Having spent the better part of two decades traveling the negotiator's highway, I've often thought about why some deals get made along the way and others don't. Granted, I've labored almost exclusively in the Middle East coal mines -- an often bizarre, idiosyncratic, and exceptionally dysfunctional place where deals rarely, if ever, get done.
But paradoxically, failure can be instructive about the factors required for successful diplomacy. And clearly the Middle East offers up a pretty good testing ground for what hasn't worked. Indeed, with so many canaries dying in those mines over the years, you'd think we'd have figured out by now how to keep them alive.
Every conflict in the world is unique, and there's always a risk in overgeneralizing. But I think there are a number of core verities about how deals get done that transcend the politics, culture, and history of any particular dispute.
Let me apologize in advance to any number of graduate programs in conflict resolution, peace studies, and negotiation theory to which students (and their parents) contribute millions of tuition dollars every year in return for questionable high-brow theories expounded by many professors with no experience in either successful or failed negotiations. Save your money.
Here's a low-brow but reliable guide to how and why deals get done. You can apply these principles to just about any negotiation anywhere, about anything that's worth negotiating about.
1. Nobody Ever Washes a Rental Car
So spoke the ever-controversial, provocative, and -- in my book -- brilliant Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University and former U.S. Treasury secretary. One day wandering around Davos, he dropped this bombshell on me. It took me a full hour to figure out what Larry was talking about. But then it hit me. People, including you and me -- not to mention Israelis and Arabs, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Americans and Russians -- care only about what they own.
Without ownership, no negotiation worth anything can succeed, and if by some miracle it does, the agreement reached won't last. The locals in the fray -- whatever the conflict -- need to invest enough in the outcome to make it work. That doesn't mean they need do the deal all by themselves, without outside help. What it does mean is that the deal gets done largely because it's in their vital interests to do it.
I'm not a great believer in the ripeness theory of conflict resolution. Historic disputes aren't like apples or coconuts. They don't just one day fall off trees. A conflict may never be ripe or ready for resolution, but sometimes catalysts -- war, diplomacy -- can shake the tree. When that happens, there has to be enough investment by the locals to survive the ups and downs and inevitable crises that mar any road to the deal.
Every breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy, from the Egypt-Israel peace accord to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, came in response to events that the locals themselves set into motion and that changed their calculations. Indeed, ownership -- that elusive trait that pushes parties to do things they might otherwise not consider -- must be homegrown. It can't be artificially produced in some laboratory or in a would-be peacemaker's bell jar.
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