Explaining Why Negotiations Fail in the Most Intractable Cases

Netanyahu and Abbas meet at the White House in September 2010 (Credits: AP)

The academic literature is full of suggestions why resolving violent conflict is difficult and why negotiations fail. Although a clear classification of the various explanations into neat categories would be almost impossible, it is helpful to look at some of the overarching themes that can fit most explanations under their umbrellas. This is especially helpful when we try to apply negotiation theory to practice, particularly when attempting to understand why some negotiation processes succeed while others fail. Why are some conflicts seemingly more intractable than others, and why do negotiations over such conflicts often fail? The conflict management and negotiation literature attribute conflict intractability and negotiation failure to a number of different variables that for the purpose of this analysis can be summarized as having to do with the process, the timing, and the nature of the issues under negotiation.

Those explanations that argue that conflict intractability can be attributed to the negotiation process itself often focus on the failure to move the adversaries from a zero-sum or distributive process to one that is more “win-win” or integrative in character. The failure to change the negotiation dynamics is said to be the consequence of various factors that have to do with the behavioral patterns of the adversaries, including entrapment, posturing, unwillingness to compromise, and the lack of credibility or trust. According to this perspective, indivisibility and intractability arise from how contentious issues are represented by the parties rather than being inherent in the issues themselves.

Explanations that look at the timing as being the major explanation for negotiation failure often stress the conflict dynamics itself as being the key for making negotiation more or less fruitful at various points in a conflict cycle. While this perspective does not discount either the behavioral aspect of the parties, or the nature of the contentious issues as contributing to intractability, it argues that negotiation will have a higher chance to succeed if it is done at the “Ripe Moment,” when the cost of continued stalemate is higher than the price that has to be paid from compromise. The timing approach combines both strategy and tactics, and is particularly useful for third parties and mediators in determining when to apply pressure on the parties in order to raise the cost of an escalation in violence.

The third approach, is the argument that the nature of issues plays an important role in explaining why some conflicts are more difficult to negotiation than others. One of the stronger findings within this research perspective is the growing evidence that territoriality may be one of the most important factors for understanding both conflict incidence and intractability. Various findings show that territorial issues are more conflictual than other types of issues, and that they tend to reach higher levels of violence. Territorial conflicts are also more likely to recur and tend to prompt more frequent crises in rivalries between states. However, territory by itself is not necessarily intractable; logically, if conflicts were simply over where to draw a border on a map, or even over the division of natural resources, even territorial conflicts would be quite simple to resolve. However, in the contemporary world, most territorial conflicts tend to be remnants of larger power struggles, where some national and ethnic groups have lost out and as a consequence suffered humiliation and exile from the territory that they consider their homeland. The most intractable conflicts in the world today—and the ones that tend to be the most long-standing—are the ones that involves disputes over territory that has taken on sacred and symbolic characteristics for the parties involved and where it is impossible to separate territorial attachments from ethnic and national identity.

In such conflicts ethno-territorial attachments are strengthened through a historic process of suffering and strife that feed into the conflict cycle to make stakes indivisible and even absolute. A territorial absolute can be defined as a disputed space that, through myths, symbols and/or spiritual practices or beliefs, has become so intrinsic to the identity of a group that it can only be treated as an indivisible “whole.”

The reasons why negotiations almost always fail to bring an agreement in such conflicts, is because the absolute character of the stake prevents the parties from exercising the flexibility needed in order to produce a formula that can provide even the minimum conditions that would be acceptable for both sides. Traditional negotiation theory that focuses on integrative solutions treats indivisibility more as a challenge than a hurdle, with the idea that divisibility can be added to most conflicts using substitution, exchange, or compensation. For territorial absolutes however, such measures are not possible, because for groups with absolute perceptions about territory often choose to defend the territory with their lives. Absolutes do not have a price that can be negotiated.

The Zone of Agreement (ZOA) between two negotiation parties falls in the intersection of the circles (©Norlen)

The second aspect that adds to the intractability of most conflicts over territorial absolutes comes from the way absolutes were created. Because they were developed over long periods of time and as a response to conflict and strife, conquest and exile, the same exact piece of territory is often regarded as absolute by competing groups. If we take the Palestinians and the Israelis as an example, the conflict is deeply tied to territoriality and both parties claim the same land exclusively, and that land is tied to their national and religious identity. Their interests are in this respect identical and negatively defined based on the exclusion of the ‘other’ from that space. The same rocks and buildings are considered sacred to both sides and are imperative to each side’s national narrative. While the conflict literature shows that the redrawing of borders between warring parties is not difficult in and of itself, it is the inherent value of the territory within those borders that adds to the intractability. Once a disputed territory becomes imbued with ethno-religious attachments, it can no longer be divided through a simple measuring exercise on a map.

When the minimum conditions of the parties do not intersect: No Agreement (© Norlen)

Third parties have a lot to learn in order to become more effective in dealing with conflicts over territorial absolutes. While the timing, the attitude and behavior of the parties, as well as the structure of the conflict, are all essential dimensions for improving the chances of successful negotiation outcomes, absolutes may be essentially immune to most of the already tried and tested methods. It is therefore time that we broaden the horizon and look at how we can accommodate the absolute rather than the absolute accommodating to us. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we have reached a low point when the formula that has traditionally been the basis for talks no longer occupies the space between the minimum conditions acceptable by each party. In other words, the zone of agreement (ZOA) is non-existent. The old formula was based on the idea that two states would be created and that the territory would be divided in order to accommodate the sovereignty of each state. It is becoming increasingly clear that that such a division of territory (at least on a permanent basis) may no longer be achievable. Whether the new formula needs to be a one-state, two-state, or no-state solution is not yet clear. What is clear however, is that the international community and the two parties themselves are going to have to come up with a new creative framework that does a better job at taking the territorial complexities of the conflict into full account.

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One thought on “Explaining Why Negotiations Fail in the Most Intractable Cases

  1. Pingback: Managing Conflict: Power through Influence | Training Courses Blog

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