To Close an International Negotiation, Obama Tries a Domestic “Work-Around”

By — on / International Negotiation

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As he entered his second term in office, President Obama set a goal of taking concrete steps to address global climate change. A global agreement on the issue is in sight, but a key obstacle stands in the way: the U.S. Senate. According to the Constitution, a president needs approval from a two-thirds majority of the Senate to enter into any legally binding treaty.

Obama is eager to avoid what happened in 1997, when the Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a legally binding U.N. climate change treaty. Indeed, the odds of the Senate passing a similar treaty 17 years later are nil, reports Coral Davenport in the New York Times. In 2012, Republican senators blocked ratification of a U.N. treaty on equal rights that had been modeled on an American law and negotiated by Republican president George W. Bush. With the Senate unable to reach agreement on that treaty, Obama is trying a new strategy on the much more controversial issue of climate change: a workaround.

Abandoning the notion of passing a legally binding treaty, Obama’s negotiators have instead formulated the idea of a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their carbon emissions rather than legally requiring them to do so. Countries that sign the treaty at a scheduled 2015 United Nations summit meeting in Paris would still be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies, under the terms of a 1992 treaty. But they would also make voluntary commitments to specific levels of emissions cuts and donations to help poor countries adapt to climate change.

The strategy is expected to anger Republican lawmakers, who have argued that Obama has abused his executive authority by working around Congress to enact major policies on climate change and other issues, such as immigration.

Some of the world’s poorest countries have also objected to the proposed agreement, which would not legally obligate wealthy nations to spend billions to help them prepare for and respond to destruction caused by climate change, the Times reports.

As this story illustrates, attempting to work around a potential deal spoiler can be a risky strategy. Yet in business negotiations, there are times when even our best interpersonal and tactical strategies fail to secure buy-in from a party who is crucial to our goals. In this case, a workaround—a set of coordinated moves to meet your goal by circumventing the spoiler who is thwarting you—may be your best option, according to Harvard Law School professor Robert C. Bordone.

Here are three specific strategies that Bordone recommends for working around potential spoilers:

1. Build coalitions.

Make a list of parties who may be able to influence the deal spoiler on your behalf and consider their full range of interests. Construct the best sequence of approach by tracing them back to your target, then make your case to these individuals in turn. The spoiler may come around after being lobbied by the coalition you have built.

2. Try the “departing train” strategy.

If the spoiler continues to obstruct your plans, move ahead with him, enlisting others to your cause. When you inform the spoiler that the train is about to leave the station—whether with him or without him—he might decide it’s time to hop on board. As Bordone notes, this strategy is common in international multiparty negotiations, where those with extreme views are often invited to the table but warned that their lack of cooperation won’t hold up the agreement.

3. Change no-agreement alternatives.

If someone refuses to go along with a seemingly fair, mutually beneficial agreement, it may because she thinks she has a better BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. You might bring her around by improving your own BATNA and/or taking steps to worsen hers. The spoiler’s BATNA might quite naturally be worsened, for example, if you convince a party that the spoiler had been planning to court to help you meet your goals.

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2 Responses to “To Close an International Negotiation, Obama Tries a Domestic “Work-Around””

  • Using Obama as some sort of “positive” example for negotiating is really getting old. I’m contemplating cancelling my attendance in an upcoming Harvard course and demanding a refund. Spamming with pro-Obama articles is casting an unflattering shadow on Harvard University.

  • Your point #1 on coalitions is crucial, not only in business. My focus on insurgencies may be applicable, especially as I have strong belief in learning from interdisciplinary examples. Kindly refer to my chapter: “The Advantages of Links with Weak Peripheral Groups in Environments of Conflict”; chapter in Conflict Resolution Research in South Asia; Department of International Relations, University of Karachi. 2010.


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