Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Speak reasonably and don't brandish a unilateral

In a recent article, an Israeli foreign policy expert named Gidi Grinstein speaks in favor of negotiation while carrying a big stick to the bargaining table. I do not agree and I will tell you why.

Grinstein’s context is admittedly very specific, namely the Mideast. His primary contentions are that both Israel and Palestine have two problems in common. One is for different internal reasons their governments are weak and instable. Both, although he only mentions Palestine, are subject also to pressures from their internal extremists not to bargain at all, not make peace, coupled with a will to violence. Somehow, he believes these are a reason to always come to the bargaining table brandishing a willingness to resort, if bargaining busts, to doing something unilateral.

That may not necessarily be violent, but not bargained for. As an example, he cites Israel giving up its decades old control over the West Bank. Without making clear why, he says this would be a blow to the Palestine government. I suppose it would deprive them of something to complain about bitterly.

Why not do something unilateral or carry the possibility with you to the table? Imagine yourself across the table from someone with a unilateral he or she displays, such as “I might do this. I might file suit while we are in these talks.” And your reaction? I’d bet something like, “Go ahead and file your effing suit, I’m ready.” Notice that your opponent is not saying “If these talks fail I will be forced to file suit.” That is understood, and your opposite will not see this as intended to break the talks.

Therefore, the key is not whether one has a unilateral available but whether it is brandished, or kept invisible and in quiet reserve. Quiet reserve is consistent with a sincere effort to have useful talks and to create trust. Brandishing … well, that’s obvious.

Negotiation 101: In negotiating any deal you almost always have something you can do unilaterally, like stop selling to or buying from the other side, but refrain from flaunting this unless you want to end serious bargaining.