Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bully Pulpit

Another thing that occured to me while reading Getting to YES, the basic primer on negotiation, was the Bush administration's emphasis on what Fisher and Ury call positional negotiation. This is where one side locks itself into a firm position and either refuses to budge or is willing to do so only incrementally. The classic example is a buyer and seller haggling over a price, with the buyer starting low and the seller starting high. Either they meet somewhere in the middle or not at all. But the entire process essentially becomes a battle of wills.

They contrast that with principled negotiation, by which they mean not only determining one's negotiating position as a function of one's interests, but trying to understand the other party's interests in order to find creative ways to sweeten the deal for them. This could take the form of a buyer offering a lower price, but agreeing to forego delivery. Or a seller asking for a higher price, but guaranteeing the product. When interests determine bargaining positions, instead of a battle of wills, the negotiation becomes a cooperative effort to find the most mutually beneficial deal.

I think it's fairly obvious that the Bush administration's negotiating style is a pretty hard-nosed game of positional bargaining with a strong emphasis on "take-it-or-leave it" as their opening offer. And this whether they're dealing with the Kyoto Accords, Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, or Congressional Democrats. With the exception of the N. Korean settlement, the Bush administration has made it clear that they like their chances in the event that negotiations fail (what the authors call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Which is to say, they're willing to duke it out if they don't get what they want, be it in the courts or on the battlefield.

It's essentially an intimidation tactic designed to weaken the will of the folks across the table from them. And according to Fisher and Ury, both experts on negotiation and conflict resolution, it's not as efficient a negotiating method as one based on identifying interests and developing new options for advancing them. Why? Because it often results in "leaving money on the table", negotiators' jargon for mutual benefits that would have come at no cost to either party but which don't make it into the final agreement.

Now just to be clear, there are cases where I think in retrospect that the Bush administration correctly walked away from negotiations. Those with the Taliban preceding the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, where the non-negotiated outcome (had we not prematurely redeployed our resources to Iraq) would have left us in a better position than anything we might have come up with at the negotiating table. [Although it's important to remember that at the time, it appeared to many as if the administration was not paying enough attention to the Russians' Afghan adventure in its contingency planning. In other words, that it was over-estimating its BATNA.]

The Iraq War, as I said yesterday, is not one of those cases. Because while it's clear that Saddam Hussein paid a pretty high price for over-estimating his BATNA, it's equally clear that we did, too. I think the same can be said for walking away from the Kyoto Accords which, while it might not get a lot of domestic play, caused a great deal of resentment abroad. Resentment that, after a brief moment of post-9/11 solidarity, was quick to resurface during the run-up to the Iraq War. The applause that greeted Dominique de Villepin's UN Security Council speech did not occur in a historical vacuum, in other words. And that primed pump of anti-Americanism was one of the uncalculated costs of our previous positional approach.

As I also said yesterday, it looks like the Bush administration has every intention of repeating the same error in its approach to the Iranian dossier. Pre-conditions, threats and public finger-pointing are all hallmarks of rigid positional negotiations. In the case of Iran, which must feel pretty secure in its own BATNA right now, they are also ways of ensuring that no progress will be made.

I'll work up what I think an interest-based, principled negotiation framework between Iran and the US might look like tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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