When Negotiating With A 'Devil' Is The Best Course
GUY RAZ, host:
A few weeks after September 11, 2001, two famous Harvard Law School professors squared off in a public debate. The question: Should the U.S. negotiate with the Taliban?
Roger Fisher, a pioneer in the field of conflict resolution said yes. But Robert Mnookin, the man who runs Harvard Law School's program on negotiations said...
Professor ROBERT MNOOKIN (Chair of Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School; Author, "Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight"): That if one looked at the costs and benefits of entering into negotiation and comparing it with our alternatives; I didn't think negotiation made sense.
RAZ: Robert Mnookin has taught hundreds of Harvard Law students how to avoid litigation and pursue negotiated agreements. And yet, for someone who's devoted his career to the idea that you can negotiate your way out of almost anything, Mnookin often suggests that there are certain people you just can't reason with, people you have to fight. And some of those examples are laid out in his new book "Bargaining with the Devil."
Bob Mnookin, welcome to the program.
Prof. MNOOKIN: It's nice being here.
RAZ: Now, right now, the Obama administration, along with the Afghan government is considering whether to negotiate with some elements of the Taliban in hopes of ending the insurgency in Afghanistan. Now back in 2001, you counseled against doing that when the Taliban was harboring Osama bin Laden. Are the circumstances different now in your view?
Prof. MNOOKIN: The circumstances are different now. The biggest difference, of course, is the Taliban no longer controls the Afghan government. I think today, it makes sense to try to negotiate with some of the Taliban but not with the top leadership, Mullah Omar and his top lieutenants.
RAZ: In essence, when the administration - the Obama administration - and when the Afghan government talks about negotiating with certain elements within the Taliban, one could make the argument that they can be reasoned with.
Prof. MNOOKIN: I think it's useful to distinguish between three different sorts of Taliban. Some are what I call the $10 Taliban. With the $10 Taliban, if our government and Karzai's government were to offer them $11 or $12, perhaps they would lay down their arms and join with us in repressing the insurgency. So it makes sense to talk to those sorts.
A second group are regional leaders who aren't so ideologically committed to a completely fundamentalist vision, but who in fact, want to have better government. For those regional leaders and some of their followers, it might well be possible to persuade them to come in from the cold and join in building a new and better government.
The third group though, the top leaders, Mullah Omar and his top colleagues, I think are very committed to an ideological vision which makes negotiation quite unlikely, and I think negotiating with them, the only kind of deal that could be made would be some kind of regional or even national power-sharing, which would be very bad news for women and any cosmopolitans in Afghanistan.
RAZ: In the book, you use real case studies, so sort of real examples of when it made sense to negotiate and when it didn't. You write about the case of Rudolf Kastner. He was a leader of the Jewish community in Hungary during the Second World War. He eventually made a deal with the notorious Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann. It was a bribe in exchange for allowing about 1,700 Jews to flee to Switzerland. After the war, a court in Israel actually condemned him, called him a collaborator.
You argue that it's actually much more complex than that.
Prof. MNOOKIN: It's a tragic case. He ended up making some very hard decisions. And he concluded that in fact he thought more lives could be saved by attempting to bribe the Nazis than by resistance, which would be impossible because the Jews in Hungary had no arms. He did negotiate over a period of months with Eichmann and he did persuade Eichmann, as you indicated, to let some 1,700 people leave Hungary on a train, which eventually reached Switzerland.
RAZ: And I guess the opposite argument would be that no negotiation should have been held with the Nazis at all, even if it saved 1,700 lives, like in Kastner's case.
Prof. MNOOKIN: I think that argument is silly. The harder questions really relate to in addition to trying to negotiate to save some lives, was there more that might have been done to encourage others to flee to Romania, to avoid being ghettoized? Could lives, more lives, have been saved if more emphasis had been put on that?
But I don't criticize Kastner for entering into negotiation in the hope of trying to save lives.
RAZ: When you sort of look at all these cases, is there a way to figure out when to negotiate and when not to?
Prof. MNOOKIN: The book is really about meeting the challenge of thinking through carefully what your alternatives are and what makes sense. My own view is if the question is should you bargain with the devil, if I've got to give a one-sentence answer, it's not always but more often than you feel like it.
And the reason, more often than you feel like it - there are two reasons, really. One is there are a lot of emotional and psychological and political traps that make you want to avoid negotiation. The other problem is, bargaining with the devil usually requires giving the devil something he or she wants. And that often doesn't feel very good because you're really on the altar of pragmatism, sacrificing the search for perfect justice.
Justice is often backward looking and if you want to make peace, you got to look forward.
RAZ: Bob Mnookin, thank you so much.
Prof. MNOOKIN: Guy, thank you very much.
RAZ: That's Robert Mnookin. He heads the program on negotiation at Harvard Law School, and he's the author of the new book "Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight."
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