The Process of Negotiation
The only way to achieve your delegation’s objectives through negotiation is to reach agreement with other delegations. This section focuses on strategies and tactics for reaching agreement on the text of a resolution.
An iterative process
Most negotiation at international conferences is textual: deciding on the particular words to be adopted by the conference. The process consists of narrowing down a broad range of possible answers or formulations to one the conference can accept. This range is not infinite: it excludes those formulations that are not acceptable to any one of the participants. These delimit the ‘area of possible agreement’.
To identify this solution is an iterative process that starts with a exploratory discussion, so that all are aware of each other’s concerns and preferences. The discussion (usually called debate in a conference) gradually shifts to narrowing down the area of possible agreement and finally to the formulation of specific proposals. These are then discussed informally and be subjects of informal negotiations.
At this stage in the proceedings, draft proposals that have been tabled, are reviewed line by line in an informal meeting led by a facilitator. This helps identify where there is agreement and where delegations wish to modify the text of the original draft proposal. There can be several reviews which review the proposed modifications of the text until agreement is reached. In those instances where agreement in the wording of a draft proposal is cannot be reached, the Chair may intervene to assist the delegations reached consensus and if this is not successful, a delegation may request that the Committee vote on the draft proposal to decide its fate.
The process is one of progression towards an outcome. That is why the concept of momentum is relevant and an important consideration for negotiators who are aiming for an outcome. Conferences can lose momentum, become bogged down or even stall. Some negotiations return to points which were previously thought to have been settled and reopen debate and/or negotiation. Thereafter the conference must resume its progress if it is ultimately to reach an outcome.
Getting your wishes into the proposal
The formal submission of specific proposals is of crucial importance, because of the obvious truism that a conference can only agree on something that has been proposed. It follows that if your wishes are not reflected in the proposal formally tabled in the conference, they will not be reflected in the decision. To advance your objectives, the proposal should contain elements that go some way towards your aims.
From previous sections it should be clear that there are several ways in which this can be achieved:
- You can put the proposal yourself (alone or in association with other delegations)
- You can encourage another delegation to put forward a proposal responsive to your wishes
- You can persuade another delegation to revise its proposal, to make it more accommodating of your wishes
- You can merge your proposal with the proposal of another delegation
- You can persuade the conference to amend a proposal put forward by another delegation, again to bring it more into line with your wishes
- Often you will find that another delegation has done one of the above, in which case you can support them or just let them do the work.
Negotiated & Constructed Fix
There are essentially three possible strategies that can be applied singly, successively or in combinations to achieve consensus:
- ‘divide’ the difference (i. e. you let them have their preference on some aspects in exchange for their allowing you to have your way on other points)
- ‘give’ to the other party (or parties) something else that they value, so that they will let you have your way on the contested point(s) and
- find a creative solution, which either sidesteps the difference or somehow allows both (or all) parties to meet their respective objectives.
Any of these three solutions can be produced in one of two ways:
- the ‘negotiated fix’, in which the solution is worked out by those holding differing views working together (either in full committee or in a small group meeting privately which later reports to the full committee). Delegations exchange proposals and suggest amendments to each other’s proposals until acceptable solutions are found or
- the ‘constructed fix’, which can be produced by the Chairman or an individual delegate or sometimes a small group of delegates working together. The proponents of different views do not participate directly in the drafting; but the ‘constructed fix’ has no chance of being accepted if their views are not well understood and catered for to the maximum extent possible by the author(s). These have to consult widely and, on that basis, develop proposals that will be acceptable to all, or at least most, delegations.
Either way, the solution can only emerge if delegations have a concrete sense of what the other delegations want. Therefore, part of the way you achieve what you want is by letting other delegations know your intent and concerns. Both transparency and active dissemination of information about your own objectives are important steps towards achieving those objectives.
Eliminating competing texts
In a situation in which two or more competing texts are put to the conference there are a number of strategies that can be used to get proponents of the competing text to withdraw it:
- you may be able to persuade them that their proposal does not really advance their objectives, that it is unnecessary because your proposal advances their objectives equally effectively or that it will not be accepted by the conference (or a combination of these)
- you may be able to persuade other delegations to press them to withdraw it
- if necessary, you may be able to successfully move a formal amendment which so changes the meaning of their proposal that they withdraw it or
- you may be able to negotiate a merger of the two proposals into one that you can both support.
There are many reasons why it is normally in your interest to have only one proposal before the conference. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that all support for the competing proposal is automatically denied to your proposal. There may also be delegates who support a competing proposal, not on its merits but because of who is behind it. Conversely, if your proposal has the support of many other delegations, it will attract yet more supporters who follow the majority. For both reasons your position is stronger if there is no competition. Even if you think you will win, division is very rarely to your advantage. Your counterparts (like you) are likely to benefit from consensus and therefore to be ready to accommodate you to the fullest extent they can.
When conflicts or competing views become apparent during the course of a formal meeting, the Chairman or one of the delegations can request that the meeting be suspended for a brief period. A pause in proceedings will:
- draw the attention of all delegations to the problem
- provide time for you and all other delegations to analyze the situation and consider their future course of action
- provide time for consultations to discuss possible response strategies and
- provide time to gather more information and/or more support.
A pause may encourage the delegation(s) with different views on the issue decide to adopt a more constructive attitude. There is always a risk that these delegations will instead use the time to reinforce their position and/or that the delay will leave too little time to resolve the problem.
Two common mistakes
Two mistakes that often cause negotiations to fail are:
- rejecting a deal that has benefits for your side because it is less than you had hoped to gain or
- rejecting a deal that has benefits for your side because you think the other side gains more.
Both these errors arise from a mistaken application of the principle of fairness.
Sometimes negotiators use the assistance of mediators.
The essential characteristics of mediators are that:
- they are not the parties to the negotiation and
- they are accepted as mediator by the parties and
- their role as mediator is accepted by the parties.
This role can include a range of actions, such as:
- Carrying messages between the parties
- Giving each of them an outsider’s view of their position and/or its prospects
- Suggesting possible solutions to whatever issues divide the negotiators
- Urging the mediator’s own solutions to whatever issues divide the negotiators
In all these cases, the parties themselves remain the final decision-makers. They remain sovereign and accountable: they have no excuse if the outcome is unacceptable to those whom they represent.
Anyone may serve as mediator, if the parties agree. The Chairman of the conference is often well equipped for this role, enjoying both an unrivalled understanding of the issues and the positions of the parties and the prestige of his/her office. Often, however, the Chairman has insufficient time to act as mediator or may not want to take the risks involved. In such cases he/she may appoint a facilitator or friend of the chair to try to find a solution. Delegations often offer themselves as mediators. On occasion, someone who is not a delegate may agree to serve as mediator.
Mediation may seem an attractive option in a number of situations. For instance a delegation may wish to use a mediator if it:
- finds itself lacking the empathy, knowledge, time or interest that would be necessary for it to resolve an issue by negotiating directly with the other party/ies
- has a high regard for the skills of a particular mediator and is confident that mediator will take due account of the concerns of different delegations and of the conference mandate
- is willing to make certain concessions but thinks this will be more readily accepted by domestic constituencies if recommended by a mediator
- represents a culture in which there is a high degree of respect for authority and/or
- feels –or feels compelled to demonstrate– a strong antipathy towards (an)other delegation(s) by not dealing with them directly.
The mediator as shaper
In the search for a solution to the problem posed by several delegations having different and possibly opposed views or objectives, the most powerful countries or groups of countries often find it difficult to be the ones who devise a solution. Their responsibilities are heavy and their systems of decision-making slow and complex. The delegations of some smaller countries can be more agile. They can explore possibilities more freely and without exposing the negotiating stance of the greater power or major group. They are better placed to come up with the solution acceptable to the great powers or major groups. They are therefore often in a position to shape the outcome of conferences and thereby to advance their own interests.
This is another reason why the choice of mediator is so sensitive. A mediator is unlikely to be successful –and therefore useful as a mediator- if he/she has objectives opposed to those of any of the parties to a negotiation he/she is called upon to mediate.
Negotiating in groups
Far more common than mediation is the practice of negotiating between groups. In complex negotiations involving large numbers of delegations, the most important negotiations take place between representatives of groups. Sometimes, especially in the final phase of a conference, the representatives meet alone; but it is not unusual for the whole group to be present alongside its designated spokesperson, although that person is the only one to speak. A list of Member State groups can be found here.
If delegates of members of the group are present during negotiation between spokespersons, their spokesperson can informally consult them, but the main benefits are:
- Members of the group can see that their spokesperson is appropriately and skillfully representing the views of the group. In the unlikely event that they are dissatisfied, they will know the full details of what transpired.
- They can witness everything that is said and done in the negotiations and thereby develop an understanding such as would be difficult for them to acquire from reports.
- Monitoring in this way the final negotiations, they get a sense of ownership of the outcome and are consequently more comfortable when the time comes for them to participate individually in a collective decision by the conference.
Negotiating in this way has many obvious advantages. One is that especially in a large conference it is much simpler and much quicker than a negotiation in which all participate. Indeed many conferences could not reach an outcome in the available time if each delegation participated in the final negotiations. Moreover, since each group is likely to select the most able negotiator available to them, each delegation knows that their interests are represented probably even more effectively than they could themselves.
But developing common negotiating aims, positions and strategies requires a high level of consultation and often negotiation within the group. It is common for groups to hold protracted and sometimes heated meetings in which differences are resolved. When the group is large, it often asks a smaller drafting committee to do the detailed work and submit proposals to it.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of those (especially smaller or poorer countries) who have high expectations of international cooperation, group positions tend to be more rigid that those of individual delegations would put forward. This comes from two factors.
One of these is intrinsic to decision-making by committees. In many committees each participant finds it easy to insist on what it will not accept and the committee has little choice but to accept that limitation. Conversely, if a participant wishes to advance a proposal, he/she faces an uphill task in getting the other members of the group to agree on the proposal. Often there has to be negotiation within the group and the outcomes reached represent compromises that greatly reduce the negotiating freedom of those who carry them into the next stage of negotiation: that with representatives of other groups.
Negotiating in this system can relieve small delegations from some of the burdens that would otherwise fall on them; but it does not relieve them of other responsibilities. Their challenge is to strike an appropriate balance between their individual or national objectives on specific matters and their governments’ wish to show solidarity with the group.
The other difficulty is that a negotiator for a group is accountable to individual members of that group. He/she may be criticized or otherwise impeded by members of the group for being too adventurous or not quick enough to take up opportunities etc.
The system places heavy responsibilities on the group spokesperson. Not only do the interests of the whole group rest on his/her shoulders so that the spokesperson is negotiating for very high stakes, but also they have to make sure that they are correctly representing the views of the group. One of their challenges is to have a sense of how far they can go and still carry their constituency (the group they represent).
The spokesperson for a group also has to have a system for communicating rapidly with members of the group as developments unfold. Some use a team of ‘runners’ to spread out among the delegates.
Sometimes groups operate in two tiers, when constituent groups (e.g. the Arab Group within the G77 or the Nordic Group within the EU) develop positions and sometimes appoint representatives who can negotiate on behalf of the constituent group within a larger group. Constituent groups can also have a role in disseminating information from the overall group spokesperson.
In Model UN simulations, group negotiations are rarely if ever explored. Most delegate are so focused on preparing their own country position on a particular topic that there is often little time to explore the position that a political group might take on the same topic. If the number of topics that are covered over the short span of conference were reduced, more time could be spent on the negotiation process and exploring the nature of group negotiations.