Negotiations Lite

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, the Middle East—things don’t seem to be turning out as expected. The reason lies in slipshod, quick-fix negotiations aimed at getting an agreement, almost any agreement, and working out the details later. Achieved this way, today’s diplomatic success becomes tomorrow’s dangerous mess.

Take the heralded Dayton Accords, negotiated over the course of a few weeks in late 1995 by Richard Holbrooke (now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Al Gore’s favored candidate for secretary of state). The outcome created two real but internationally unrecognized states—a Muslim-Croatian "confederation" and a Bosnian "Serb republic"—supposedly under an unreal but internationally recognized federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Are you following this? A U.S.-led NATO force has been on occupation duty in Bosnia since 1995 with no sense of this diplomatic concoction but with the certainty that an American pullout would restart the war.

The "Good Friday agreement" on Northern Ireland was negotiated in 1998 by former senator George Mitchell (a leading candidate to become Gore’s vice-presidential choice) to universal acclaim. The text is a utopian vision of the new diplomatic topic of "consociationalism"; that is, everyone gets to take part in everything with everyone else. All parties are indulged in their dreamiest aspirations: there are north-south structures to encourage those who want Ulster united with Ireland and east-west measures for those who want it forever tied to Britain. All this is washed over with a new creation–common citizenship in the worldwide Irish diaspora, available to every son and daughter of the Ould Sod wherever they may be. Embedded in this confection, however, is a potentially fatal seed: the Irish Republican Army’s ability to keep its arsenal of weaponry despite repeated assurances to the contrary.

On May 6, the IRA issued a statement offering to put its weapons "verifiably and completely beyond use." This statement, hailed as a "breakthrough," in fact turned the Good Friday agreement upside down. Instead of decommissioning all its weapons by May 2000, the IRA now refuses even to start the process until the agreement is carried out in full by all the other parties, a process that could take years. And, by clever drafting, the IRA no longer is required to put all its arms beyond use. As a sop, meanwhile, the IRA now offers—Saddam Hussein–style—to let observers look at a few of its arms dumps. With this move the IRA may have dealt the flabby Good Friday agreement a deadly blow.

American armed forces are now deployed on the ground in Kosovo to carry out diplomatically agreed-on terms as impossible as those that govern our commitment to Bosnia. Negotiations conducted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at Rambouillet, France, in early 1999 featured a threat to bomb Serbia unless the Milosevic regime agreed to NATO’s occupation of Kosovo to protect Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. Milosevic refused, NATO bombed, and ethnic cleansing took place anyway. After 78 days and 35,000 sorties, NATO and Milosevic agreed to a "peace plan" significantly weaker than the original deal at Rambouillet. As a result, NATO forces are in Kosovo under a commitment to ensure that it remains under Serbian sovereignty, the original American demand for a referendum on independence for Kosovo having been dropped. This "Rambouillet Minus" agreement guarantees its own unworkability.

These accords of the 1990s might well have been designed by Rube Goldberg. The Reagan-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, exhaustively negotiated, with the most extensive, verifiable provisions ever, stands as a stark contrast and a rebuke. A theoretical source for current negotiating style may lie in the Harvard Negotiations Project directed by Roger Fisher, author of Getting to Yes. Under this approach the negotiator must strive to understand and address the emotional needs of the other party, no matter what his character and record may indicate; flexibility is all.


The international peace accords of the last decade might well have been designed by Rube Goldberg.


But what happens when only one party—the American side, of course—takes such a sensitive approach? The 1990s negotiations of former president Jimmy Carter offer a demonstration. Within the single year of 1994, Carter responded to the "needs" of three of the decade’s most odious dictators. Carter’s intervention enabled North Korea’s Kim Il Sung to start extorting food, fuel, and sanctions relief from the United States in exchange for promises of good behavior regarding his nuclear weapons program. With U.S. forces about to invade Haiti, Carter saved the skin of General Raul Cedras, providing him with a secure retirement. Carter’s apparent success in gaining Haiti’s agreement to a "permissive environment" for U.S. troops was soon belied as American forces had to engage in a bloody firefight to establish their authority. And in December 1994 it was Carter who first provided legitimacy to indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic and his Serb republic when the former president traveled to the previously shunned "capital" of Pale to negotiate a "cease-fire" that lasted only until the snows melted.

The renewed slaughter in Sierra Leone this spring is a vivid case of softheaded diplomacy serving the interests of depraved dictators. Civil war there pitted the government against rebels led by the monstrous war criminal Foday Sankoh, who routinely ordered his followers to chop off the arms of those they did not kill—mainly women and children. Into this scene of carnage stepped Secretary of State Albright to press for a government of national reconciliation, apparently to address Foday Sankoh’s "needs" for legitimacy. This of course only gave the forces of evil time to regroup, plunder the diamond mines, and buy more weapons. Even after they resumed their horrible practices and took scores of U.N. "peacekeepers" hostage, President Clinton’s special envoy to Africa, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, was back on the scene trying to regain a role in the government for Foday Sankoh, who by then had been seized by citizens of Sierra Leone and put in the custody of British forces on the scene.

Next to watch for will be the negotiations in the Middle East. Throughout the past seven years, the Israeli-Palestinian talks have rested on the flawed Oslo Accords, which put off the toughest issues—borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem—but required Israel to hand over its main bargaining chip, land. Under this approach, Israel’s leverage would be largely lost just when it needed it most. President Clinton’s palpable desire to preside over a "comprehensive peace" encompassing both Syria-Israel and Palestine-Israel agreements will encourage all parties to squeeze the American administration to the maximum extent. The alluring vision of a triumphant Rose Garden ceremony could generate, once again, the now-familiar pattern of vague assurances, dangerous concessions, disputable provisions, unworkable complexities, and the always-popular decision to postpone the most intractable issues to "a later stage."

When I was in high school, my Aunt Elsie sent me up to the attic to set a mousetrap. I came across a tattered copy of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays, which I was later given as a reward for my mousing. Often thereafter I referred to the last lines of "Of Negotiating": "In all negotiations of difficulty, a man may not look to sow and reap at once, but must prepare business, and so ripen it by degrees." But Bacon’s essays clearly aren’t assigned in high school anymore.