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  • Alessandra Corrêa

What we can learn from Jonathan Powell’s views on the preparations for peace talks in Ukraine.





The English magazine The Economist published yesterday, April 12, 2023, the article “Jonathan Powell on preparations for peace-making in Ukraine – Tony Blair’s former chief-of-staff says lessons from the Good Friday Agreement can help bring peace.”


Jonathan Powell was the head of the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday agreement) that ended decades of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. He was also part of the team of negotiators who worked with President Juan Manuel Santos to end the conflict with the FARC in Colombia.


From this excellent text we can draw good lessons of how to prepare ourselves for any negotiation.


First, a summary of what the article says:


Powell says that although a negotiated deal seems impossible now, the war between Ukraine and Russia will be resolved through negotiation. The only way to solve this war unilaterally would be a total victory, like that of the Allies in World War II, and that is not a likely scenario. With this, Russia and Ukraine will remain neighbors and a lasting peace agreement is needed.


According to the article, two conditions are needed for peace negotiations to begin: it is necessary that the two countries reach a “perceived mutually hurting stalemate” and that there are leaders willing to take political risks.


Opinion polls show that 90% of Ukrainians expect victory. There is no political space for negotiations. But it is time to start preparing for negotiations.


The diplomat and Tony Blair’s former chief-of-staff claims that leaders have a strategy before political or military campaigns, but do not formulate strategies to negotiate. They just start negotiating and hope for the best.


He talks about the structure of the negotiations in the case of Ukraine and Russia. Powell believes a ceasefire would be detrimental to Ukraine, as it would give Russia time to reorganize and attack again. Therefore, the author believes that from the Ukrainian point of view it is better to continue “fighting and speaking” at the same time, as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos did in the negotiations with the FARC.


According to Powell, in the current context of the war between Russia and Ukraine, there is still no zone of possible agreement, and this is not uncommon in negotiations. ZOPAs are developed during negotiations. But in order to reach a zone of possible agreement, creative ideas are needed that extend beyond the zero-sum game involving purely territorial disputes. It should include, for example, a new European security architecture and security guarantees for Ukraine.


The author also raises the question of trust between the parties. Ukrainians do not trust Putin, but that should not hinder negotiations. Trust is gradually built with the establishment of monitoring mechanisms and guarantees that ensure that each side will deliver on what it has promised.


The diplomat also says that Putin is giving signs of believing that time runs in his favour or that he may be signaling that he is ready for a long war. Powell then states that “if we want to succeed in negotiations, we have to be as prepared as he is for a long war.”


And finally, Powell raises a common question for peace negotiations: even if an agreement is reached, how will each side sell the idea to its people?


And now the lessons we can learn:


There are many parallels that we can make between the situation described by Jonathan Powell and the negotiations we make in our professional and personal lives.


As in cases of war, the only possibility of a unilateral solution is a judicial decision favourable to one of the parties. Victory in court is difficult to predict. It is usually important that you try an alternative form of conflict resolution – negotiation, mediation, arbitration – before you go into a battle without a fixed deadline and without guarantees of victory.


Just as Ukraine and Russia will remain neighbors, in many disputes there is a dependence between the parties. In disputes between partners or neighbors, the condition remains, that is, you will likely continue to be the partner or neighbor of that person. In another example, even if you can replace a supplier, not always a fight will be more favorable than a negotiated outcome. You have to take into account your reputation and the fact that you and that provider may need to interact in the future under different circumstances.


When he speaks of “perceived mutually hurting stalemate,” the parallel I draw is that in many conflicts we only realize that negotiation or mediation can be good alternatives when the dispute between the parties has already reached a stage where both are being harmed and there are no ways to anticipate who would win if the conflict escalates.


One point that draws attention is the statement that the time has come for preparation for the negotiation. As with political leaders, it is common for people to come to the negotiating table unprepared for the process itself. They are armed with facts, numbers, and spreadsheets, but they do not draw a strategy. The ideal scenario is when the perception of the benefits of using an alternative conflict resolution process comes before the conflict begins to escalate. But even if this perception occurs later, the sooner the better. It is always important to be attentive to disagreements and small conflicts and to how they are being dealt with.


On the negotiating structure, the parallel is more direct: which method of conflict resolution is best suited to the situation in question? Mediation, negotiation or arbitration? Maybe a hybrid of these? Will the negotiations be direct or will the parties choose agents to negotiate on their behalf? In case of mediation, who will be part of the procedure? What is the deadline?


It is usually important to establish whether there is the zone of possible agreement before starting a negotiation. But in cases where negotiation is almost mandatory – conflicts between partners or family disputes, for example – it is possible to build a ZOPA after the start of the conversations. To do this, you need to get out of the zero-sum game mindset and bring into the negotiation aspects that can expand the pie before starting the division. What other interests can be included in an agreement?


In cases of conflicts that come to the negotiating table after they have already begun to escalate, there is common loss of trust between the parties. In mediation processes, care must be taken with the reconstruction of trust or at least the building of enough trust so that the agreement is stable and lasting. This is done during the process as the parties comply with smaller agreements, such as deadlines or delivery of documents, for example.


As in diplomacy, the signals sent by both sides are important, and demonstrating strength and willingness to fight in case of need are factors that can ensure the continuation of conversations in impasse situations and in more difficult moments of negotiation.


Disputes usually involve parties composed of more than one person, such as, businesses, families, sports teams. It is important to think about how each party will sell the solution to its stakeholders. The support of interest groups from both sides is essential to ensuring the stability and longevity of the agreement.


Negotiations and other forms of alternative dispute resolution require hard work and effort and bring in some (or a lot of) pressure and a good dose of stress. Good preparation makes this process more tolerable and increases the chances of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.


Por Alessandra P G Corrêa

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