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Timing and Ripeness
I. William Zartman
Editors’ Note: How do you know when it’s time to get serious about negotiating? When is a deal ready to be made? In the settlement of civil disputes, we often see parties expensively delaying negotiations, even waiting for mediation till they’re on the proverbial courthouse steps. Is there a science to this? From the perspective of international relations, Zartman analyzes the issue of ripeness and demonstrates when it’s time to settle.
After chronicling a series of failed initiatives to mediate a peace in El Salvador, Alvaro de Soto, (1999) UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, points to the turning point of the FMLN’s major November 1989 offensive, which penetrated the main cities including the capital, but failed to dislodge the government. “The silver lining was that it was, almost literally, a defining moment—the point at which it became possible to seriously envisage a negotiation. The offensive showed the FMLN that they could not spark a popular uprising....The offensive also showed the rightist elements in government, and elites in general, that the armed forces could not defend them, let alone crush the insurgents.... As the dust settled, the notion that the conflict could not be solved by military means, and that its persistence was causing pain that could no longer be endured, began to take shape. The offensive codified the existence of a mutually hurting stalemate. The conflict was ripe for a negotiated solution.”
Joe Slovo (1992), head of the South African Communist Party, expressed a similar view: “Neither side won the war. The National Party couldn’t rule any longer, and we [the African National Congress] couldn’t seize power by force. So that means both sides have to compromise. That’s the reality.”
“I saw no point in trying to impose a diplomatic ceasefire that neither side wanted or could be expected to observe,” wrote President Richard Nixon (1978: 921) about the October War in the Mideast. “I believed that only a battlefield stalemate would provide the foundation on which fruitful negotiations might begin.”
While most studies on peaceful settlement of disputes see the substance of the proposals—the What—for a solution as the key to a successful resolution of conflict, a growing focus of attention shows that an equally necessary key lies in the timing of efforts—the When—for resolution (Zartman 2000). Parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so—that is, when alternative, unilateral means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties feel that they are in a painful and costly predicament. At that ripe moment, they grab on to proposals that usually have been in the air for a long time and that only now appear attractive: They are pushed by the pain into seeking resolution.
Labor economists have long used this situation for their theories; when the threat of a strike does not portend sufficient pain, the threat is executed and the parties then calculate their costs in lost sales against war-chests until their strike costs mount higher than the costs of concessions and they begin bargaining on an equilibrium point for an agreement (Walton and McKersie 1965; see Raskin 1976.). Sometimes this can take a long time, as the 2004-2005 hockey players’ season showed. In this analysis I will use imagery drawn from international negotiations, including the prospect of violence; but the underlying principles are just as applicable in domestic and lower-stakes negotiations, as well as to non-violent conflicts and problems.
The Push Factor
The concept of a ripe moment involves two subjective elements.1 One is the parties' perception of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS) (Zartman 1983, 1989, 2000; Zartman and Berman 1982; Zartman and Touval 1985, 2007; Touval 1982) When the parties find themselves locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful to both of them (although not necessarily in equal degree or for the same reasons), they seek an alternative policy or a bi-/multilateral way out of the pain and hence out of the conflict or problem. If the parties were not stalemated and pained, they would simply continue to live....
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