The Pros and Cons of Back-Channel Negotiations

In the public sector, top-secret talks often run parallel to more official dealmaking. When deciding whether to pursue back-channel negotiations and take your own negotiations underground, anticipate the risks.

By PON Staffon / International Negotiation

The Pros and Cons of Back-Channel Negotiations

Back-channel negotiations provide temporary protection from deal spoilers and public scrutiny.

Back-channel negotiations have been used in numerous conflicts across the globe, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from 1994 to 1996 and the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979–1980. In 1985, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela conducted back-channel negotiations with South Africa’s minister of justice, Hendrik Jacobus Coetsee, that laid the groundwork for the end of the apartheid era. Back-channel talks are most commonly used in diplomacy, but they occur in the private sector as well, as when businesses want to negotiate highly visible disputes out of the public eye. Back-channel negotiations helped to resolve the New York City transit strike negotiations of December 2005, for example.

Why go underground?

The primary benefit of back-channel negotiations is that they remove talks from the scrutiny of an audience, including constituents, the press, and even members of one’s own negotiating team. When negotiators feel pressured by observers to take a hard-line position, they may fall back on counterproductive aggressive tactics and avoid exploring possible concessions and tradeoffs. Negotiating through a back channel enables would-be dealmakers to test the waters—to determine whether the other party is capable of negotiating in good faith—before exploring real commitments. Thus, back-channel negotiations can be particularly appealing to high-level leaders who are fearful of a public failure if their efforts to reach a deal collapse.

Back-channel talks also help negotiators circumvent potential deal spoilers, writes Wanis-St. John. When particular stakeholders have an interest in undermining the parties’ ability to reach an agreement, taking talks “underground,” at least temporarily, can give negotiators much-needed cover to search for collaborative solutions. With any luck, they may be able to reach breakthrough agreements before spoilers have had a chance to mobilize in opposition.

Back channels also help parties circumvent the need to meet preconditions to negotiating. Front-channel talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have often been nonstarters because one or both sides have insisted that certain conditions be met before they will sit down at the negotiating table, such as the release of prisoners or a troop withdrawal. Throughout their long conflict, the two sides have turned to back-channel negotiations to keep lines of communication open even when they aren’t officially supposed to be talking to each other.

The risks of back-channel negotiations

The benefits of back-channel negotiations also highlight some of the potential risks.

First, parties may come to feel so protected by the secretive nature of back-channel negotiations that they choose to go undercover repeatedly and stay there for as long as possible. Because most negotiations must go public in order to be implemented, back-channel negotiating may foster costly delays and perpetuate the very sort of impasse they are designed to overcome. Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ reliance on back channels from 1994 to 1996 “only created the need for further back channels and failed to peacefully resolve the conflict,” writes Wanis-St. John.

Second, back-channel negotiations provide only temporary protection from deal spoilers and public scrutiny. Indeed, critics may react even more strongly against an agreement if they believe a process was unfair. High-level leaders who felt safe while engaging in private back-channel communications may find that their reputations take a hit when constituents and colleagues learn of their secrecy. Palestinians and Israelis alike have condemned their leaders for conceding too much in back-channel negotiations.

Weighing the pros and cons of back-channel negotiations in the context of international conflict, Wanis-St. John concludes that secret negotiations can facilitate early breakthrough agreements but yield diminishing returns when relied on too frequently.

Ultimately, the goal of leaders—both in business and government—should be to build consensus among their supporters and their detractors. Though back-channel negotiations can be a useful means of jump-starting stalled talks, negotiators should aim to bring their discussions out of the shadows and into the light of day.

What’s your experience with back-channel negotiations? Have any stories to share?

Adapted from the article “The Pros and Cons of Back-Channel Negotiations” in the October 2015 issue of Negotiation Briefings, the Program on Negotiation’s monthly newsletter of advice for professional negotiators.