In United Nations International Negotiations, A Demand for Openness

By on / International Negotiation

Sometimes the question of how to negotiate can be more hotly debated than the issues that come up during the negotiation itself.

Who should be involved in making key decisions?

Should the negotiation process be public or private?

How can parties ensure that all involved feel they’ve had a voice?

The 193 member states of the United Nations are being asked questions such as these as they face the prospect of choosing a new secretary general after the U.N.’s current leader, Ban Ki-moon, finishes his second term at the end of 2016.

In the past, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—have conducted secretive negotiations among themselves to choose “the world’s top civil servant,” writes Simini Sengupta in the New York Times.

That tradition is being challenged by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), supported by some former U.N. diplomats, that calls itself 1for7billion.org. The group calls the traditional negotiation process for U.N. secretary general “significantly outdated,” saying in a letter to U.N. member nations that it “falls short of modern recruitment practices for high-level international appointments” in addition to failing to live up to the U.N.’s own “standards and ideals.”

Speaking to the Times, retired U.N. diplomat Brian Urquhart agreed with this characterization, calling the U.N.’s current selection process “haphazard” and not a serious means of identifying the most qualified candidate.

Whether 1for7billion.org’s media campaign will attract the criticism needed to enact change remains to be seen. Previous attempts to reform the selection process have been unsuccessful.

What might be a better negotiation process for the selection of the U.N.’s leader?

The coalition is demanding a formal application process that would include transparent selection criteria, a shortlist of top contenders, and opportunities for all member nations to evaluate the candidates. Regional blocs of the U.N. are pushing for the role to be rotated among the world’s regions. Some have called for the U.N. to seriously consider a woman for the position for the first time in history.

The issues raised by the campaign are relevant beyond high-level international negotiation.

Negotiators often fail to consider how their agreement will affect those who are not present at the table, according to Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman and Illinois Institute of Technology professor James Gillespie. The researchers coined the term parasitic integration to describe instances in which the value created by negotiators at the table is taken from parties who don’t have a voice. In such negotiations, the parties involved may believe they are reaching a fair deal for all concerned, without recognizing how it might affect outsiders.

In the business world, recent instances of this phenomenon have included pharmaceutical companies that have found clever ways to dramatically increase the price of certain drugs without attracting negative publicity, and retailers that squeeze their suppliers so tightly in price negotiations that they make compromises on product safety.

In the case of the U.N.’s selection process for secretary general, as in other prominent international negotiations, the world’s most powerful nations face strong self-interested incentives to negotiate decisions that overlook the interests of other nations that will be affected. Yet if they became willing to negotiate a more methodical and open selection process, they might achieve other benefits, such as increased trust from other nations, that could pay off in future negotiations.

How can you ensure that your own business negotiations don’t create value at the expense of others?

Bazerman recommends asking yourself the following questions and answering them as honestly as possibly:

– Other than the negotiating parties, who is affected by the agreement?
– How is each of these parties affected? What is the magnitude of these effects?
– Do I care about these parties? Should I?
– How does the impact of the agreement on parties not at the table compare with the impact on the negotiating parties?

Taking a broader view of your negotiations shouldn’t require you to make financial sacrifices. Through creative thinking, you are likely to find new sources of value that enrich parties both at and away from the negotiating table.


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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