The Impotence of Negotiators

Published: Aug 01 , 2014
Author: Stephen White

As I write, in Israel and Gaza the conflict continues, and two thousand miles away the aggression between those Ukrainians who want their country to face East, and those who want it to face West also continues. The collateral damage in both cases is tragic; men, women and children who have nothing to do with any political or ideological movement are killed and injured by rockets and tank shells which are aimed indiscriminately at population centers, or which shoot a commercial plane out of the sky.

There are many similarities and much dissimilarity between these two conflicts and it is not my brief this week to discuss issues such as proportionate response, or compassion, or the asymmetry of conflict, or conceptual rights and wrongs. Although believe me I have views on all of these. But one blindingly obvious observation is that in these situations negotiators are impotent and negotiating is futile. It is worth exploring the rationale of this statement and the possible responses to it.

Negotiating is a method of resolving conflict between parties who want a resolution. When the objective is not to compromise, but instead to win, the parties don’t negotiate. Nor do they respond to mediation. We don’t need to worry about the psychology which drives the determination to win; it is enough to say that it is manifest in such a large proportion of human beings that we can safely surmise that it is a fact of life which will not respond to treatment. The view that the world is somehow ‘broken’, but that it can be put back together by good deals, liberal attitudes and a touch more humanity (a view which ironically originated in and is reinforced by Judeo-Christian-Islamic thinking) is demonstrably incorrect – heal a conflict in one place and it just breaks out somewhere else.

Negotiators think they have morally higher ground; that their conflict resolution methodology is somehow better because it is less violent and more intellectual, and maybe also fairer because it enables the shades of right and wrong on all sides of the argument to be represented in a compromise. Good theory, but in the real world negotiated outcomes between parties of unequal strength are usually biased and inequitable (think the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I), so parties in conflict refuse to negotiate because they don’t want that inequity to be the outcome of their battle.

As a result weaker parties eschew the negotiating process and determine to continue the fight to win, even though the odds are stacked against them. They see short term defeat merely as a step backwards in a war which they believe they will inevitably and eventually win. And that in turn is why the stronger parties will not take the liberal line of magnanimity, for example unilaterally stopping hostility in order to enable negotiations to commence. One sided cessation is simply seen as victory by the other side.

So why do the negotiators and mediators and peacemakers like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, or US Secretary of State John Kerry, or Pope Francis, persevere? It is because they believe that their oft-repeated mantra that the parties must cease fire and come to the table has some wearing-down effect; that they influence and reflect public opinion which subsequently shifts the thinking of the warring leaders and shames them to come to the table. The evidence which apparently supports this is that eventually parties do sit down and talk. But I don’t believe that this is cause and effect. The conflicts continue until one side wins, at least to the point at which the collateral damage they are inflicting becomes such a liability that it stands a chance of strangulating their longer term ambitions.

Is there a better way? In my opinion insolubly conflictual positions, such as those of two parties both of whom claim the same piece of land, can never be resolved, so negotiators who set a long term solution as their objective are doomed to failure. A better objective might be a stable imbalance of power – the parties recognize that they haven’t eliminated the problem by ‘winning’, but because the cost of trying to win is so high the battle isn’t worth the effort. We see that this kind of uneasy peace has existed in many parts of the world, Middle East (1948 to 1967) and Ukraine (1991 to 2014) included.

In macro-conflicts negotiators are always welcome and necessary.  That they fail to force the parties to a ceasefire is not their crime. It is that they fail in the earlier negotiations allowed the fragile peace which pre-existed to be destroyed in the first place. And that may be in part because there are no headlines; there is no kudos, in successfully averting a catastrophe.

Stephen White


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