Conflict Resolution

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The most high profile negotiations in the world this weekend took place in Geneva, where the U.S. and Russia announced agreement on a framework for the surrender of chemical weapons by the government of Syria. Apparently discussion of this issue has going on for a long time. The idea of disarmament by the government of Syria did not simply arise in response to its recent chemical weapons attack. We might therefore try to analyze this agreement using modern principles of interest-based bargaining. Syria and Russia have an interest in resolving a terrible civil war (they are hoping to resolve it in favor of the government of Syria). They also have an interest in trade and decent relations with other countries in the region and the world. They want some degree of acceptance in the community of nations, and do not want to be seen as “outlaws.” By giving up Syria’s stockpile, they gain on all these points, and they therefore have good reasons to make an agreement even apart from the threat of force by the U.S., France and others.

Alastair Grant/AP

Looking at this situation in a more conventional way, it seems apparent that nothing pushed the parties to agreement until the U.S. and other countries threatened military action in response to Syria’s recent dastardly attack. Secretary of State Kerry continues to insist that the agreement to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons must be backed by force. He was quoted in a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying, “We cannot have hollow words in the conduct of international affairs.” This diplomatic breakthrough can therefore be seen as merely the continuation of war by less destructive means. Civilized nations are entitled to enforce a convention (or at least a norm, since Syria never signed the treaty). If a country commits a gross violation of such an international norm, sanctions may be imposed. To avoid those sanctions–to avoid the imminent threat of being bombed–Syria says it will to submit to an agreement to obey these international norms. It’s mostly a matter of who has the power, and whether they are willing and able to use it. Nations obey the rules when other nations impose meaningful sanctions for violations.

When we negotiate resolution of any sort of conflict, we may take for granted that we are usually doing it in the shadow of a more coercive and destructive form of conflict resolution. (In the international sphere, that means war. In the private sphere, that means courts.) Do we make agreements mostly because we understand the rules and know the consequences of breaking them? Alternatively, can we imagine a system of conflict resolution that does not require a backdrop of air strikes, economic sanctions or courts? Can we imagine nations, and individuals, reaching understandings based purely on enlightened self-interest and respect for the legitimate interests of others, without the need for the threat of force to compel and enforce those agreements?