profitability to universal health care, debt relief, and taking care of people?

4. Can we shift the political process away from character assassination, domination of campaign financing by the wealthy, dirty tricks, and the posturing, greed, ambition, and dishonesty that undermine its democratic purposes?

What do these issues have to do with conflict resolution? My view, [elaborated in my new book, Conflict Revolution: Mediating Evil, War, Injustice and Terrorism – How Mediators Can Help Save the Planet (Janis Publications, 2008)], is that these issues reveal an underlying source of chronic conflict that not only impacts each of us as individuals, but is perpetuated by social, economic and political systems that form the invisible backdrop, context, and environment within which all of our conflicts take place.

The Meta-Sources of Chronic Conflict

Over the broad sweep of history, we can identify three over-arching “meta-sources” of chronic conflict. These, in my view, are social inequality, economic inequity, and political autocracy. To these we can add a fourth, which is the environment within which they occur, be it natural selection, organizational systems, or the political institutions that reinforce these chronic meta-sources of conflict and constrict our ability to resolve them.

These meta-sources of chronic conflict, in combination, generate a “culture” of conflict, which consists of the ways we think about, address, and resolve our conflicts. This allows us to combine the four issues outlined above, naturally giving rise to a fifth:

5. Will we be able to transform our culture of conflict from one that is destructive and adversarial to one that is creative and collaborative?

These are obviously questions of enormous importance. Why should we think that mediators could have an impact on how they are decided? As an illustration, consider a key element in the Obama campaign and one of the key questions for many voters – should the US negotiate with its enemies?

Most mediators, I think, would immediately answer, “Yes.” We understand that negotiation is based on differences; that negotiating doesn’t mean agreeing; that negotiating draws people away from violent alternatives; and that negotiation is preferable to power-based solutions such as war and terrorism. Notice, however, how use of the word “enemy” automatically builds into the question an assumption of implacable hostility and an implication that negotiation must fail. To reverse this assumption and consider not just whether, but how we should negotiate with our opponents, we need to answer a number of questions, posed nicely in an email I recently received from Jim Melamed. These include:

1. How does effective diplomacy and negotiation differ from “appeasement?”

The principal difference between constructive diplomacy, collaborative negotiation and conflict resolution on the one hand, and appeasement on the other, is that the former seek to satisfy both parties legitimate interests, i.e., those that do not refuse or deny the legitimate interests of others. What made the Munich meeting between Chamberlin and Hitler history’s classic case of appeasement were, among other elements:

  • The absence of Czechoslovakia and other allies from the bargaining table and inability to participate in deciding their fate
  • The lack of representation of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and opposition parties, including socialists and communists, in a full negotiation of the chronic, systemic sources of conflict
  • Reaching an agreement in spite of clear advance indication that Hitler had no intention whatsoever of abiding by it
  • The absence of an unbiased mediator and assignment of that task to Mussolini who was an ally of Hitler
  • Cowardice in avoiding principled, albeit unpleasant consequences by failing to reach an agreement
  • A failure to address the earlier injustice and inequity of the Versaille Treaty on Germany

To negotiate effectively, as classically described by Roger Fischer and Bill Ury in Getting to Yes, it is essential that each party understand and be fully prepared to exercise its Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA. Hitler clearly did. Chamberlin did not.

We can therefore define appeasement to include three distinct core elements:

1. Unilateral concessions, which by themselves, or in an environment that is conducive to collaboration, frequently lead to highly effective negotiations

2. Unfair and unjust outcomes that are imposed on those who are not present and have no right to participate in the process, which is easily remedied in mediation and collaborative forms of negotiation

3. Ethical and moral surrender in the face of blackmail, threats and coercion, which often flow from earlier unresolved conflicts and injustices.

2. How can America best negotiate our future?

We can best secure our future by recognizing that we are also world citizens, and part of a global environment that is facing serious threats to our survival that cannot be solved by any single nation. It simply does not matter whose end of the boat is sinking. We need to join the rest of the world’s nations, religions and cultures, and realize that it is no longer possible to go it alone.

Yet it will prove impossible to convince others to join us in solving transnational problems when we negotiate exclusively to maximize our own national self-interests, ignore the meta-sources of chronic conflict, and act in ways that encourage profound social, economic and political injustices to continue. We can reclaim our unique claim to world leadership by practicing what we preach; by abjuring torture and tyrannical practices, no matter what fancy new words are used to describe them; by promoting conflict resolution, social justice and democracy everywhere, starting at home; by rejecting military solutions to political problems; and by adopting the principle that we will negotiate with anyone at any time to solve common problems.

3. What does capable international diplomacy look like – what are positive examples?

Capable international diplomacy requires open and committed listening, informal problem solving, prejudice reduction, collaborative negotiation, public dialogue, mediation, arbitration, ombudsmen’s offices, conflict resolution initiatives, and a panoply of proactive, adequately-funded resources that can be brought to bear on any problem. Positive examples can be found in every successful mediation and collaborative negotiation. Ideally, peace-making should receive the lion’s share of our national budget, allowing us to train every diplomat, and international representative in the most advanced mediation skills, include mediation in every treaty, and form an international corps of conflict resolvers, capable of building conflict resolution capacity globally, including in the US.

Right now, we have only a few non-governmental organizations like Mediators Beyond Borders, which is a small under-funded organization of volunteer mediators working internationally and in the US in an attempt to do as private citizens what ought to be done by public representatives.

As mediators, we need to recognize that we also are global citizens, and responsible by virtue of our knowledge and experience for helping to save the planet. We need to weigh in on the important issues of the day that directly touch on our expertise, including not just who we negotiate with, but how we negotiate and why. Without it, Obama and the perspective he represents may succumb to those who think patriotism requires war and the slaughter of innocents. The time to speak up is now.

In the end, Mary Parker Follett, writing in the 1920’s, said it best:

“We have thought of peace as passive and war as the active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest cure compared to the task of reconciling our differences … From War to Peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence; it is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life … The world will be regenerated by the people who rise above these passive ways and heroically seek, by whatever hardship, by whatever toil, the methods by which people can agree.”


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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