“No One is Really in Charge” Hostage Taking and the Risks of No-Negotiation Policies

Crisis negotiations have a lot to offer those in the business world. In particular, government prohibitions against negotiating with terrorists shed light on no-negotiation policies.

By — on / Crisis Negotiations

In the business world, we sometimes are tempted to avoid negotiating with people or groups we view to be immoral, untrustworthy, or simply unlikable. Imagine a counterpart who works in a business that you believe to be immoral, someone who has a reputation for gossiping about colleagues, or a longtime client who routinely falls back on hardball tactics.

The decision not to negotiate with someone can be a legitimate one. But when walking away from a problem would simply leave it in someone else’s hands, we could create bigger problems. The extreme case of crisis negotiations in the Middle East illustrates the potential repercussions of no-negotiation policies.

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No Guidance on Crisis Negotiations

In November 2012, U.S. journalist James Foley was taken hostage in Syria by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group. About a year later, ISIS emailed Foley’s brother Michael, demanding approximately $130 million and the release of Muslim prisoners being held in the United States.

Because the U.S. government has a policy against negotiating with or paying ransoms to terrorists, the FBI told the Foley family that it couldn’t bargain on the family’s behalf.

Aided by their son’s employer, the Foleys began raising money for a ransom. They discussed the possibility of private rescue efforts, but the terrorists’ demands were daunting. Complicating matters was a lack of coordination between the relevant U.S. agencies. Speaking of the U.S. government’s role in managing foreign hostage crises, one source told Foreign Policy, “No one’s really in charge.”

Meanwhile, several European countries whose citizens were being held with Foley engaged in direct hostage negotiations with ISIS, which led to numerous ransom payments and the release of about 15 European hostages.

On August 19, 2014, after sending the Foleys a final email complaining about their government’s refusal to negotiate, ISIS executed Foley.

A More Reasoned Approach

In his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin notes that the decision not to negotiate with a particular individual or group should be made with care, as closing off the possibility of negotiation can leave us stranded with few options for resolving a heated conflict. In the business realm, when we refuse to negotiate, a costly litigation process may become our only option for resolving a serious dispute.

For these reasons, Mnookin advises us to think through three key challenges before deciding not to negotiate with an enemy:

  1. Identify and avoid emotional traps. Irrational perceptions, such as the tendency to view those outside our group with suspicion, can lead us to demonize other parties in a way that thwarts the potential for negotiation. We need to face these tendencies and try to look beyond them.
  2. Analyze the costs and benefits of negotiating. Before writing someone off, carefully consider your interests in the negotiation, your and the other party’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA), the likely costs of negotiating, and obstacles to implementing a deal. This analysis should help clarify whether negotiation is your best option.
  3. Address ethical and moral issues. The desire not to taint our sense of honor or integrity can lead us to avoid negotiations with certain unsavory-seeming parties. But if not negotiating could harm those we represent, such as our family or fellow citizens, we may conclude that we have a greater moral duty to negotiate than to avoid these parties.

A Broader Moral Duty

The United States and other governments have compelling justifications for refusing to conduct crisis negotiations with terrorists. Terrorist groups have turned hostage taking into a lucrative form of fundraising, such that the payment of ransoms may motivate further kidnappings of foreigners abroad.

But the Foleys and other families accused the U.S. government of giving them contradictory messages and leaving them to flounder through crisis negotiations with terrorists—crisis negotiations that ordinary citizens are unqualified to pursue and that take an enormous emotional and financial toll.

Deciding not to negotiate with terrorists doesn’t absolve governments of their duty to their citizens, including the families of those being held hostage. More generally, if we decide not to negotiate with a particular individual or organization we find distasteful, we may still have a moral responsibility to guide and assist—to the extent that we can—those who will be left to pick up the pieces.

The Foley tragedy and other crises prompted President Barack Obama to order a review of U.S. government handling of hostage cases, which led to revised policies. These include promises of greater support for families of hostages, more sharing of intelligence with them, and better coordination between government agencies. As of 2022, the U.S. government has remained committed to its prohibition against negotiating with terrorists.

Do you have any lessons to share from crisis negotiations and/or no-negotiation policies?

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