As a mediator, and therefore as someone predisposed to peace-making, the situation in Ukraine is deeply troubling. Is there a time when peace-making is redundant? We must hope not. The alternative seems too awful to contemplate.

But what might peace-making entail? I offer some thoughts here, but with a caveat. Some of this may not be so easy to contemplate given all that is occurring.

Firstly, peacemakers would suggest we separate people from the problem. Here, that probably means acknowledging that the major protagonist is not the Russian people but the regime in the Kremlin and its leader. We can direct our disapproval towards President Putin and his supporters but endeavour to continue to treat ordinary Russian folk with respect, while recognising many of them have no access to objective reporting.

Peacemakers would emphasise the need to be careful with language. Using words which unnecessarily inflame the situation may not be in our interests; it takes self-discipline to be clear and frank in what we say without descending to provocation and insults.

Perhaps that is why some people have been concerned about President Biden’s unscripted asides. There is a balance to be struck of course…

We know the temptation to respond angrily comes from our fight and flight survival instincts, crucial in prehistoric times but prone to cause error now.

Generally, peacemakers will want to engage what Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman calls “system 2 thinking”: measured, thoughtful, rational thought processes, especially when under pressure and even if that approach is not reciprocated.

Pausing and taking time to reframe key messages is likely to be important. Off-the-cuff remarks can be damaging.

That doesn’t mean that we resort to soft soap, far from it, but peacemakers need to find an approach which has our underlying needs and interests at heart. To do this, further steps may be necessary: William Ury, of Getting to Yes fame, would urge us to “go to the balcony” and survey the big picture. Thinking medium to long term, what is most important to us? For example, despite the pressure of the current conflict, we cannot forget the existential threat of climate change. What effect might that have on the peacemakers’ negotiating strategy? We see that coming into play as we consider energy supplies. Again, where does the balance lie?

Peacemakers are helped by considering what in the jargon are known as BATNAS and WATNAS – our Best and Worst Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement. These require a realistic assessment of what will happen if some sort of agreed resolution is not achieved. In other words, if we don’t reach agreement, what’s the best we can anticipate will happen? And also the worst? These can be tough to face, especially if we don’t like where it takes us. However, with nuclear and chemical weapons potentially in play, these techniques provide peacemakers with a useful reality check, a benchmark for decisions.

If we aspire to a peaceful outcome, those involved can’t avoid undertaking this kind of risk analysis, much though they might wish not to. While bystanders may say “don’t compromise after all you have been through”, they are not in the firing-line and often don’t face the hard choices which benchmarking like this entails.

A difficult but often necessary task is to get into the shoes of those we dislike most. That may be essential if peacemakers are to get past the zero-sum nightmare. What might it be like to be the person we fear most? What is really going on in their minds? What can we do to influence their thinking? What do we need to change to bring about the outcome we seek? What, if any, concessions might be made to get what we need? How important might it be to enable the other to save face? Who are the unseen constituencies for whom “victory speeches” might need to be written, that enable the opponent to say that they have achieved enough?

Interestingly, these are probably all questions which faced President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago and to which, by all accounts, he responded courageously and with self-discipline.

So much for the theory. The real question is: how are Ukrainian and other negotiators approaching this? Certainly, viewed from afar, President Zelensky seems to have a good grasp of negotiation essentials. We must wish all the peacemakers well.


John Sturrock, The Scotsman, Monday 11 April 2022



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