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What do the Greek debt, the Iranian nuclear issue, the influx of migrants into Europe, the fight against Daech and the COP 21 have in common?

By Michel Ghazal

All these issues, which have dominated the headlines in international relations since the start of the summer, have one thing in common: the negotiations needed to deal with them are the most important. multilateral[1].
In contrast to bilateral negotiations, which involve only two parties, this type of negotiation is characterised by the presence on one side of several parties involved and, on the other hand, their agendas often include several points to negotiate.
For example, it was the 17 countries of the eurozone that were involved in negotiating the Greek debt. Similarly, it was the so-called P5+1 group (United States, France, Great Britain, China, Russia + Germany) that faced Iran to reach an agreement on the development of Iran's nuclear programme. At COP 21, representatives from 195 countries, NGOs, businesses and scientific groups will have to reach an agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Why are multilateral negotiations complex?


Because of the potentially large number of variables that can interact, multilateral negotiations have a very particular dynamic and present the highest degree of complexity. As a result, to be effective, the negotiators responsible for preparing and conducting them must have much broader skills than those required for bilateral negotiations.
Four specific characteristics make multilateral negotiations difficult:
- The presence of different interests, objectives and strategies
One of the major challenges faced by negotiators during multilateral negotiations is not only the multiplicity, but often the contradictory nature of the interests and objectives involved. Each party will deploy various strategies to steer the outcome towards satisfying its own interests and objectives. There is therefore a great risk of focusing on opposing and antagonistic interests.
For example, in the fight against the Islamic State (Daech), the differences between the players who are supposed to be allies make the prospect of success in this fight uncertain and remote. The "double game of Turkey is explained by American military support for Syrian Kurds allied with the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish rebel party.
The reluctance of the Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan) can be explained by their desire to prevent the American strikes from strengthening the power of Syria's Bashar al Assad, who is allied to their Shiite rival Iran. Similarly, these monarchies are opposed to another member of the coalition put together by the United States - Qatar - because they accuse it of continuing to finance the Al Qaeda and Al Nosra jihadists despite its commitment.
And when Putin, at the last session of the United Nations General Assembly, proposed that all the players involved in the war against Daech in Syria should join forces, the goals pursued by some (France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) - to overthrow Assad first - conflicted with those pursued by others (Russia, Iran, China, etc.) - to preserve him and then see through the transition - preventing the coalition from being formed.
Such is the case with France, which took a particularly hard line on an agreement with Iran to avoid offending its ally and "client" Saudi Arabia. It will no doubt reap the benefits of this attitude, as Saudi Arabia now has a terrible grudge against the United States. It reproaches the United States for having once again strengthened the Shiite axis to the detriment of the Sunni axis, of which it is the standard-bearer, following the war in Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam and install a Shiite government.
To further complicate matters, each party may face opposition from its own camp that does not share the same vision of its interests. Remember the opposition of the Republicans - on the pretext, among others, that it poses a threat to Israel's security - to an agreement signed with Iran by the Democrat Obama. You don't have to be a great expert to guess that the prospect of the next presidential elections - winning over the Jewish electorate - is a key factor in this attitude. In the same vein, a number of European public opinion groups have voiced their opposition to the financing, once again, of Greece's deficits.
The first step is to identify all the interests and objectives of all the parties. Then you have to identify and build on the common and shared objectives and interests. Otherwise, negotiations will drag on for a long time.
- Forming coalitions to build an agreement or block it
As soon as there are three or more parties to a negotiation, there is the potential for coalitions to form between different members who have an interest in cooperating together. The aim is either to move the negotiation forward in favour of an agreement that is advantageous to their interests and objectives, or to block an emerging agreement that they consider less favourable. What further complicates these situations is that, depending on the issue under discussion, some parties may simultaneously be members of both a favourable and an opposing coalition.
Furthermore, if there is a major imbalance of power between its members, alliances can lead some to impose their preferences on others. As a result, a competitive atmosphere can develop, leading those who are excluded or simply outvoted to form counter-productive coalitions that can undermine future negotiations. As a result, alliances tend to be unstable and can lead to flawed and ineffective solutions. Indeed, one of the parties may prevent an agreement that could be beneficial to all the others.
In any case, thanks to the formation of coalitions, multilateral negotiations, whether they involve three, ten or a hundred parties, tend, through these groupings, to be reduced to a set of smaller blocks, sometimes just two or three. In a way, this makes them easier to manage. Recall the axiom of game theorist Oskar Morgenstern: "any game involving three players is simplified to two, with the third term eventually merging with one of the other players"..
This whole dynamic is unique and of course non-existent in bilateral negotiations.
- The constant evolution of each party's alternative to a negotiated agreement
In a bilateral negotiation, the negotiator only has to estimate and define his Best Alternative Solution to a negotiated Agreement (BATNA means the best solution available to him in the event of the negotiation failing) as well as that of the other party. In a multilateral negotiation, this becomes more complicated. Faced with each new coalition that could exclude it from an agreement, each party has to recalculate and re-estimate its BATNA. By creating a coalition with others, a party can significantly improve its own MESORE and, at the same time, weaken the MESORE of the others. In this case, there is a risk that they will return the favour.
Since coalitions are by nature fluid, each party is obliged to constantly reconsider its BATNA (its best solution outside the agreement) as coalitions evolve. As a result, the stability of the possible agreement zone is altered.
Finally, if the decision-making process defines that a majority is sufficient to make an agreement binding, a party may therefore be forced to enter into an agreement even though its MESORE would be more favourable to it.
The communication of information also poses problems. Following a manoeuvre aimed at convincing a party to join an alliance, there is a risk that the information given to that party will be revealed to others in a manner contrary to its wishes.
This constant evolution of MESORE and the instability of possible agreements make multilateral negotiations complicated to conduct and manage.
- Exchange process management issues
As in any group, during a multilateral negotiation the parties will choose from different roles the one that best suits their context at the time: the promoter coalitions who will take the lead in pushing others towards their vision; the opponent which will fight to block any agreement and preserve its freedom of action; the observer who will stay in the background and keep score without getting too wet; the facilitator who will seek, from a position of neutrality and without defending a particular interest, to move the group towards an agreement; the followerThey have no particular interests to defend, but are prepared to support one side or another.
France, with its objective of minimising the risk of nuclear proliferation in its negotiations with Iran, has long been an opponent. The United States, on the other hand, was the real promoter of this agreement, which was designed to find support in the region other than that of Saudi Arabia.
Given the number of players involved, it is essential to assign animation negotiation sessions to someone. Otherwise chaos ensues. How can all this be managed without bias? If one party decides to take the lead, how can it avoid being perceived as trying to take power away from the others? To avoid these risks, should a neutral facilitator from outside the group be chosen?
This animator has three main roles: facilitatorHelping the group to define the agenda and distribute tasks; producerThe aim is to achieve a concrete result by bringing together the results of the work and summarising them; regulatorThis involves ensuring that the rules of the game are respected, helping to manage the interactions between the parties and monitoring the choices made in terms of external communication. This last point is a strategic one in international negotiations, because you have to manage your external and internal allies and opponents at the same time.
One of the many key questions to be resolved in the management of interaction processes is that of which parties to involve and which to exclude. For example, many have criticised the fact that not all the countries of the European Union, but only the 17 countries of the euro zone, were involved in managing the Greek debt crisis.
On another level, considering that this is their natural basin, the United States has ensured that China is not a party to the Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (TPP) concluded in Atlanta between 12 countries. This agreement, which defines the architecture for future trade in the region, took two years to negotiate. We can imagine China's reaction to being overtaken by the United States. Note that this agreement is the prelude to another highly controversial negotiation - the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) - underway since July 2013 between the United States and the European Union.
Similarly, determining the number of parties required to make the implementation of a decision binding is another issue that needs to be addressed. Should there be a unanimousa consensus, or is it enough for a majority to make the agreement binding? The rejection by some countries, including France, of the principle put forward by the European Commission of imposing quotas of migrants per country, has forced the Commission to consider other distribution keys considered to be fairer.
Other procedural issues also need to be discussed. These concern the organisation of discussions in plenary sessions, the coordination and integration of the work of the working groups, and whether or not it is necessary to call on external parties (facilitators, experts, observers, etc.). To complicate matters, although, as we have seen, coalitions can establish cooperative relationships between different parties, there can also be disagreements within the same party prior to multi-party negotiation. We need only recall the tensions between Laurent Fabius and Ségolène Royal over their disagreement over who is responsible for the climate summit, COP 21, to be held in Paris in December 2015.

In conclusion


A number of these issues, and many others, are absent from bilateral negotiations. However, all the principles applicable to bilateral negotiations remain valid when it comes to multilateral negotiations. It is only necessary to add another set of principles arising from the four particular characteristics of multilateral negotiations. However, it is clear that reconciling conflicting interests and objectives between a large number of parties and in the presence of several issues to be dealt with is not always easy or achievable.
The specific dynamics of multilateral negotiations must be managed effectively so that the interactions between negotiators produce the desired result. Otherwise, non-agreement prevails.


[1]This article draws on research by L. Susskind, M. Bazerman, R. Mnookin, J. Sebenius, L. Crump and others from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard and MIT.

See also

the European Negotiation Centre, quoted in Le Point.

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