Charles Crawford CMG
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Diplomacy: Where the Negotiating Never Ends (Part Two)

Charles Crawford CMG is a communication consultant who has drafted speeches for members of the Royal Family, Prime Ministers and other senior figures. He gives masterclasses in negotiation technique and public speaking / speechwriting. He is an expert on central Europe, having served as UK Ambassador in Warsaw, Belgrade and Sarajevo.


As we saw in Part One, all negotiating but above all international negotiating features five core ideas:





Time / Certainty / Risk

Russia and Poland for centuries have been negotiating through war and peace over their borders and cultures. Wary rivalry between England and France has been carrying on since the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Serbs v Croats. Korea v Japan v China. Sunni v Shia. Catholic v Protestant v Orthodox. Islam v Christianity.

All these rivalries and many more never really end on a timescale that matters to any of us. How can they? Now and again ‘historic compromises’ are reached. Then time passes. Leaders change. Deeper tensions re-emerge.

Look at YouTube videos of the map of Europe changing down the centuries, with states and fiefdoms and regions growing and wriggling and dissolving like amoebas under a microscope. Periods of integration lead to periods of disintegration and back to integration again.  Sometimes the underlying realities are extraordinary. Bosnia is on Europe’s maps in the 1300s. Then Bosnia vanishes, only to reappear as an independent state again after Yugoslavia collapses 600 years later.

One way of looking at this bewildering history is to see the European Union as a magnificent historical compromise that ends conflict across most of the continent, once and for all. Except it doesn’t. It’s safe to say that the European Union itself will not exist in 50 million years’ time. Nor 5 million, or even 500. Will it last for a further 50 years? Maybe. 5 years? Probably.

Nevertheless, sooner or later the European Union will give way to something else. (See Brexit.) Some pundits fret that we look to be heading back to dangerous nineteenth century ‘balance of power’ politics as technology and disillusionment combine to erode popular faith in democracy. Why stop there? Might we not be heading towards something much more like a sixteenth or fifteenth century model: strong city states and weaker national leaders relying on local barons, with some areas only loosely under any central control?

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There is one other critical difference between normal negotiating and diplomatic negotiating: the idea of safety in failure.

No car sales person wins promotion by never doing any deals for years on end. The whole point of selling cars is to sell cars! Failure to do that is not safe.

By contrast a national leader can run his/her own country towards ruin by refusing to make reasonable compromises but still stay in power. Compromises that change the situation for the better as seen by the wider world and/or by that country’s own people may lead to new dynamic uncertainty and risks for the leaders who make those compromises and are then expected to take things forward: “Fine – but what’s in this for me? Not much!”

The most obvious horrendous example is the Assad family in Syria. They have presided over decades of dirty repression and hopeless socialist economics that have culminated in a devastating civil war.

However, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad no doubt compares himself favourably with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Gaddafi foreswore his evil ways, demolished his weapons of mass destruction programmes, and started actively cooperating with Western capitals. He ended up being hacked to death in a ditch.

As Syria’s disaster has unfolded Western leaders such as Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have all proclaimed “Assad must go!”. They have all gone. Assad has stayed, confident that he has done the wise thing for Assad by cosying up to President Putin.

How even to analyse the grim Syria situation now? There are so many different layers of negotiating proceeding simultaneously. Syrians v Syrians. Arabs v Kurds v Turks v Russia v the West. Israel v Iran.

Perhaps above all, Peace v Justice. How can Syria be rebuilt without Peace, including Assad as the most powerful factor? How can there be Peace if there’s no Justice and Assad stays in power? As these and other factors swirl around, it’s easy to spot examples of Security/Resources/Control/Reputation/Time/Risk all working both for and against any settlement.

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It’s impossible to understand diplomacy and the media images of high-level haggling on security or climate change or trade or Brexit that flicker on our TV screens without grasping that the negotiations immediately concerned are part of deeper tensions and rivalries that echo far down the decades.

These negotiations arguably can’t end, either in theory or in real life. They involve existential issues of security and identity that last for centuries until they too inexorably crumble away, as everything does.

As one top EU ambassador once put it to me, EU negotiating is like endless (and maybe even pointless) tag wrestling: “We trip up the Germans and Belgians, who then trip up the Poles, who tag the Spanish and Finns to trip us up, and round and round it goes.”


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