Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate

– John F. Kennedy – Inaugural Speech 1961 (*)

Bargain or threat: The historical perspective

According to its most commonly accepted origin, the “trick or treat” adage actually included a threat, that of doing mischief. Today – except in terror movies, and probably linked to its ascribed more sinister past – it is a straightforward children’s entreaty, essentially a bargaining or negotiation proposal. Real life, however, is no child game.

Has bargaining, negotiation, and diplomacy fared well throughout history? Should we be coming to terms with the notion that threats, coercion, deceits, even warfare, have been the common mechanisms at play among empires and nations? If so, should we care? Wouldn’t bargaining power at that level and scope benefit from Porter’s 5 forces theory, or any other negotiation approach, even some of what may be inferred from pure Game theory (rationality and maximization), or Nash’s theoretical (non-cooperative decision making) equilibrium? Consequently, is there anything to learn from these and related questions for personal or collective benefit, such as for commercial enterprise or for the creation of sustainable prosperity? How does bargaining incompetency affect us?

We cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable,” said J. F. Kennedy.

Evidently, the above intellection applies everywhere. In other words, should we be hanging up the phone on the Aussies on day one? Part II will focus on macroeconomic considerations, leading, finally, into Part III, which will attempt to look at the potential new role and prospects of a rebirth of collective bargaining. To approach this first part I will start by putting two basic reflections up front:

1) The use of the “big stick” policy, say, in supra-national scenarios, has proven counterproductive and has, most of the time, met with failure (therefore my “H” for hydrogen, as a hyperbolic “nuclear modifier” in the original word “treat”).

 2) If the above is basically true then our lives are affected by the inability of others to bargain on our behalf.

We should, therefore, be taking stock of how affairs seemingly flying over our heads are conducted. If more could be inferred from this, we should then be actively looking at the possibility of optimizing our “pursuit of happiness” by minimizing the possibility of adverse outcome caused by inadequate mechanisms that threaten this “unalienable right”.

Bargaining and the “pursuit of happiness”

Bargaining or imposition are mechanisms used on a personal, business or institutional level. Many will agree that the first of these two approaches has the much greater potential of allowing societies and individuals to relate to each other more effectively in order to maximise mutual satisfaction and long-term benefits. In fact, even the words “pursuit of happiness” were born out of negotiation and compromise. This particular and much referred to meeting-of-the-minds, which gave birth to a nation, required conscientious effort, not just inspiration and guiding principles. Their authors had no empirical reasons to believe what they were writing. Yet, there it is.

For the sake of our analysis let’s consider then that the inter-relational tools for interconnectivity, be they “muscle” or “persuasion”, or anything in between, are conducts that also take place between nations with a certain degree of resemblance to what takes place among individuals. Nations, that is, their “so-called” leaders, and/or their institutions, not only interact showing human personality traits in their relationships, (often those of their personal protagonists) but they tend do so with less restraint, often in some significant degree of ignorance, at times apprehension too, despite their responsibility, the risks and the long-term consequences at play.

Most individuals interact and establish alliances at close range; their relationships are probably much “closer to their skin”, existing in a much more immediate time frame.

Nations are further removed from the limitations and restraints of individuals. In addition, the possibility to develop a well throughout strategy for bargaining is a privilege and advantage that the larger institutional or national has when compared to the smaller players and individuals. One, therefore, presupposes that the former have the knowledge, the capabilities, and resources, including much better “anger management”, so to speak, to carefully consider alternative scenarios and to form cohesive platforms for negotiation related to previously defined objectives, be these tactical or manipulative, or even in more noble ones, for that matter, such as those ascribed to mutual recognition of rights and aspirations and the framework for cooperation.

A historical consideration about the issue “bargaining vs. coercion” is otherwise more accessible and evident on the institutional level. I will, therefore, refer to nations as specimens – and from these we also drop the H, though in this case, the “h” is for “humans” – as our chosen “larger specimens” in this analysis, just as if we were dealing with, say, large “rats” in a science lab.

So, back to our initial question, has coercion and imposition been the main driving forces among nations throughout history?

Take, for instance, World War I, commonly referred to as The Unexpected War. Most would agree that the alliances overshadowed all attempts to negotiate. Its cost: Death in the tens of millions and the debut of WMDs like no one had ever imagined. As Hemingway, who was there to suffer it, put it: “There are many words that you could not stand to hear and only the names of places had dignity. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene“.

What about World War II?

Yet, on close analysis, one should also be able to recognize that it took a good number of years of elaborate planning and efforts to even get close to the scenario that could actually break out into a full-fledged war.

British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” declaration, only months before becoming the war erupted, is worthy of mention. Excerpts from his declaration after his agreement with the Third Reich’s Führer include the quote: “… we are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted”, and this was stated in the light of the agreement, quoting again: “…the desires of our two peoples never to go to war”. Calling this infamous statement wishful thinking is far too considerate. Hence, many will argue that nothing, but force, could stop Hitler. Yet, on close analysis, one should also be able to recognize that it took a good number of years of elaborate planning and efforts to even get close to the scenario that could actually break out into a full-fledged war. What happened in between, that is, during all those pre-war years? Things didn’t just happen overnight.

The pre-emptive powers of credible bargaining were doomed to failure. Disengagement and paralysis failed to detect true intentions. There was a total lack of foresight in the analysis of the multiple impending scenarios that must have loomed like spectres over the horizon. No one dared to deflect the initial momentum that finally unleashed the unstoppable fury of destruction and which took an additional serving of even more destruction in order to stop. If it could have been avoided: then, why not? Come to think of it: this monstrous malediction, could have been uprooted much earlier; right from the outset; or wasn’t this option a possibility? Later regrets are of little consequence.

The following quote, referring to WWI, should make us shiver: “All through the war, the great armament firms were supplied from the enemy countries. The French and the British sold war materials to the Germans through Switzerland, Holland and the Baltic neutrals, and the Germans supplied optical sights for the British Admiralty. The armament industry, which had helped stimulate the war, made millions out of it”. (British historian C.J. Pennethorne Hughes)

For the analysis, I propose that we look at various coordinates in an equation: the relationship between “scenario”, “scope” and “timeframe” as these relate to a fourth one: “objectives”, in order to attempt to understand the larger figure.

Let’s start with the third one first: time frame.

The “time frame” coordinate.

Let’s take the grand tour.

History evidences that our specimens failed to properly relate to each other’s mutual satisfaction; otherwise many of our long bygone “specimens”, nations and empires, could have still been here with us today and, quite simply, they are not. We would, therefore, be fooling ourselves to think that history is circumscribed to the post-war years and is various alliances and relationships, however stable they may seem now. We haven’t seen history unfold itself yet. Much larger and longer “alliances” or stable relationships existed before that and failed. From Pax Romana to a long list of empires, their appearance in history came already with an expiry date. The problem is that they didn’t know it themselves and they did not know either when or how to take corrective action. In fact, their own reactions accelerated their decadence: Too much or too little, too late. Reality, their own “expiry dates”, finally caught up with most, if not all, of our national specimens. In most, if not all of these cases, what prevailed: bargain or the “muscle” of imposition?

Let’s look then at the second coordinate.

The “scope” coordinate.

By this second coordinate, “scope”, we refer to the degree and type of significance and the level of interconnectivity between the various specimens in these international relationships. Like people, nation-specimens will either orbit as satellites around common affinities or, to the contrary, show much lesser inter-dependence. This coordinate has also created “planetary systems” among nations and empires. The great dividing lines, be they geographic, cultural/religious, racial, language or economic have worked together with the previous coordinate in determining the type of relationships, that is whether bargaining or imposition have been at the core of the interconnecting building tools over the many centuries.

Of these great dividing lines, the economic one is a mighty one and will be considered in part II.

As far as the great dividing lines of our second coordinate as referred to above: did these create conditions leading to bargain? Can’t we see the role, not just of economic interest, but those of race, religion, and ethic as rather non-conciliatory forces, clearly more related to oppression than to bargaining and cooperation?

The two previous coordinates take me to our third.

The “circumstantial” coordinate.

This one is governed by the varying circumstances caused by the changing behavioural nature of our specimens, something we refer to as mostly circumstantial, particularly so for the other specimens as it relates to the relationships. So, totally circumstantial would be, for example, events that happen within the specimens, be it a royal/ruler successions, the effects of economic malaise, famines, pests and illnesses, natural catastrophes, etc. Again, none of these can relate to bargaining as a chosen route. These are, by their nature, purely circumstantial impositions on the bilateral and multilateral relationships, but the consequences can change the world.

The “objective” coordinate.

And now the last of the four coordinates, to which all previous three relate.

Each one of us is free to judge whether our specimens may be driven by charity or, instead, by selfish economic interests; or whether cultural bias, ineffective communication, or something as intangible as patriotism, has any significant influence. Whatever the motive, imposition has essentially failed to attain what was officially pretended, at least not under the premise of a goal such as mutually advantageous satisfaction, which has more staying power, even when shorter/mid-term gains seem to have been accomplished. Of what value are short-term gains if the midterm and the long-term are totally unacceptable?

The results of international interactivity based on imposition have ultimately failed. Manipulation leads to distrust and resentment.

Or take Ole Holsti’s “inherent bad faith model” specifically applied to negotiation, where an inadequate recognition of data (or, perhaps, “alternative facts”) is not conducive to real compromise due to a false set of perceptions.

Relationships are not pieces on a steady world-map chessboard but, instead, a rough ride in a fluid scenario full of surprises, no matter how big and mighty the specimen is… or thinks it is. Most, if not all, of the post World War II conflicts, all the way to our present day, give ample evidence of the general failure of coercion, not to speak of the high cost, and not just in terms of human lives or the strictly economic ones. Conflicts are disruptive. Incoherence between disclosed goals and results can develop into tumours that spread like metastasis, especially in our expeditious and unbridled twitter-world, causing much disarray, needless social stress and loss of purpose and direction. These are probably the largest of all costs.

Governance among nations is not a reality show or a computer game. History is there to teach us true to life lessons.

So what should it be, bargain or threat?

(*) Comment on J. F. Kennedy’s quotes: Much have been written – and certainly much of it is also speculation – about this crisis, which most (supporters or detractors) recognize as one of, if not the most critical, during the entire cold war period. Records that have been released since reveal that Kennedy became gradually more convinced of a negotiated way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite pressure from his advisers to use coercion, an option that he may have also considered at first. This is a topic all on its own, and the quotes are included for their own merit, not as a reflection of political choice or political bias, and certainly not as a blank check on everything that relates to J.F.K.


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Ragnar A. Brigg
RAGNAR is passionate about his pursuit of a better understanding of our “global village” in a range of topics. Despite his business, educational and personal life experience having given him much to draw from, he still aims at not being curtailed by “excess weight” in order to try maintain a fresh and balanced perspective on today’s rapidly changing world. He believes that everything that happens is convolutedly intertwined and that we all are, for better or for worse, at the very heart of it. Ragnar feels an urge to try discovering, unmasking, divulging or denouncing what and how he sees things. Often it’s about soul searching and storytelling; or about engaging himself in learning and critical analysis in order to expand his borders and sharing it, whenever possible. Ragnar has lived in several countries and held management positions in major entities. From his very early exposure to technology, his career moved to the re-/insurance and finance areas, where team building and general management skills were pivotal; later to entrepreneurial activities, both as consultant, international business-model researcher as well as trader and industrial project designer/developer. Ragnar is fluent in a number of languages and has a passion for others. He holds a B.Sc. from Florida Tech/F.I.T. and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has recently reestablished himself with his wife in Norway. Besides some niche consulting jobs Ragnar is currently working on two book projects, both of which require much research in libraries in different countries.
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