What’s So Special About Negotiating? (16/07/2015)

For those of you not lolling on the beach or disconnected from current events - in which case you are probably not reading blogs as well - the past week’s news has focused on Greece and Iran. In Brussels, frantic meetings between finance ministers and heads of state tried to stave off a Greek financial collapse and exit from the Eurozone. In Vienna, diplomats patiently tried and succeeded to finalize a deal to oversee Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions. Both situations involved high level officials – no members of civil society were present and journalists were kept far from the actual discussions – but both involved a basic human activity, negotiation.

The term negotiation has come to be associated with formal proceedings. Young diplomats follow courses in how to negotiate as a basic skill in preparation for their careers. Harvard University Law School has a Program on Negotiation (PON) which “serves as an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to developing the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution in a range of public and private settings.” The classic text of the program, “Getting to Yes,” by William Ury and Roger Fisher, has been translated into 18 languages and has sold over 1 million copies in its various editions. It is advertised as offering “a concise strategy for coming to mutually acceptable agreements in every sort of conflict.” Extremely sophisticated simulations have been developed to anticipate different bargaining positions in a wide variety of situations, much like different gambits in games of chess.
Negotiation, in other words, has become an academic/diplomatic field of specialization. Why is this so? Or, rather, why has negotiation become only associated with high level processes? In fact, we as individuals are always negotiating with family, friends and colleagues. We even negotiate with pet animals when we offer them rewards or punishments to change their behavior.
How is a diplomatic negotiation different from these personal negotiations? First, diplomats sitting at a negotiating table are not independent. Whatever margin of maneuver they have depends on other people. Even presidents or prime ministers realize that whatever they may agree to at the table must be ratified by others, including their negotiating partners such as other member states of the European Union. President Obama must have the approval of Congress to conclude any deal with Iran. The Prime Minister of Greece must convince his Parliament before he signs any deal. In this sense, formal negotiations are truly formal, and lack the spontaneous give and take of personal relationships.
Second, obviously, official negotiations have implications far beyond those sitting at the table. A decision by a government official, even if it needs ratification, has implications beyond the official. The official is negotiating for others as a function of a public position, a reasonable excuse for the Prime Minister of Greece to have changed his position on the austerity package.
The most important point about negotiation, however, is that it involves more than one person. One cannot negotiate with oneself, except perhaps by extreme schizophrenics. Negotiations are a give and take, an action and a reaction to someone else. Even if the parties are in an asymmetric power relationship, such as the Greek Government with the IMF, EU and European Central Bank, there is still and back and forth at the table. After all, the Greeks could have rejected the last proposal and pulled out of the Eurozone. (A similar power asymmetry could have been observed in the “negotiations” between Swiss banks and the United States Treasury Department.)
This is the reason why the term negotiating has been limited to formal proceedings. Fewer and fewer people negotiate. In diplomatic terms, we hear more and more unilateral declarations such as: “This is what I want and I will not change.” Traditional negotiations have scenarios; if you ask for this then I will ask for that. Traditional negotiations have fall back positions; if this doesn’t work then I will try that. In a world of unilateralism, there are no scenarios or fall back positions. People and groups merely state what they want. Unilateralists may not even come to the negotiating table. What’s the point? I know what I want and I will try all means possible to get what I want, but I will not bargain.
The Swiss consensus is a manifestation of a negotiating culture. The Magic Formula, sharing the seven Federal Council executive cabinet seats among the four main political parties according to their electoral support, has crystallized this concept. A country with three official languages and four national languages has a rich tradition of negotiating. The American political system - two major political parties with winner-take-all in the executive election - is very different.
Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard was asked in Geneva after a presentation of his book on soft power for a precise definition of soft power. He replied; “It is what a parent uses with their adolescent child.” We all know how to negotiate, some better than others. The only question is whether or not we are willing to negotiate, whether or not we have the patience to listen to the demands of others and to change our position.
Last week’s negotiations in Brussels and Vienna made all the headlines. They should remind us of how fundamental negotiations are to all societal activity. But then again, if you are gamboling on a beach trying to “negotiate” waves, that is truly another definition of negotiation. Enjoy. 

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