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Time for a Different Way

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What do the stalled Middle East peace talks and just completed climate change negotiations in Cancun have in common? Essentially, both problems are difficult and intractable conflicts that have not been resolved through diplomatic negotiation.

The private efforts of the United States in the Middle East began early in the Obama administration with the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy. Apparently, the Obama administration had secured an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis sufficient to announce the commencement of public discussions in September 2010. Those talks were hijacked by the political right in Israel demanding that the settlement freeze not be extended. The U.S. attempted to buy a 90 day extension of the settlement freeze with a multi-billion-dollar military deal for Israel. Ideology trumped pragmatism, the deal was rejected, and the bulldozers figuratively started rolling in the West Bank. Today, the peace talks have not officially collapsed, but there is not a lot of momentum towards agreement.

Several days ago, the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP16) ended in Cancun Mexico. Compared to the disaster in Copenhagen the year before, some people are feeling that Cancun was successful. However, no meaningful progress was made towards a comprehensive climate change treaty. The rich nations agreed to pay off the poor nations, but no source of the $100 billion promised for this effort was committed or identified. Financial mechanisms were developed to prevent clear-cutting forests, but the details were left out. The technology executive committee agreed to set up rules on how to transfer clean energy technologies to poor nations, but that was just an agreement to agree. In short, although everybody made nice-nice in the beautiful beach resort of Cancun, no substantive decisions and certainly no binding decisions were reached.
Pundits, commentators, and analysts have come up with all sorts of reasons why blame can be cast here or there, hither and yon. And, the fact remains that these two important world problems are very, very complex. I suggest that a fundamental problem to be solved in each of these situations is the process of the negotiations themselves.

Imagine sending a board certified oncologist who specializes in colon cancer into a busy urban emergency room on a Friday night. The oncologist may get through the shift, but not nearly as gracefully or as skillfully as the board certified emergency room surgeon who has spent ten years working in a major trauma center. This metaphor describes the current use of politicians and diplomats to negotiate international conflicts. We are sending in the oncologist, not the trauma surgeon, to handle the crisis.

In many cases, international diplomats lack the experience and knowledge of how to deal with complex conflicts. Very few, if any, diplomats have had much negotiation experience measured by the number of conflicts formally negotiated. By way of contrast, the average successful U.S. commercial mediator mediates more complex cases in a year than most international diplomats have negotiated in their careers. That is not to say that quantity is better than quality or that a complex commercial case is equivalent to an international conflict. The trauma center surgeon sees hundreds of medical emergencies, minor and major every week. The oncologist, simply because of the nature of his or her practice, sees none.

In other cases, the processes used to work with difficult conflicts harkened back to white wigs, frocked coats, and silk stockings. Too many diplomats and foreign ministers still believe in 18th century ways of diplomacy and negotiation. Everyone knows that the 21st century world is very different than 18th century Europe. The world is a complex place requiring a much more nuanced approach. By way of example, when the United Nations charter was adopted in 1947, there were 93 nations in the world. At that time, the world powers consisted essentially of the United States and the Soviet Union. The rest of the world, with the exception of a handful of neutral nations, fell into line with one of those two powers. Negotiations were effectively bilateral between the super powers and, although hugely important, were relatively simple compared to the diversity and diffusion of power in the 21st century. Today, there are 193 nations, most of which were formed from the collapsed empires of Europe and Russia. The complexity of the interests, needs, goals, and desires of these 193 nations has multiplied exponentially. Further, each of these 193 demands an equal voice at the table, especially when the policy question may be a matter of life or death.

These complexities seem to stymie the ability of international negotiators to engage each other constructively when there are huge chasms of difference. When nations do come together, they are often cast into an unwieldy process that is often non-productive. Not surprisingly, international negotiators often end up angry and disgruntled with each other. The media inflames these failures, making things worse.

Our only hope is to abandon the old processes in favor of approaches to conflict that take into account the knowledge we have gained in a vast array of disciplines around decision-making, neuropsychology, and human behavior. It invokes processes that promote collaboration and discourage competition. It is a critical next step in bringing peace to the world.

The good news is that the tools for dealing with this complexity are in place. Whether the process is multi-track diplomacy as created by Ambassador John McDonald and his Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy or complex, multi-party mediation processes as envisioned by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, we know how to do it. Can we convince the world leadership and diplomatic corps that maybe they should try something different? Pretty clearly, the old ways of doing business are not working. And just as clearly, the stakes are as high as they have ever been. Diplomacy, by its very nature, is a conservative business. Do the world diplomatic corps and its political masters have the courage to abandon the arrogance of power, position, and privilege? Can it embrace innovation, imagination, vision, and creativity in defining, organizing, and negotiating intractable problems? Cynics and realists may say no. I would ask, "What other choice do we have?" Peace can be negotiated in the Middle East, and significant progress can be made towards a climate treaty, just not with the current "traditional" diplomatic processes. It is time for a different way.