How Should ADR Folks Participate in a Grand Real-Time Negotiation?

President Trump is scheduled to have a summit meeting with Russian President Putin on Monday.  The timing of this meeting right after the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials demonstrates the bizarre political situation we are in.

Mr. Trump seeks a close relationship with a foreign leader whose top spies systematically interfered in our elections and are continuing these efforts according to Mr. Trump’s own intelligence and law enforcement officials.  Not only does he not blame Mr. Putin, he constantly condemns as a “witch hunt” a meticulous and scrupulous investigation that has produced voluminous credible evidence.   In essence, he blames our law enforcement officials for interfering with his relationship with the leader of criminal defendants who are accused of the most fundamental violation of our political system.

Mr. Trump’s statements and actions to appease Mr. Putin while condemning our traditional allies raise questions about what will happen when the two men meet.

Presumably, both leaders go into this meeting with vulnerabilities.  David Ignatius, in the Washington Post, describes how the detailed indictment reflects a significant compromise of Russian intelligence.  Mr. Trump’s extreme deference to Mr. Putin feeds widespread speculation that Putin is blackmailing him.

The Washington Post published this fascinating analysis of what both men want to achieve in this summit meeting.  In this article, six foreign policy experts give their concise assessments.  I won’t summarize their analyses other than to note that none of them believe that Mr. Trump (as distinct from American officials) wants to prevent future Russian interference in our elections or to extradite the Russian officials charged in this week’s indictment.

In our field, we analyze negotiations based on how well each side achieves goals advancing their interests.  It’s worth reading the experts’ analyses to evaluate what comes out of the negotiation.  It may be somewhat difficult to evaluate because some of the negotiation reportedly will occur solely between the presidents without any records of their discussion or agreements.  Even so, we should be able to learn a lot from what is publicly said and done after the meeting.

A Grand Negotiation

The Trump-Putin negotiation is an important piece of a world-wide negotiation of sorts, though we usually don’t think of it as a negotiation.

Within the US, we are in the midst of intense political conflict, played out simultaneously in Congress, the executive branch, the courts, state and local governments, businesses, mainstream and social media, and the electoral process.  Many institutions and individuals are actors in this negotiation to varying extents.

Consider the electoral process as a big multi-party negotiation.  Candidates cater to campaign donors and party leaders to gain their support.  They also try to figure out what to say and do that will earn constituents’ votes.  Voters try to influence candidates and their fellow citizens to advance their political interests.

This negotiation process is replicated in other countries and between countries.  Many of these “negotiations” are extremely unfair, corroded by corruption.  Indeed, there are some flaws in most political systems, with variations between countries.  In the US, gerrymandering, secret funding by wealthy individuals, the electoral college, systematic propaganda campaigns, and discriminatory voting restrictions undermine the legitimacy of our political process.  On top of all that, Russia is working to disrupt our democracy.

What Should ADR Experts Do?

In a pair of very thoughtful posts, Jen Reynolds raised questions about how ADR experts should deal with these issues.  In one post, she asked whether we should adopt radical or incremental strategies to our political conflicts.  She wrote:

“Those of us in dispute resolution must be mindful of how we think about and deploy our commitments to dialogue, negotiation, participation, restorative justice, peace-building, and so on in the current moment.  Are these commitments correctly calibrated to what we want to achieve and how soon we want to achieve it?  If we believe that radical change is necessary in some situation, for example, can or should we use ADR to push for that change?  If so, how?

“In the short term, and to repeat something I’ve written about before, I believe we must think about adding additional subjects of study and practice to alternative dispute resolution–namely, those skills and theories associated with activism and resistance. These subjects are arguably part of the “alternative” in ADR, given that they are outside formal or traditional legal process, legislation, and litigation.  Activism and resistance are in significant tension with much of our work in ADR, such as negotiation and mediation. Yet they still seem to me to be important modes of interaction for alternative skillsets, and it will be useful to talk more deeply about the impact that these modes may have on our field.”

In another post about how to deal with people who hold sharply divergent political views, she wrote, “[R]ecent discussions on the listserv and elsewhere have raised the issue of whether there are some things that we can’t or shouldn’t talk about, because doing so feels like it gives “airtime” or “legitimacy” to particular positions and beliefs.  As a strategic and moral matter, then, it may make sense not to entertain such conversations.  But many of us specifically teach that listening is not agreeing, that exclusion just exacerbates conflict, and that no person is reducible to his or her worst belief or action.  How do we reconcile these tenets with our understandable interests in maintaining our own moral center, not promulgating false equivalencies, and promoting inclusive, respectful civil discourse?”

My Take

In my view, we need to do good strategic analyses if we want to make positive contributions to this national “negotiation.”  There are different constituencies we want to influence, and people have different preferences about the way they want to intervene.

For those with strong partisan preferences, one can distinguish three general categories of people: strongly committed supporters, strongly committed opponents, and people with weak or no commitments.

Political cooperation and advocacy need not be mutually exclusive.  Advocacy is important to motivate and mobilize supporters and hopefully discourage committed opponents.  Dialogue and bridge building is important for people who aren’t strongly committed to either side.  It does not make sense to engage in dialogue with some people for principled and pragmatic reasons.  For example, it would be morally problematic and counterproductive for opponents of white supremacy to engage in dialogue with committed white nationalists as if that was a legitimate philosophy.

In his excellent 2004 book, Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution, Bernie Mayer argued that our field should include advocacy and conflict engagement as well as efforts to promote conflict resolution, particular as neutrals.  In a detailed summary of his argument, he wrote, “In view of the challenges to our field and the nature of the conflict process itself, the identification of our field with the resolution of conflict seems shortsighted and inaccurate.  People involved in conflict need assistance during many other points in the conflict process—in preventing conflict, understanding that there is a potential conflict, raising that conflict to the level of awareness, escalating a conflict to the point where some response is provoked, conducting and carrying on a conflict until resolution may be possible, engaging in a resolution process, coming to resolution, and healing from conflict.  If we are to flourish as a field, we have to become more involved in all aspects of this process. … Resolution is part of engagement, but only one part.”  (Here’s another summary of the book with commentary.)

Strategists for each side should consider what combination of tactics is most likely to be effective in achieving their goals.  Individual partisans might personally prefer to use some tactics over others.  For example, some may be more comfortable engaging in strong advocacy while others may prefer dialogue.  Some might be comfortable doing both.  Timing and sequencing of activities may be significant.

These are not normal times, as often has been said since the 2016 election campaign.  I think that may be a source of angst reflected in Jen’s posts.  This may prompt us, individually and collectively, to shift tactics from our usual preferences.

We are cursed to live in interesting times.  It will be fascinating to see how this grand negotiation plays out.

As radio commentator, comedian, and Buddhist meditation instructor “Scoop” Nisker says, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

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