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President Obama's Mixed-Motive Dilemma

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Early indications seemed to suggest that President Obama would be a conflict resolution president. During his campaign for office, he pledged to bring a new tone to Washington and to make every attempt to reach across the aisle. He engaged many new stakeholders through the Internet and social media, promising to hear all their concerns and work tirelessly to address them. Early in his tenure as president, he met over dinner with conservative journalists and engaged in open dialogue over the more serious issues of our time. He also made several attempts to meet with the Republican caucus and to reach out directly to some of the members of Congress who were more ideologically-opposed to his policies and positions. Abroad, he made several televised appeals to citizens and leaders in the Muslim-world and Iran, respectfully appealing to "our common humanity that brings us together."

And although some on the left and the right in this country saw this approach as too meek and compromising, it seemed to pay-off domestically as he steadily managed to pass a host of important legislation including his landmark healthcare reform bill.

But times have changed. The launch of the antigovernment Tea Party movement in 2009, resulting in a caucus in the House which today includes 62 sitting Republicans, and the signing of Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge by 238 members of the House and 41 members of the Senate (all except 13 sitting Republicans), has led to an era of obstructionism and polarization not seen in Washington since before the Civil War.

Enter the campaign for the presidency. The current Republican primary season has ushered in a whole new level of enmity and vitriol to Washington political discourse. In addition to a continual barrage of attacks on President Obama's policies and person, the Republican candidates have turned on one another with such viciousness and indignity that the probabilities for any type of constructive dialogue over serious issues in Washington is today at zero. Americans seem to sit by and watch this titillating new reality show, quietly amused by it and endorsing it with our complacency.

So what is the leader of the free world to do in order to continue to govern and address the current employment, debt, financial, education, infrastructure, poverty and climate crises, to name just a few? Especially given that he has now entered the race for re-election, and will therefore unleash the dogs of political resistance.

Scientists who study conflict and negotiations have a term for this problem: the intense mixed-motive dilemma. These are situations where the parties to a conflict (read legislative battle, election, etc.) share critically important common and competing goals. The competing goals are painfully obvious. But the common goals at stake here today include the strength of the U.S. economy, the functioning of our (big or small) government, the health, education and future of our children, and our status and ability to lead effectively in the world.

When parties to conflict face such high-stakes competing and common goals, the result is often either to: 1) suffer from a debilitating sense of paralysis and stagnation over the painful trade-offs of action or, more commonly, 2) go on the attack and do everything possible to defeat the opponent, and then suffer the consequences to your shared concerns (This is what we are currently witnessing within the Republican party as the candidates fight to defeat their opponents and subsequently do enormous harm to their party, their own reputation and dignity, and to America's sense of trust and identification with government).

But the study of mixed-motive dilemmas has revealed other, often more effective or optimal strategies. They include:

Conditional assessment contingencies: Employing both hard-ball and integrative win-win strategies at different times when situations demand or allow for one or the other, but remaining aware of the fact that more contentious strategies typically elicit the same and lead to escalation, alienation and other negative consequences.

Tit-for-tat (reciprocal) strategy: Research on game theory has shown that when parties employ a strategy of reciprocity -- essentially deciding to reciprocate whatever tactics their opponent employs -- it often leads to learning by both parties that they are both ultimately better off when they both cooperate, or work together towards joint-solutions. This strategy however requires that the parties are of essentially equal power.

Overt/covert strategy: Used increasingly in international affairs, this is a strategy of employing one tactic publically, while using essentially the opposite approach in a clandestine manner. This can take the form of displaying a hard-line, contentious position publically while secretly holding negotiations that attempt to find common solutions, or the reverse. For example, it has been suggested that the South African Afrikaner Government, while holding negotiations with Mandela and the African National Congress to end Apartheid, were simultaneously supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party in an attempt to divide and conquer both Black African political parties.

Negotiation chains: Typically employed under conditions when leaders engaged in a contentious conflict need to hold a hard-line and cannot be associated in any way with the other party, this tactic involves holding negotiations through a sequence of individuals in a manner that allows the leaders on both sides to maintain deniability of knowledge of the negotiations should they fail, back-fire or become public.

Internal split strategy: There is a myth in the world of politics and negotiations that groups in conflict are most successful when they share one position within their group, the party-line. However, research has shown that groups who contain internal splits within -- hawks or hard-liners and doves or conciliators -- often fare better in negotiations. This is because the hard-liners serve to demand or "claim value" in the negotiations, while the conciliators who are often more flexible will work to "create value" or find integrative solutions that address the needs of all parties. This provides a more balanced approach and optimal solutions.

Establishing "bottom line" positions: Another approach to mixed-motive dilemmas is to decide to be creative, flexible and integrative on certain issues, or up to a point in your "bargaining range" with divisible resources -- but to be clear about your own bottom-line and on issues you see as non-negotiable, and plan to shift into hard-ball tactics if or when those come into play.

Stage model: A variation on some of the above, this tactic sees negotiations as moving through several stages, and is often employed by representative negotiators in labor disputes. The first stage involves the negotiators working in a creative, flexible manner with their own constituents to identify underlying interests, options and trade-offs that provide them with an arsenal of options to use during direct negotiations. The second stage, known as the ritual dance, involves contentious public statements made to send the message that they plan to be tough and to ensure their constituents that they are in control. When this is understood by the negotiators on both sides as a ritual, it is less likely to trigger escalation. The third stage, typically conducted behind closed doors, is the meat of the negotiation and involves a combination of both horse-trading (trading-off more and less important concessions) and integrative problem-solving (identifying shared interests and creative solutions). And finally, the last stage is re-entry, where negotiators return to their constituent groups and negotiate the acceptability of the proposed agreement. These stages often cycle through several times before agreements are reached, but require comfort with a wide menu of tactics.

Short-term/long-term strategy: Another approached attempted by the more intrepid negotiator is to agree to enter typically contentious negotiations with a more cooperative, flexible orientation -- and to try their best to make that work -- but to resort to hard-ball tactics if their initial approach fails. This requires a high-level of skill in integrative bargaining.

GRIT, or graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction. Originally proposed by Charles Osgood during the Cold War, this mixed-motive strategy is particularly useful in highly escalated, high-stakes conflicts. It outlines a 10-step strategy for reversing escalatory spirals by providing decision-makers with something hard to see in such threatening situations -- alternative options. It involves agreeing to offer unilateral concessions to the other side, often in the form of disarmament, troop reductions or humanitarian goods and services, coupled with an invitation to the other side to reciprocate. The idea is that often these concessions are just as good for the offering-party (as they free up resources for other endeavors), as long as they don't make the party vulnerable to harm. Often, international pressure increases on the receiving party to reciprocate, and thus shifting the dynamic towards peace.

Options. Effective leaders usually have options when dealing with strong opposition and conflict. President Obama, as well as his opponents in Washington and around the globe, would be well-counseled to learn from the study of effective negotiations and conflict management, so that our country and our world can get back to work on the potentially catastrophic challenges of our time.