In international negotiations and other complex multiparty negotiations, should you set ambitious goals right from the start or begin with more modest ones?
Aiming high can lead to dramatic payoffs if you succeed, but the difficulty of orchestrating complicated international negotiations can increase the risk of impasse. By contrast, starting with more modest goals may suggest a lack of ambition or resolve, but might increase negotiators’ odds of slowly building momentum and trust.
To take one cross-cultural negotiation case study, a narrow and modest approach to ending the war in Syria is currently proving more promising than more ambitious attempts have been.
Bold vs. modest approaches
In the early years of the longstanding conflict, two heavyweight mediators—former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, a diplomatic leader in the Arab world—each took bold steps to end the war in Syria. Both held peace conferences in Geneva, Switzerland and tried to engage all interested parties in reaching agreement. But talks collapsed both times, and both men resigned without meeting their goals.
By contrast, the ambitions of Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. mediator who has been in charge of ending the war in Syria since mid-2014, are more modest, as is his reputation. The Swedish-Italian U.N. diplomat has less experience mediating high-profile international conflicts than either Annan or Brahimi.
Rather than planning peace negotiations upon taking charge, de Mistura followed a “minimalistic” approach that included lowered expectations that the United Nations would be able to impose peace in Syria, according to Reuters. His early moves, such as attempting to engineer a ceasefire for Aleppo, were unsuccessful. One of his political advisers quit his team and criticized di Mistura as being “out of his depth,” Reuters reports.
A successful deflection
By the end of 2015, de Mistura was planning a modest series of “working groups” to debate the future of post-war Syria. But the United States and Russia pressured him to pursue legally binding international negotiations.
The resulting “Geneva 3” peace talks, led by de Mistura, at first seemed in danger of being derailed by “a swamp of side-arguments,” according to Reuters, such as whether Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should stay in power. But, rather than putting such hot-button issues on the negotiation agenda, de Mistura deflected them—saying, for example, that it was up to the Syrian people to decide Assad’s fate.
De Mistura launched Geneva 3 on February 1 but suspended them within two days, saying the combatants remained too far apart. Interested stakeholders would need to lay a firmer groundwork to enable the international negotiations to generate momentum, he said. The decision “kicked the ball” to the United States and Russia, according to the New York Times.
A fragile truce
Moscow and Washington stepped up to the plate, declaring a “cessation of hostilities” that was accepted by Assad’s government and many in the opposition. By March 13, with the fragile truce holding, de Mistura felt optimistic enough to resume peace talks in Geneva.
On the first day of the international negotiations, Russian president Vladimir Putin surprised the world with the news that his forces would immediately begin pulling out of Syria. He also said his diplomats would be fully invested in the peace process. The moves put pressure on Assad to become more conciliatory during the talks.
De Mistura opened the international negotiations by warning the adversaries at the table that if they failed to agree on a “clear roadmap” for Syria, there was no “Plan B” other than resumption of conflict, Reuters reports. He then began meeting with the two sides separately with the goal—modest-sounding yet formidable—of getting them in the same room.
Setting the right negotiation goals
The diplomatic negotiation techniques and negotiation agenda that de Mistura followed in setting up the Syria peace talks suggests strategies that those involved in complex international business negotiations and dispute resolution might try:
Set modest goals. Rather than announcing ambitious plans right from the start, considering setting more conservative goals. Making incremental progress on relatively simple initiatives can help foster the trust and optimism needed to tackle more challenging goals at a later date.
Empower other parties to find solutions. To improve the odds that the international negotiations would succeed, de Mistura stepped back and put key stakeholders in charge of resolving certain issues on their own and influencing principal parties. By stepping back and prompting others to lead, you can invest them in problem solving.
But don’t underestimate your odds. De Mistura might still have been pursuing his nonbinding “working group” approach if Russia and the United States hadn’t pushed him to schedule a new round of peace talks. In international negotiations, there’s a fine line between being modest and being irrelevant. Play it too safe, and you may find yourself with no significant goals at all.