Explain negotiations
July 15, 2015 6:54 AM   Subscribe

How do negotiations like the Iran nuclear deal work? When doors are closed, what exactly is happening?

Other examples are fine to use. I just can't get my head around all the moving parts and how it actually plays out. My simple mind can only see it through the lens of me buying a house or negotiating a raise.

Are a bunch of people arguing back and forth on why there needs to be more or less centrifuges using PowerPoint? I simply can't get my head around what exactly John Kerry is actually doing for 20 months. Is he just facilitating conversations between people. I can't help but imagine it is just a bunch of people saying "Reduce the amount of xyz by 10% or we will only buy 90% of your abc!". "No!". "Okay then we will fight you". "Ummm, we don't want to fight". "Let's break for lunch!!"

Please explain the inner workings of complex negotiations. What does a typical agenda look like? What roles are played? Are there white boards and brainstorming sessions? Help me understand.
posted by jasondigitized to Law & Government (5 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
For a book-length answer to your question, you could read To End a War by Richard Holbrooke.
American negotiator Holbrooke offers a fast-paced, first-person account of the American-led diplomatic initiative that ended the bloodshed of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in 1995. A veteran of the Vietnam peace talks, one-time ambassador to Germany and assistant secretary of state, Holbrooke guides readers through "fourteen weeks... filled with conflict, confusion, and tragedy before... success." This is a penetrating portrait of modern diplomacy--what the author describes as "something like a combination of chess and mountain climbing." Spurred on by the deaths of three colleagues on his negotiating team (their armored personnel carrier toppled over a cliff on a treacherous approach to Sarajevo), Holbrooke hammers out a cease-fire in an intensive shuttle among the three Balkan presidents, and then presides over the three-week cloistered peace conference in Dayton, Ohio. He covers the elements of crafting effective foreign policy: coordination among various agencies and personalities in Washington; dealing with European allies; ensuring that military and diplomatic efforts work in concert; negotiating with ethnic nationalist leaders; "spinning" the press; and selling the peace plan to a skeptical Congress and public. While he provides scant background into the historical roots of the Balkan conflict, Holbrooke details the various stages of the negotiating process and vividly describes the Balkan leaders: the arrogant Tudjman, the sly Milosevic and the bickering and disorganized Bosnian Muslims. Although often self-justifying, Holbrooke acknowledges several errors, such as allowing the Bosnian Serb entity to retain the "blood-soaked name" of Republika Srpska. Still, his achievement in forging peace in Bosnia is beyond question, and his account of that process is essential for understanding how American power can be brought to bear on the course of history.
posted by alms at 7:01 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

Well, it IS similar to more mundane kinds of negotiation, in some ways. It's just waaaaay more complex and with bigger stakes. And unlike buying a car, it's a long game - the involved countries will have to keep interacting in the future, so the neogotiators have to think about how today's negotiation (both outcome and process) will affect their country's future relationships with the other country.

But a lot of the same basic concepts of negotiation apply - for example, both parties will be aware of what their "BATNA" (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is, i.e. what's their best option if they can't come to an agreement. The better your BATNA is, the less incentive you have to stay at the negotiating table. They'll know their own BATNA and will have a guess as to what their opponent's is.

The negotiators will be aware of conflict analysis. They will be aware of what constraints they and their opponent are operating under. They will be aware of the various constituents on their side and on the opponent's side - for instance, the Iranian negotiators have to think about what conservatives in Iran will think of the deal, and have to think about that relationship too.

It also takes a long time because the issues are complex. Each side will be doing their own analysis of how any agreements are going to play out and what the consequences (economic, social, political, military, environmental, etc.) of various potential agreements will be. That takes time.

Plus there is a lot of back and forth as the sides go back to their various stakeholders and see what they think of a proposed plan. Plus sometimes waiting or delaying talks as a negotiating tactic, or to see how some current event will affect things. Or sometimes the talks will fall apart - one side will decide/threaten that their BATNA is better than any potential agreement, or the differences will seem too intractable, or increased violence will make some stakeholders not want to pursue an agreement anymore and the negotiators will cease talks. There are a lot of constituent groups to consider in big, complex negotiations. The negotiators will be navigating their own internal negotiations with those groups as well as the official negotiation with the other party.

Then throw in the fact that international negotiations often involve more than two parties, and multiply the complexity of the process accordingly. That slows things down.

The actual people doing the negotiation are not always hostile to each other, though they can be. They represent sides that are in a conflict, and they are each trying to "win" as much as possible, but they do have an aligned goal of coming to some kind of agreement (usually, maybe not if the negotiation is just for show and one or both sides have no intent of actually coming to an agreement).

The actual people negotiating are doing their jobs and speaking on behalf of others and (I am assuming) they must appreciate that their opposing negotiating team is also doing a difficult job and is subject to pressures and realities from the people they are representing.

Plus they are professional negotiators, and they know that being civil and decent to the people you have to work with every day to try to come to an agreement will probably be more effective than making personal enemies with them. If there was a possible agreement to be made but the negotiators scotched the deal because they got personally mad and stormed out, that would be very bad and very unprofessional.

If you want to learn more about the world of negotiation and peacebuilding and all that, the United States Institute of Peace has free online courses that are in-depth but accessible to laypeople.
posted by aka burlap at 9:14 AM on July 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

You might find the book The mind and heart of the negotiator an interesting read. It looks like there is now a pdf of an earlier edition online. I don't know how to link to it from a tablet. When I click on it, it gives me the option to download.

Part of why these things take forever is because there is a long process of establishing trust, good rapport and clear communication. There have been situations where misunderstanding caused long stalls. In one incident, two English speaking countries were negotiating and one side said they wanted to table a particular issue. They meant they wanted to discuss it. The other side took that to mean they wanted to set it aside and not discuss it. They both strongly wished to discuss it, thus both sides dug their heels in and insisted on tabling/not tabling the issue. Two countries, separated by a common tongue. It might have been more easily resolved had they not had such high confidence that they clearly understood each other, what with everyone being native English speakers.
posted by Michele in California at 9:52 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yelling, apparently.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:38 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

This article goes into decent detail about what each side gave up, why, and when. (And, yes, it mentions the use of white boards so that there was no paper trail to make it back to hard-liners in Iran, for example.)
posted by veggieboy at 8:33 AM on July 16, 2015

« Older Faster rate of mutation in bacteria problem in...   |   How are pictures and logos painted on vehicles? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.