Touching Story of Relationship of Constructive Engagement in Conflict

I think that one of our main missions in the DR field is to promote constructive engagement in conflict.  We know that conflict is inevitable and it can be constructive and/or destructive.  Often, when people are in conflict, it is very destructive and everyone just wants to end the conflict as quickly as possible while minimizing the economic and non-economic costs as much as possible.  Sometimes that is the best possible outcome, though sometimes people miss opportunities for more constructive engagement, which is particularly valuable when antagonists have repeated disputes with each other.

I mention all this having read an article by former US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power appreciating Vitality Churkin, the Russian UN Ambassador, who died recently.  Ambassador Power described how, even as the conflicts between their governments escalated, the ambassadors’ personal and professional relationships deepened.  While they often vigorously argued with each other, they maintained a respectful, caring, and even affectionate friendship.  This is a lovely, rich article worth reading.

While she strongly criticized Russian policies that Ambassador Churkin defended, she wrote, “I also believe that it is imperative that we try to build relationships with individual Russians, who are as complex and contradictory as the rest of us.  Indeed, our security depends on our ability to reach across ideological divides to understand one another, but also to try to solve problems together.”  Her predecessor advised, “‘Invest in your relationship with Churkin.  He will drive you crazy, but you will need each other.’”

Ambassador Power continued, “Whether in months-long negotiations or in huddles held minutes before a vote, we were able to disagree vehemently on fundamentals, but find a way to listen and discern what the other needed.  Once the two of us had settled on a plan, other countries tended to defer, reasoning that if we had found common ground, so could they.”

Like many professional negotiators, they often cooperated behind the scenes trying to convince their principals – sometimes unsuccessfully – to accept agreements that the negotiators thought were in both countries’ interests.

The true story of this relationship reminded me of the wonderful play, A Walk in the Woods, which David Matz and I discussed as part of the Tower of Babel Symposium virtual book club.  This hilariously insightful play was inspired by actual events involving US and Soviet arms control negotiators.

Lawyers sometimes have respectful, constructive, and even friendly relationships with “opposing counsel” on the other side of a matter.  That’s why some of us prefer to use the term “counterpart” lawyers, reflecting the complex, nuanced relationships between them.  I think it is appropriate for law school faculty – especially those of us teaching DR – to present this as a preferred model whenever it is appropriate.


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