The late Roger Fisher, founder of Harvard’s Project on Negotiation and one of the world’s most eminent negotiation scholars, had a mantra: One must always try to negotiate. Categorically. With a war lingering on Europe’s Eastern borders, one could suppose that the art of negotiation is taking center stage these days, with politicians and journalists passionately debating diplomatic solutions. Yet, diplomatic dispute resolution, an art honed after the horrors of World War II leading to the most peaceful years in known history, has been replaced by warmongering rhetoric from the dark old days. Those who call for negotiations have little impact on the ongoing debate and have been labeled as weaklings and cowards, including the Presidents of the USA and France.
This development is a dangerous misunderstanding of what negotiations are. To negotiate doesn’t mean that one must make generous concessions or give up one’s core principles (unless the principle is not to negotiate with some), it doesn’t even mean that you must make a deal. It simply means that to not thoroughly explore options is a waste of opportunities.
It’s not easy to sit down with someone you fundamentally disagree with. You have to be able to entertain thoughts you find silly, irrational, and even horrible. Can you handle such thoughts without being offended and without resisting the urge to leave the table? A culture of offense opposes a culture of negotiations. A prudent negotiator, however, is one who is not only open to different viewpoints but one who actively explores them. “What if…” was Roger Fisher’s favorite introduction to a question, followed by uninhibited brainstorming of every option imaginable, including those that appeared outrageous.
We can rarely choose our negotiation counterpart. But we can choose if we want to follow Roger Fisher’s categorical imperative to always negotiate with an open mind. Despite the difficulties, the rewards are worth it: Wealth and peace. With this in mind let’s have a look at the Top 10 negotiations for 2023 and how they shape our world.
10. Hope Endures: The Colombia-ELN Negotiations
“La Violencia”, the Colombian armed conflict between the government and paramilitary groups and crime syndicates had turned Colombia into one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Since 1958, almost 200,000 civilians have lost their lives, and over 5 million were forced from their homes. The conflict and with it violence declined, particularly after the 2016 peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the country’s tourism surged.
Now, negotiations between the Colombian government and yet another key paramilitary organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), are underway. Those talks stalled in January of 2019 following an ELN car bombing at Colombia’s National Police Academy that killed 23 people.
The discussions are in line with the “Total Peace” promises made by newly-elected Colombian president Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 member. Once a guerrilla organization, M-19 disbanded to focus on political change. Petro’s says he sees the talks as a means of negotiating with rebels, revitalizing dormant peace accords, and uniting the country.
Delegates for the first round met in Caracas, Venezuela, late in 2022. Those exploratory talks produced encouraging results: People displaced by the conflicts will be able to return home, and prisoners will see their living conditions improved. The country’s presidential website describes the effort as “a beacon of hope in a world submerged in situations of war and destructive tension.”
Though the process is barely underway, hope is indeed warranted — as it is in any properly orchestrated negotiation. The parties will meet in Mexico for the next round of talks.
9. Microsoft Versus USA: Will the Blizzard Deal Stand?
The gaming industry is bigger than Hollywood and the music industry combined. Global revenue grew from 8 billion in 2006 to almost 200 billion in 2022. The game franchise Call of Duty alone has made a mind-blowing 31 billion in total.
It is not surprising that Microsoft hammered out a deal to buy Blizzard, the world’s largest gamemaker, for a cash transaction of $95 per share. The $68.7 billion-dollar transaction gives Microsoft ownership of some of the most popular games on the planet, including Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and Warcraft. It may be that the company’s strategy is to offer Blizzard’s lineup on Game Pass, Microsoft’s online gaming platform.
That path is not yet secure, however. The Federal Trade Commission wants to block the acquisition, saying the move “would enable Microsoft to suppress competitors to its Xbox gaming consoles and its rapidly growing subscription content and cloud-gaming business.” Barring a change in strategy by either side, that dispute will move to a federal courtroom.
Microsoft has already announced the company’s willingness to allow access to Blizzard games by competitors like Sony and Nintendo, so it doesn’t appear the two sides are all that far apart. It may be that the Biden administration is leveraging the situation to let others know they are serious about enforcing antitrust regulations.
8. The End of a War: Ethiopia and the Tigray Region Rebels
Negotiations between Ethiopia and the Tigray region successfully ended a two-year conflict that reportedly killed thousands of non-combatants. The agreement will allow the flow of goods to Tigray, where physicians say supplies of even the most basic medical supplies are all but depleted. Humanitarian efforts are underway to restore severed communications and supply lines there.
South Africa hosted the talks amidst a plea to negotiate by the United States for the parties “to immediately cease all hostilities and … to ensure civilians are protected.” Prior to negotiations, Ethiopian troops gained significant victories, and that may have encouraged rebel negotiators to end the fighting. Both sides, however, “made major concessions.” The ceasefire may be difficult to maintain, given the degree of political and territorial disputes that exist between the parties. For now, though, there is peace.
7. Negotiating With the Taliban: Missed Opportunities
Negotiating with the Taliban has been on last year’s list and the one before. Why did peace negotiations fail during the 20 years NATO troops were deployed to Afghanistan? Because practically every negotiation mistake in the book was made. An insightful report by the United States Institute of Peace says there was no lack of opportunity for a negotiated end to the violence — but they were “missed, went unrecognized, or deliberately spurned” by all stakeholders: the United States of America, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the Taliban.
Missed opportunities occurred in 2010 when a surge in military activity created an open door to negotiation that was sorely missed by the allies around the U.S. Talks did take place eight years later, but neither party trusted the other and no real progress was made to advance the process. The silly decision not to invite then Afghan President Ghani to the negotiation table weakened the former government and delegitimized any negotiation efforts.
U.S. President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in 2021 left no leverage for negotiations and empowered the Taliban to pursue control of the nation overnight. The United States then practically embezzled half of the assets of the world’s poorest nation, when in February 2022,it seized 7 billion dollars which Afghanistan’s central bank had deposited in the New York Federal Reserve branch.
With Afghanistan being treated like an outcast on the global stage, the most radical of the Taliban branches, the Haqqani network, is gaining momentum: Women have been banned from universities and executions and amputations are to be re-introduced. In 2001, former President Bush refused to negotiate with the Taliban. This unwise decision has led to around 250 000 lives lost in vain (of which 171 500 were Afghans). Oh yes, and Afghanistan was again home to Al Qaeda’s leader. And we are back to square one, making this saga an excellent example of why actual negotiation skills are essential to obtain a good outcome.
6. Climate Activists to the Table
Austrian climate protestors have thrown black ‘oil’ on a Gustav Klimt painting in Vienna, British activists glued themselves to streets, and German protesters even attached themselves to Berlin airport’s tarmac. The vandalization of priceless art and even the forced standstill of infrastructure has been shrugged off as the deeds of eager activists that went a bit overboard, with some politicians even supporting them.
Nothing could be further away from the truth. The Economist rightly warns of the development of violent climate-terrorism. Climate activism has turned to a movement which leaves no room for debating or even for any nuances. One German group calls itself “Letzte Generation” (last generation), conjuring up images of a quasi-religious movement. Indeed, non-believers are labeled as heretics (“deniers”), and the only way to avoid Armageddon is to follow their path to redemption.
While the protesters succeeded in gaining attention (they even made it to this Forbes list), it was a Pyrrhic victory. Such actions trigger applause by supporters but they do lead to utter hatred from opposition – even from those previously undecided. This will then lead to a closing of the extremist’s bubble and the development of actual terrorism as outlined by The Economist.
Now is the time to negotiate with the climate activists in order to simply keep them from turning violent. It’s not too late – yet. Siemens made a good start by offering a 23 year old German activist a seat on the board of Siemens Energy board, a spin-off of the German technology giant focusing on energy-efficient technology. She refused. Negotiating with dogmatic counterparts is very tiring and the urge to stop negotiating with them understandable. But we shouldn’t. This could turn ugly.
5. Iran: Leverage for Change Within
Protests in Iran started when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died in police custody. She was arrested by morality police in Tehran on 13 September for failing to cover her hair ‘appropriately‘. Police claim that Amini, who had no medical record of a heart disease, died of a sudden heart attack.
Protests started with women in Amini’s hometown of Saqqez pulling off their hijabs at her funeral. This triggered protests all over the country, with chants of ”Death to the dictator,“ referring to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Amini’s death stirred several pots, which were all represented by her: The anger of suppressed women, of the Kurdish minority, and of those born into poor, marginalized families. Men, mostly young adults, have joined the movement, which became the biggest protests the revolutionary government has ever faced. A revolution brought the mullahs to power in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was ousted by protesters chanting “Death to the Shah” and made Khomeini their Supreme Leader. And a revolution could bring them down today. The government is well aware of that and reacts with force.
The international community can use its influence as leverage, linking human rights issues to talks about the nuclear deal. But then again, real politics do not follow laws of morality (although they often claim they do). However, if there is one thing the world has learned from dealing with Middle Eastern dictators, it’s the fact that destabilizing countries by creating power vacuums or installing puppet governments doesn’t work. .
4. Indonesian Law and the Demands of the Zealots
Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and 10th largest economy. With its approximately 231,000 million inhabitants of which 87 % are Muslim, the country has the largest Muslim population in the world. As Indonesia cut its poverty rate by over 50 % in the last 20 years, a modern middle class prospers, particularly in the cities. Religious conservatives and moderates regularly clash and try to find common ground.
Indonesia’s new criminal code may not yet be a beacon of freedom, but negotiations produced laws less rigorous than initially demanded. Same-sex marriages remain, unsurprisingly, prohibited. Sexual relations between two unmarried people will now carry a maximum penalty of one year imprisonment. Other illegal activities include cohabitation by unmarried couples, abortion not due to rape or in medical emergencies, and the promotion of contraceptives to minors.
Other crimes outlined under Indonesian law are insulting the dignity of the president and spreading values that don’t agree with the state’s ideology. To dampen the impact and prevent “finger-pointing,” only the president can report an insult to his dignity and “public consultation” can be a path to disagreeing with the state. Cohabitation may only be reported by the spouse, parent, or child of one of the parties.
According to a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, “Passage of this criminal code is the beginning of an unmitigated disaster for human rights in Indonesia.” Rewriting Indonesia’s criminal code took decades to complete. A previous draft resulted in street protests that caused lawmakers to seek public participation in the procedures.
Will the resistance lead to further negotiations and the resultant changes in Indonesian law? We’ll have to wait and see. For now, though, human rights have at least made some gains in the country.
3. In Search of a Mediator: The Conflict Between Armenia and Azerbaijan
War over Nagorno-Karabakh? Over a corridor to Nakhchivan? The struggles between Armenia and Azerbaijan are rarely breaking news in the West. Why care about two former Soviet republics fighting over enclaves and exclaves few have heard of? As is the case so often, a closer look will show that it is a conflict of global significance and a prime example of the need for negotiation and mediation skills.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been a bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 2020, Azerbaijan won the Second Karabakh War and it was Russia that mediated the peace and guaranteed security with a peacekeeping mission.
In March, Azerbaijan took advantage of Russia’s weakness and invaded Armenia. The war was an aggression into previously contested regions but deep into Armenian core territory. Armenians fear ethnic cleansing, clips of war crimes committed by Azeris and even torture and mutilations have surfaced.
Azerbaijan appears to seize the change to gain as much territory as possible. The borders between Russia and Europe are practically closed, which increased the importance of the South Caucasus route from Armenia to Turkey and Iran. In the 2020 peace treaty, Armenia explicitly “guarantees the security of transport links”between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, a landlocked exclave inhabited by Azeris. Azerbaijan argues that this means that the corridor should not be part of Armenia (nor Azerbaijan) but be extraterritorial, controlled by neutral forces, such as Russian border guards. Armenia argues that this was never agreed on and that it would jeopardize the country’s sovereignty.
Russia is sympathetic to Azerbaijan’s request, as this would directly link Russia with Turkey (through Armenia and Azberbaijan), instead of having to pass through pro-Western Georgia. Unsurprisingly, when Armenia asked Russia for help, it more or less repeated Azerbaijan’s arguments and promised to only send observers. Russia is losing support among Armenians, alienating a former close ally. Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, is on good terms with Russia, as it refused Western sanctions and even offered to broker a deal between Russia and the West.
The West, on the other hand, does not want Russia to gain control of just about anything, thus taking an interest in the topic. Nancy Pelosi, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Armenia in September. Unlike in the Russia-Ukraine aggression, the European Union is taking a distinctly neutral stance here, which could have something to do with the fact that it just closed a deal with Azerbaijan to double gas exports by 2027 (no sanctions here). The EU invited both heads of state to peace talks in Prague in October and mediated a first agreement. Russia regards EU involvement as a threat to the peace process. Putin then invited the parties to Sochi. A week later, the United States entered the race and invited both parties to Washington D.C. in November.
While there was no final treaty, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev “agreed not to use force”.
Certainly, diplomatic help is needed, as military solutions didn’t end the conflict but only produced unstable peace. Fortunately, both the West and Russia want to avoid an escalation – they should work together to hammer out a deal that sticks.
2. China and Taiwan: Will the United States Intervene?
Given the situation in Ukraine, where Russian forces are unopposed by any but Ukrainian forces, what are the chances Taiwan would receive armed support should China invade that country?
Some point to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act wherein it is stated that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” will be an “area of grave concern to the United States.” That document goes on to call for the United States to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”
For many observers, there are two questions to consider: Would the United States defend Taiwan, and does the United States have the capacity to do so? Presidential statements range from President Clinton’s response, “It would depend on the circumstances,” to President Trump’s adamant – yet still vague – declaration that “China knows what I’m gonna do.” Current U.S. President Biden made it very clear that his country would certainly send forces to aid Taiwan should China attack. Complicating the issue is the “One China” policy, and the U.S. explicitly acknowledging that Taiwan is part of China.
Face-to-face meetings between U.S. president Biden and China’s Xi Jinping last occurred in November 2022. Following that discussion, the United States announced that the “one China policy has not changed” and that it “opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side.” The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is slated to visit China early in 2023. Should those talks fail, the planet may find itself close to the onset of a war of gigantic proportions.
1. Ukraine and Russia: Timing Is Key to Success
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN in March that “without negotiations, we cannot end this war,” adding “if there’s just a 1 percent chance for us to stop this war, I think that we need to take this chance.” Surprisingly, many in the West took a stance against negotiations. Rejecting negotiations could, however, could end the world as we know it. We are at a historical tipping point and negotiation skills can save us.
The terms of a deal were rather clear at the start of the conflict: Ukraine will not join NATO, and the Eastern Ukrainian regions will hold a referendum. Such a deal was possible at the start. But on September 30, Russia annexed Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. This made a deal exceedingly difficult, because Ukraine cannot live with Russia annexing their territory, and Russia would lose face giving it back. This issue will be at the core of a potential deal.
Those who say that Ukraine must win on the battlefield overlook the fact that Russia has been far from using its full military potential, starting the offense with a mere 150,000 troops. This war could go on for years, dragging the entire world into the conflict.
The more the parties invest, the more difficult it will be to end it, as parties hate to give up previous investments. This is not like beating Hitler Germany in World War 2, where a total victory was a goal worth pursuing. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. When facing total loss, surrender, and humiliation, why not take the entire world with you?
With Ukraine’s strength on the battlefield, Zelensky’s willingness to negotiate diminished. Putin, on the other hand, asked for negotiations. The moment should be seized: Ukraine is in a good position and should start negotiations as soon as possible. Sitting down trying to find a deal is better than not trying it. Categorically. Remember Roger Fisher’s mantra.