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What failed negotiations teach us

Process matters, the time must be ripe—and other wisdom from discussions gone wrong

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Rockets and mortars have stopped flying over the border between Gaza and Israel, a temporary lull in one of the most intractable, hot-and-cold wars of our time. The hostilities of late November ended after negotiators for Hamas and Israel—who refused to talk face-to-face, preferring to send messages via Egyptian diplomats—agreed to a rudimentary cease-fire. Their tenuous accord has no enforcement mechanism and doesn’t even nod to discussing the festering problems that underlie the most recent crisis. Both sides say they expect another conflict; experience suggests it’s just a question of when.

Generations of negotiators have cut their teeth trying to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and their failures are as varied as they are numerous: Camp David, Madrid, the Oslo Accords, Wye River, Taba, the Road Map. For diplomats and deal-makers around the world—even those with no particular stake in Middle East peace—Israel and Palestine have become the ultimate test of international negotiations.

For Guy Olivier Faure, a French sociologist who has dedicated his career to figuring out how to solve intractable international problems, they're something else as well: an almost unparalleled trove of insights into how negotiations can go wrong.


For more than 20 years, Faure has studied not only what makes negotiations around the world succeed, but how they break down. From Israel and the Palestinians to the Biological Weapons Convention protocol to the ongoing talks about Iran's nuclear program, it's far more common for negotiations to fail than to work out. And it's from these failures, Faure says, that we can harvest a more pragmatic idea of what we should be doing instead. "In order to not endlessly repeat the same mistakes, it is essential to understand their causes," he says.

In a recent book, "Unfinished Business: Why International Negotiations Fail," Faure commissioned case studies and analysis from more than a dozen academics and actual negotiators, which he then used to make a systematic survey of the causes of failure. Some of the most important conclusions they reach are as simple as they are surprising. Their most important is that the seemingly boring matter of the process is much more likely to cause a negotiation to fail than the difficulty of the problem itself. Failed negotiations can sometimes be the precursors to a later success. There are also times when negotiations make a problem worse, especially when it is not "ripe" for settlement yet. And finally, despite their commitment as a group to coming up with something akin to an international negotiator's handbook, Faure and his collaborators argue that sometimes negotiations are simply the wrong tool in the first place.



Today's international order turns on successful negotiation. When we think about what's right in the world, we're often thinking about the results of agreements like the START treaties, which ended the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of war; or even the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, drafted in 1948, which still underpins globalized free trade.

But in negotiations over the most vexing international problems—a hostage situation, a war between a central government and terrorist insurgents, a new multinational agreement—such successes are few and far between. Failure is the norm. Understandably, experts tend to focus on the wins. From US presidents to obscure third-party diplomats, negotiators pore over rare historical successes for tips rather than face the copious and dreary overall record.

Faure wants to change that focus. As an expert he straddles two worlds: He studies diplomacy academically as a sociologist at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and has also trained actual negotiators for decades, at the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and UN agencies. Over his career, he has produced 15 books spanning all the different theories behind negotiation, and ultimately concluded that negotiations that failed, or simply sputtered out inconclusively, were the most interesting. Each failure had multiple causes, but it was possible to compile a comprehensive list, and from that, consistent patterns.


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"Unfinished Business" takes a look at what happened during a number of high-profile failures, and examines the underlying conditions of each set of talks: trust, cultural differences, psychology, the role of intermediaries, and outsiders who can derail negotiations or overload them with extraneous demands.

One of Faure's insights concerns the mindset of negotiators—a factor negotiators themselves often believe is irrelevant, but which Faure and his colleagues believe can often determine the outcome. Incompatible values on the two sides of the table, he says, are much harder to bridge than practical differences, like an argument over a boundary or the mechanics of a cease-fire. As Faure says, "A quantity can be split, but not a value." This is what Faure saw at work when the Palestinians and Israelis embarked on a rushed negotiation at the Egyptian seaside resort of Taba during Bill Clinton's final month in office. The two sides had already reached an impasse at a lengthier negotiation in 2000 at Camp David. With the end of his presidency looming and Israeli elections coming up, Clinton summoned them back to the table for a no-nonsense session he hoped would bring speedy closure to disputes over borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. The Palestinians, however, felt that the two sides simply didn't share the same view of justice and weren't truly aiming at the same goal of two sovereign states—and so didn't feel driven to make a deal. That mismatch of long-term beliefs, Faure says, doomed the talks.


There are other warning signs that emerge as patterns in failed talks. Time and again, parties embark on tough negotiations already convinced they will fail—a defeatism that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In interviewing professional negotiators, Faure and his colleagues found that they often don't pay that much attention to the practical aspects of how to run a negotiation—a surprising lapse.

Faure and his team have found that a well-planned process is one of the best predictors of success, and that many negotiations are terrible at it. When the European Union and the United States talked to Iran about its nuclear program, various European countries kept adding extraneous issues to the talks, for instance linking Iran's behavior with nukes to existing trade agreements. The additions made the negotiations unwieldy, and provoked crises over matters peripheral to the actual subject. In the case of the mediation over Cyprus, the Greek and Turkish sides didn't bother coming up with any tangible proposed solution to negotiate over, instead talking vaguely about a Swiss model. Negotiations failed in part because neither side knew what that would mean for Cyprus.

Ultimately, Faure argues, mistrust and inflexibility tangle up negotiators more than any other factor. Negotiators often end up demonizing the other side, and as a result might embark on a process that by its structure encourages failure. For instance, Israeli and Palestinian reliance on mediators to ferry messages—even between delegations in the same resort—maximizes misunderstandings and minimizes the possibility that either side will sense a genuine opening.



What emerges from Faure's work, overall, is that the outlook for negotiations is usually pretty bleak—certainly bleaker than Faure himself prefers to highlight. In some cases, he suggests that diplomats should put off an outright negotiation until they've dealt with gaps in trust and cultural communication, or until the conflict feels "ripe" for solution to the parties involved. There's no point, he suggests, in embarking on a negotiation if all the stakeholders are convinced it's a waste of time—indeed, a failed negotiation can sometimes exacerbate a problem.

The most promising scenarios occur when both sides are suffering under the status quo, which creates what social scientists call a “mutually hurting stalemate,” with soldiers or civilians dying on both sides, and a “mutually enticing opportunity” if there’s a peace agreement or a prisoner swap. In that case, a decent deal will give both sides a chance to genuinely improve their lot.

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Unfortunately for the many whose hopes are riding on negotiations, the truly challenging international problems of our age don't always come with a strong incentive to compromise. In military conflicts, there is little incentive to resolve matters when a conflict is lopsided in one side's favor (Shia versus Sunni in Iraq, Israel versus Hamas, the Taliban versus the United States in Afghanistan). The same holds in broader international agreements: They're complicated and intractable largely because the states involved are—no matter what they say—quite comfortable with the status quo. Think about climate change: The biggest gas-guzzlers and polluters, the ones whose assent matters the most for a carbon-reduction treaty, are often the last states that will pay the price for rising oceans. Meanwhile, the poorer nations whose populations are most at the mercy of sea levels or changing weather have little clout. Just as it's easy for a relatively secure Israel to stand pat on the Palestinian question, there are few immediate consequences for the United States and China if they sit out climate talks.

It's not all bleak news. Even in cases where negotiations appear hamstrung—like climate change and Palestine—there are, Faure points out, plenty of other reasons to continue negotiating. Negotiations are a form of diplomacy, dialogue, and recognition, and even in failure can serve some other interests of the parties involved. But—as the impressive historical record of failed international agreements shows—it's naive to think that they will always yield a solution.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of
"A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel" and blogs at thanassiscambanis.
com. He is an Ideas columnist.