Friday, December 6, 2013

Negotiations: Sometimes, Getting to "Maybe" is a Good Outcome

Negotiation is the art of coming to agreement on an issue. There are a number of fine books on how to negotiate. One really good one is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. While it’s a great book, with a lot of practical advice, it can, in the wrong cultural context, leave the impression that getting ‘yes’ from your negotiation opponent is the only successful outcome you should be seeking.

The recent contact by the P-5 with Iran over that country’s nuclear program points out in the starkest terms the danger of such an assumption. Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 environment, and several years of George Bush’s cowboy diplomacy (shoot first, and ask their names later), too many in this country have a zero-sum view of negotiations, and are strongly opposed to the interim agreement that was forged with Iran. They want to get to yes, and the only acceptable yes is Iran caving to all demands.

Well, in the first place, it’s not going to happen. There are just too many years of distrust on both sides – too much baggage. So in this case, an interim agreement - getting to ‘maybe’; is actually not such a bad outcome. Tea Party Republicans in congress are threatening to scuttle the agreement on the grounds that it doesn’t help Israel’s security, and we can’t trust the Iranians. I have a problem processing this stance. I can’t for the life of me see how doing nothing but threatening Iran with military action (or even carrying out those threats) before trying for a peaceful settlement of the issue helps Israel or anyone else’s security, or what it has to do with trusting anyone. Frankly, the Iranians don’t have a lot of reason to trust us or the West if one is to be brutally honest.

Nine prominent Americans who served as ambassador to Israel and as undersecretaries of state disagree with our Tea Party friends. They see the interim agreement as good for Israel’s security. Former secretary of state, Colin Powell, has also lauded the interim agreement. Now, whose position do you think is more credible – a bunch of self-serving politicians looking for any excuse to bash a president they can’t seem to defeat at anything, or people who have actually served in the trenches, and know what they’re talking about?

The fact is, it’s time to give diplomacy a chance, and President Obama is to be applauded for taking this posture. We can’t continue to settle every problem with force – for one thing, we’re rapidly running out of force, and for another, as a veteran, I’m getting tired of seeing all the young men and women with missing limbs every time I go to the National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

We have to be realistic about it, though. Negotiating, especially in a diplomatic context, is not always about getting a definite ‘yes.’ Diplomacy is not a destination, it’s a journey; a never ending journey of managing relations between independent, and sometimes stubborn and mutually antagonistic states. In such a context, getting to ‘maybe’ – to the tentative agreement that we won’t fight today, we’ll talk some more – is sometimes the best you can hope for. The key objective sometimes, as former special representative on the Afghanistan issue Marc Grossman recently wrote, is to ‘help open the door.’ I would take that even further. Sometimes, the objective of negotiations is to ‘keep the door open.’ We spent years talking to the Chinese before finally establishing diplomatic relations. The same thing was true with Vietnam. Relations with neither country are what one would call rosy, but we do continue to talk, and a lot of issues that could have become full-blown crises were kept off the front pages and eventually settled. As long as we continue to talk, there’s the possibility that the others will also be settled. We can continue to hope.

In the meantime, we still have ‘maybe.’