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The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Robin Copland

"Negotiating is a trading process whereby two parties can reach agreement by trading concessions". So said a wise man many years ago and he was right. The great thing about negotiating is that it can enable two people in conflict to strike a deal despite their differences - be they commercial, cultural or even political.

At the recent G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, it was interesting to see how quickly David Cameron distanced himself from the Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner when the subject of the Falkland Islands came up in their now famous chance meeting. A negotiated settlement looks a long way off on that particular issue.  Presidents Obama and Putin treated each other frostily at the same summit when they met to discuss Syria's woes. Putin believes that President Assad should be allowed to carry on without outside interference while Obama takes a different view. Carolyn Kaster's AP photograph shows two men about to shake hands, but not in a good way!

In a similar vein, local politicians in Scotland have been criticised this week for suddenly finding convenient excuses not to meet and fete the visiting Dalai Lama. This peaceful man is not going to win any popularity competitions with Chinese leaders and the suggestion is that Dundee lord provost Bob Duncan has found a convenient funeral he has to attend which will result in his absence from a lecture that the Dalai Lama will give in the Caird Hall. Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, has similarly been criticised for not clearing some time in his diary to meet the Tibetan leader.

The suggestion is that the Chinese have "nobbled" the two politicians and threatened commercial sanctions against Scottish businesses with interests in China. Negotiated settlements in one field would seem to have a bearing on whom you can and cannot meet in other fields if you are a Scottish Nationalist politician.

Perhaps the two Scottish politicians are mindful of where things can go wrong, because sometimes negotiated settlements between two parties from different cultural and political backgrounds can result in meetings that later backfire from a PR perspective. Who can forget, for example, the famous 1983 handshake between a smiling Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, when the US offered Iraq support in their war with Iran; or Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi warmly embracing in the Libyan leader's tent near Sirte in Libya in 2007? Even successful negotiations in their time can provide future generations with embarrassing photographs of politicians - yet another good reason to encourage politicians to negotiate!

The point here is that negotiation is not about winning arguments or persuading people to see it from your perspective. Negotiating is about resolving differences with some give and take. Sometimes, this means you end up with bedfellows you would rather ignore and - just occasionally, it means that you have to ignore people that you would rather not.

Robin Copland

Robin Copland
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