Two recent tragic events highlight the error in jumping to conclusions until all the facts are well known. The shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida appeared to be a simple case where a white vigilante shot and killed a black youth prowling an upscale neighborhood. Even President Obama declared that if he had had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon. In the second case, Mohammad Merah, dubbed an Al Qaeda fanatic, murdered seven people including 4 Jews in Toulouse and was finally gunned down after a 32 hour siege with hundreds of police. President Sarkozy condemned the killer promising to pass stricter laws against terrorists and religious fanatics. Both President Obama and President Sarkozy, it should be noted, are in the midst of election campaigns.
The Swiss recently voted to reject 6 weeks of vacation. One of the arguments for the referendum was increased stress in the workplace. We are becoming more and more conscious of the relationship between our emotional state and our decision-making capacities. A famous example of the effects of stress happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Late into the night during a Cabinet meeting, President Kennedy asked what the United States should do. The answers from around the table were overwhelmingly in favor of bombing Cuba, which could have started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy finally turned to his brother, Bobby, who suggested that they all go to bed and reflect. The next morning when the President took another round of opinion, everyone favored an embargo. The lesson is that fatigue and stress can change our perceptions and decisions.
The recent Swiss vote on secondary homes was an excellent example of people voting for regional interests. The city cantons voted to limit "cold beds," the mountain, tourist regions voted overwhelmingly not to impose quotas. The maps showing the results were clearly divided. In a federal system, it is often difficult to balance specific geographic or linguistic interests with the national interest; the tensions are inherent. The losers in Valais are screaming against imposition from Bern, just as the states' rights people in the United States are adamant about any impositions from Washington.
Kofi Annan has recently been in Syria. The former United Nations Secretary General's mandate from the UN and the Arab League is to reduce the violence if not convince President Assad to relinquish power. A ceasefire and/or allowing humanitarian relief to the stricken were also on the agenda. Having seen other attempts at mediation fail, the international community called upon Mr. Annan to try to convince the Syrian leaders to radically alter their behavior.
One man alone, with enormous prestige including a Nobel Peace Prize, went to Damascus to dialogue with the Syrian authorities and their stubborn leader. Other presidents in the region when confronted with similar outbreaks chose to step down from power. Mouammar Kadhafi was killed, Hosni Mubarak is in prison. For the moment, President Assad has not budged. On the contrary, he seems more determined than ever to crush the opposition even while the negotiations are going on.
We will never know what exactly transpired between Mr. Annan and the Syrian authorities. Mr. Annan said he was "cautiously optimistic" after the two meetings during which he presented "concrete proposals". We do not know the historic relations between the two men, nor the exact nature of the types of proposals Mr. Annan was allowed to present. After all, he was sent with a mandate from two international organizations and was not negotiating only on his behalf. His wriggle room was most circumscribed. We can only try to imagine what was said.
Did Kofi Annan threaten air attacks? Did he say that the international community would arm the rebels? Did he promise clemency with exile in another country? Did he say that if the violence subsided the current regime could stay in power?
Much of the historic training in negotiation simulation has been based on Western rationality. If I do this, then he will do that. Computer programs are even available to walk negotiators through different scenarios, just as there are machines to play chess. However, and this is not irrelevant, negotiations take place between human beings. For the moment, there are no formulas for emotions. Even economists, who had thought that all transactions could be quantified, are beginning to realize the importance of psychology.
Mr. Annan has enormous experience in negotiating across the globe with very different personalities. How will he try to convince the Syrians to stop the atrocities? They have their own logic, their particular rationality. Not only do we wish Mr. Annan success, but I would love to have the transcript of what was said. Peacemaking dialogue is truly the pinnacle of cross-cultural communication.
Russians elect a president; French presidential campaign in full swing; Republican primaries peak on Super Tuesday March 6. Even Geneva is getting into the act replacing Conseil d'Etat Mark Muller. We are in the season of electoral fever.
What is so exciting about campaigns and elections? There is something dramatic, even athletic about the whole process. Pierre Maudet throws his hat in the ring! Mitt Romney tries to score a knockout on Super Tuesday! The vocabulary of a boxing match is often used to describe the ebb and flow of campaigns. Interviews are brutal, the participants battered. We watch the candidates' feints and jabs. Polling technology can measure crowd reactions to debates second by second much the way judges score boxing matches blow by blow.