Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts

Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts

by Douglas E. Noll

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This in-depth analysis goes behind the headlines to understand why crucial negotiations fail. The author argues that diplomats often enter negotiations with flawed assumptions about human behavior, sovereignty, and power. Essentially, the international community is using a model of European diplomacy dating back to the 18th century to solve the complex problems of

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This in-depth analysis goes behind the headlines to understand why crucial negotiations fail. The author argues that diplomats often enter negotiations with flawed assumptions about human behavior, sovereignty, and power. Essentially, the international community is using a model of European diplomacy dating back to the 18th century to solve the complex problems of the 21st century.

Through numerous examples, the author shows that the key failure in current diplomatic efforts is the entrenched belief that nations, through their representatives, will act rationally to further their individual political, economic, and strategic interests. However, the contemporary scientific understanding of how people act and see their world does not support this assumption. On the contrary, research from decision-making theory, behavioral economics, social neuropsychology, and current best practices in mediation indicate that emotional and irrational factors often have as much, if not more, to do with the success or failure of a mediated solution.

Reviewing a wide range of conflicts and negotiations, Noll demonstrates that the best efforts of negotiators often failed because they did not take into account the deep-seated values and emotions of the disputing parties. In conclusion, Noll draws on his own long experience as a professional mediator to describe the process of building trust and creating a climate of empathy that is the key to successful negotiation and can go a long way toward resolving even seemingly intractable conflicts.

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Prometheus Books
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How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Douglas E. Noll
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-418-0

Chapter One

Eighteenth-Century Diplomacy Will Not Solve Twenty-First-Century Problems

Everyone wants world peace. Miss America wants to work for peace. Churches pray for it. Every Friday afternoon in the beach town of Carpinteria, California, a dozen or so people hold up signs demanding world peace. It is every good person's birthday wish. But how to get there?

The headlines don't give us much hope. Peace talks fail; negotiations over climate change fail; Iran is developing The Bomb. Afghanistan is an expensive mess, and the Sunnis and Shi'a are duking it out in Iraq. There seems to be more war and strife than ever before.

The cost of conflict is high. When you include veterans' obligations, interest on the amount borrowed to finance defense spending, and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 54 cents of each US tax dollar pays for the military. The United States spends more on defense than the entire world put together.

International conflicts affect us all, and our inability to solve them threatens our very existence on the planet. The threat is to our personal security, our communities, and to our environment.

Why can't these problems be solved? That's the question I asked myself. I began to wonder why we can successfully mediate deeply painful conflicts like sexual abuse by clergy members and serious criminal offenses between victims and offenders, but not international conflicts. So I started to study the problem from my perspective as a professional mediator. What I learned was that the people in charge of international mediations and negotiations, though highly distinguished politicians and diplomats, are not always as skilled in the art and science of modern negotiation and peacemaking as they could be. In many cases, they are using old ideas and antiquated assumptions in their efforts to solve twenty-first-century problems.

Imagine sending a board-certified oncologist who specializes in colon cancer into a busy urban emergency room on a Friday night. The oncologist may get through the shift but not nearly as easily or as skillfully as the board-certified emergency room surgeon who has spent ten years working in a major trauma center. This metaphor describes the current practice of using former politicians and diplomats to intervene in international conflicts. We are sending in the oncologist, not the trauma surgeon, to handle the crisis.

In many cases, international mediators lack the experience and knowledge of how to deal with complex conflicts. Very few, if any, international mediators have had much mediation experience measured by the number of conflicts formally mediated. By way of contrast, the average successful US commercial mediator mediates more complex cases in a year than most international mediators have mediated in their careers. That is not to say that quantity is better than quality or that a complex commercial case is equivalent to an international conflict. However, in addition to the lack of formal training, the actual experience of mediating conflicts between people who are at war with each other is quite limited. The trauma center surgeon sees hundreds of medical emergencies, minor and major every week. The oncologist, simply because of the nature of his or her practice, sees none.

In other cases, the processes used to work with difficult conflicts harkened back to white wigs, frocked coats, and silk stockings. Too many diplomats and foreign ministers still believe in eighteenth-century ways of diplomacy and negotiation. Everyone knows that the twenty-first century world is very different than eighteenth-century Europe. The world is a complex place requiring a much more nuanced approach.

These complexities seem to stymie the ability of international negotiators to engage each other constructively when there are huge chasms of difference. When nations do come together, they are often cast into an unwieldy process that is often nonproductive. Not surprisingly, international negotiators often end up angry and disgruntled with each other. The media inflames these failures, making things worse.

Our only hope is to abandon the old processes in favor of approaches to conflict that take into account the knowledge we have gained in a vast array of disciplines around decision making, neuropsychology, and human behavior. It invokes processes that promote collaboration and discourage competition. It is the critical next step in bringing peace to the world.


The old ways of dealing with international conflict are not only failing, they are actually endangering us in ways that we probably are not aware of. Take nuclear nonproliferation as an example. Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty says: "[Each of the] states undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament," and toward a "treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

For almost forty years, the nuclear weapons states have not fulfilled their mutual obligation to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons. Instead, conflict has arisen between nonproliferation ("We keep our nukes, you don't get yours") and disarmament (the total elimination of nuclear weapons). The nuclear powers conflate nonproliferation with disarmament so that the focus is on preventing North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear weapons, rather than on disarming the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, and Israel, among others. The diplomats conveniently ignore this nuclear narcissism, refusing to talk seriously about the possibility of complete, worldwide nuclear disarmament at a high political level. Perhaps disarmament is unrealistic. However, Iran makes a point when it asks why there are not ongoing discussions about global disarmament.

The December 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen is another example of how old processes have led to impasse. We will look at this conference in greater detail later. Suffice it to say that the 2009 conference was a large political meeting with over forty-five thousand people attending. In addition to diplomats and technical experts from every nation, the conference was observed by dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a media mob, environmental groups, and business interests. The critical negotiations took place behind closed doors. Given the adversarial framework in which the negotiations were structured, impasse was inevitable. Kenneth Cloke, the founder of Mediators Beyond Borders, wrote:

Large political meetings like this one are often arranged hierarchically, bureaucratically and autocratically (even when they adopt a formally democratic official language); around narrow, technical topics that make it difficult for anyone to have authentic, meaningful conversations; entirely in large groups that do not allow for honest inter-personal dialogue; based on formal, arcane procedures that tie conversations in knots; and are increasingly pointless, ineffective, and unnecessary.

The failure to understand and acknowledge the failure of current negotiation processes is systemic. It deeply penetrates the international diplomatic community. While in Copenhagen observing the global warming treaty negotiation process, Laurel Kaufer, a well-known California-based mediator, asked ambassador John Ashe, chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group–Kyoto Protocol, why the parties to climate change conferences do not use mediation when impasse is reached. Ambassador Ashe answered disdainfully, "Why should we do that? Mediation is for human rights issues." Embedded in Ambassador Ashe's answer is the elitist idea, "We diplomats know best. Go away and leave the negotiating to us professionals." The fact is, many diplomats are neither knowledgeable nor professional when it comes to working with deep conflict. The examples I use in the chapters that follow will illustrate this.

The point of this book is to look at these antiquated processes, understand why they are not working, and offer up a more nuanced view of negotiation, problem solving, and conflict resolution that might help us use twenty-first-century technology to solve twenty-first-century problems. I don't suggest that a modern approach will immediately solve all of the complex problems of the world. However, using a scalpel instead of a meat axe to remove a tumor seems like it might lead to a better outcome for the patient. I want to demonstrate the crisis of failure in modern international negotiation. I believe that we have better technology, better knowledge, and better science about negotiation, problem solving, decision making, and human behavior than did eighteenth-century diplomats. Skillfully applied, this technology can help us work more productively on the intractable problems of the modern world.


When we have to negotiate for anything, even something as simple as a buying a used car, we want to know the motivations of the people with whom we are negotiating. If we understand the other person's motives, we hope we can strike the right chord to get them to do what we want them to do. To help us achieve this, we formulate assumptions and theories about why people do what they do.

To get a sense about the importance of understanding the assumptions of negotiators, consider what I am doing when I intend to negotiate a used car purchase. First, I generate some fundamental assumptions about the seller. I assume he wants to sell me a car. Second, I assume he wants to sell me a car at the highest price possible because it affects his commission. Third, I assume that he wants to be my newest best friend, but not because of my good looks. He and I both know that affinity is one of the five central elements of effective persuasion. Fourth, I assume he has my best interests in mind only to the degree that it helps him sell me a car. Fifth, I assume he will use sales tricks, tips, and techniques common in car sales negotiations, and that I can expect to be manipulated. Sixth, I will assume some dishonesty. Everyone fudges on something, so I will expect that from him.

I will also assume that he will use the technique of limited authority against me, and that I will have to negotiate with him, a sales "manager," and a finance "manager." I assume that these "managers" are just souped-up salespeople whose purpose is to close the deal at a higher price, with more options, and with a profitable financing deal. That's a lot of assumptions for me to make, but they will guide me in my negotiations so that I am not exploited, manipulated, or overwhelmed by the process. After all, these guys do this for a living every day, while I buy a car every ten to twelve years.

These are all assumptions we implicitly might make in the negotiation over a used car. They guide us in our decision making and help us get what we want without paying too much.

Just like buying a used car, international diplomats have certain assumptions and theories about human nature.


The fundamental assumption in international relations is that human beings are self-interested egoists who tend toward violence, contention, and brutality unless constrained by threat or exercise of violent force. Thucydides expressed this assumption early on, and it was recapitulated later by Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. This view of human nature is also expounded in the Christian theology of original sin developed by Augustine as a rebuttal to the arguments of the Irish monk Pelagius.

From a gross observational standpoint, the assumption that the other guy is out to advance himself at my expense seems consistent with how the world really works. After all, history and our personal experiences are replete with examples of selfishness and self-aggrandizement leading to misery, violence, and war. We cannot assume that the other guy is altruistic when the evidence points to the conclusion that he wants to smack us down. International relations theory assumes that governments act pretty much like individuals unless they, too, are constrained by a dominant power. Thus, diplomatic negotiation is often conducted through the threat of economic sanctions and the exercise of military power.

Obviously, human beings and their governments have the capacity to act dangerously. However, dangerous behavior is not automatic or inherent. In fact, given a preference, most human beings will choose peace over war. In addition, we have an extraordinary capacity for cooperation, love, attachment, empathy, and altruism. The narrow assumptions of diplomacy do not trust these innate human traits and therefore ignore the enormous power that they may contribute in negotiation, conflict resolution, and problem solving.

Old diplomacy also assumes that human beings are rational players, seeking, in the terms of traditional economics, to maximize their utility. In other words, individuals and governments make rational choices to improve their lives, economic well-being, or security from outside threats.

The assumption of rationality pervades international relations theory. For example, international relations scholars Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye wrote, "Both realism and liberalism are consistent with the assumption that most state behavior can be interpreted as rational, or at least intelligent activity." The language of rational actors, rational states, cool assessments of risk, and so forth are found throughout the literature of international relations.

This concept, called rational-choice theory, is the foundation of economics and political science in the Western world. Its greatest flaw is that it discounts the importance of emotions in decision making and therefore fails to predict the actual behaviors of human beings with any reasonable accuracy. New discoveries in behavioral economics, cognitive and social neuroscience, and social psychology have demonstrated that emotions weave through our every thought, decision, and action. To paraphrase neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, we are 98 percent emotional and 2 percent rational. We are not nearly as rational as we think we are. Behavioral economists like Duke University professor Dan Ariely have established that we are "predictably irrational" in most of our decision-making processes. More importantly, rationality may not define what it means to be human.

Our twenty-first-century knowledge paints a picture of a much more complex motivational process. A recent study illustrates the point: A group of people was randomly divided into two groups. Each person in one group was given a two-digit numeral to memorize, such as 12, 20, or 31. The people in the other group were asked to memorize a seven-digit telephone number, such as 3437654 or 7965748. Both groups were told to keep those numerals in their memory and not to forget them. They would be asked at a later time whether or not they remembered the numbers. As they were reminded to keep the numbers in mind, they were offered a snack plate containing apple slices and brownies.

The researchers were interested in whether the groups would vary in their choice of snacks. Sure enough, more of the people who were required to remember the two-digit numbers picked apples, while more of the people who were remembering the seven-digit number took brownies off the plate. Not everybody picked apples over brownies or brownies over apples. However, the number of two-digit people who chose the apples over brownies compared to the total group, and the number of seven-digit people who chose brownies compared to the total group was statistically significant.

The hypothesis that developed from this experiment, and many others like it, is that when our cognitive capacity is taxed by even a simple task of remember a string of numerals, our ability to manage emotional impulses is dramatically reduced. The two-digit people had an easier time because of the smaller number and therefore had some cognitive capacity left over for impulse control. They could resist the less healthful brownie and make a healthier, if less tasty, decision to eat an apple.


Excerpted from ELUSIVE PEACE by DOUGLAS E. NOLL Copyright © 2011 by Douglas E. Noll. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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