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The Art of Jaw

10 July 2015 By Martin Langfield

Financiers sometimes like to compare negotiations to military strategy, with books like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” co-opted for the purpose. Jonathan Powell’s provocative “Terrorists at the Table” is a reminder that the art of the deal matters on a whole different level when the result really is life and death. It’s a primer like few others, written by a British former political operative and diplomat of few illusions and stubborn hope. It’s also darkly funny.

Powell is no ivory-tower theoretician. A former Foreign Office diplomat who served for 10 years as chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, he was the chief British government negotiator on Northern Ireland. As such he had a significant hand in implementing the 1998 Good Friday accord there that largely ended three decades of sectarian killing.

Powell extracts lessons, tips and anecdotes from a dozen conflicts involving armed non-state groups, drawing on negotiation theory but also personal experience and interviews with many of those involved. Some of the conflicts are now over, for example in South Africa and Indonesia, some are now in advanced talks, as in Colombia, and others are unresolved. They cover nationalist, ethnic, religious and political strife.

Though conflicts vary, his basic framework is this: Make initial contact (difficult, dangerous and sometimes even illegal in itself); develop a back channel independent of public rhetoric (which may need to last for years); build trust in secret deniable talks (often via small personal gestures, or sharing food and lodging); then move to formal negotiations, ideally without preconditions. Engineer a solid win on a topic of importance for each side at the start, ensure the process is clear and robust, and keep going when things get tough.

A third party can often help, and indeed Powell says peace-making has entered a “venture capital” phase in the last decade, with individuals and small NGOs taking on the role previously exercised by the United Nations and governments. The cost is low, and one success in 100 makes the effort worthwhile. Powell in 2011 set up Inter Mediate, a charity focusing on mediation and negotiation in especially intractable conflicts around the world.

While the participants in a conflict are the only ones who can make peace, certain qualities in a mediator can help, Powell writes, including the ability to tactfully soften or censor messages from one side to the other; a capacity for charm bordering on manipulation; a temper never lost except on purpose; and infinite patience, for example during marathon recitals of historical grievances. He approvingly cites British diplomat Percy Cradock’s first law of diplomacy: The hardest negotiations are with your own side.

Powell sees the quirky and human side of a grim business. At a key point in one peace process a diamond-shaped table has to be brought in so that two adversaries can sit at it – partly facing each other, as one of them wishes, and partly side-by-side, as the other demands. Two leaders of rival rebel factions from Indonesia never speak to each other but sometimes meet accidentally along the aisles of a supermarket in Stockholm, where they both live. An unexpected thé dansant at a London hotel requires Israeli and Palestinian back-channel contacts to shout secret proposals to make themselves heard over the orchestra as aged couples twirl on the dance floor.

Financial dealmakers will recognize some of the strategems and tactics, but will also concede that what for them may often be little more than a lucrative game can, in Powell’s world, save lives that would otherwise end violently.

No conflict is insoluble, the author says. Any armed movement with significant political support or buoyed by a real grievance will need to be spoken with in the long run, though often while still fighting. Definitive victory over such groups is very difficult to achieve, and usually won’t resolve the underlying issues. No democracy can kill all its enemies, he argues, and trying to do so is a misunderstanding of the role of military force.

Creating instead conditions for violent groups to take a political path saves lives and reduces human misery, though many unsavory compromises can be required. Memories are short, and how to defuse conflicts must be constantly relearned, he says. The biggest mistake lies in declaring any group off limits for dialogue, though governments routinely do this before finding in the end that talking is their least bad option after all.

Powell’s precepts will anger some readers, who might wonder if they apply, for example, to jihadist groups. Yes, he says – eventually, on some topics, and with some members or factions. History suggests violent groups that lack support fizzle out. Those with staying power may be fought, and the hearts and minds of their supporters wooed, but talking is also an effective strand of counterinsurgency.


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