Small steps that build confidence are something skilled negotiators do in working toward meeting their ultimate goals. A series of partial agreements are fundamental to a process that generates positive momentum and creates a more constructive climate. They can also be extremely useful when the parties don’t trust each other; a series of promises kept can alleviate suspicion.
For those who actually sit at the negotiating table, such an approach often becomes inevitable. When matters of great importance hang in the balance, a way must be found to move toward good outcomes for all involved. With great responsibility comes great incentive for finding workable solutions. Those who step up to work on matters of life and death have the strongest motivation to use all negotiation methods that hold out promise for success.
For their constituents and critics, though, a different set of priorities may hold sway. Those not at the table but sitting to the side can better afford to turn their backs on practical negotiating techniques. By definition, observers and critics are not in the hot seat. For example, an opposition leader risks little in criticizing a confidence building agreement. A journalist/commentator can easily pay the future price for crying wolf. And, of course, an extremist fundraiser with a mailing list can make hay by decrying honest efforts to move slowly in the right direction.
We saw all of this play out in the past week as negotiators arrived at an interim deal to halt Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons. There was much gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts by Republican lawmakers , and various professional extremists and profiteers . For a variety of reasons, people whose motivations differ from those of the would-be peacemakers have spoken out against the recent agreement.
Why would someone turn her back on time honored techniques? For what reason does an individual forgo the proven for the reckless? It could be an honest dispute about best tactics for achieving a mutually desired end. Well intentioned people can differ sharply on how to get from here to there; and when politics are involved passions can sometimes overcome good practice. There is a darker possibility, though, that competes as an explanation. Sometimes the reason a critic advocates an unwise negotiating stance is because he does not really want the process to succeed. For those who wish a different outcome entirely, what could be better than advocating a bargaining stance that is likely to fail?
Wise negotiators are forever vigilant concerning the possibility of saboteurs in their midst. In most conflicts, the idea of a teammate secretly desiring a different outcome is hardly the stuff of moral outrage. Many a corporate, family, or community matter has seen an attempt to disrupt a deal for purposes of advancing an alternative result. My students regard such caution as a standard part of their preparation.
Where the subject of a negotiation is avoidance of war, however, I would argue for a stricter scrutiny. If we disagree on the best means to finding peace, let us discuss and debate for as long as it may take. If the real root of the disagreement is an underlying interest incompatible with peace, though, the response must be denunciation. Are there those who would choose the obscenity of war over a peace built on compromise for the purpose of advancing other interests entirely? And, if so, to which circle of hell might Dante have assigned them?