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We live in interesting times

Robin Copland
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Consider the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered at the unveiling of Thomas Jefferson’s sculpture on Mount Rushmore in 1936: 

I think we can wonder whether our descendants, because I think they’ll still be here, what they will think about us; and let us hope that they will at least give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will believe that we have honestly striven in our day and generation to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.

Bear in mind when these words were spoken; the world was just recovering from the great depression; Nazism was on the rise in Germany; the second world war was three years away. 

Fortunately, those of us lucky enough either to survive those horrors or to have been born afterwards, have lived through the next sixty years of relative prosperity and inclusiveness, in the west at least.  The Common Market became the EU.  Countries, formerly at loggerheads, were joined together in a great experiment of hope and aspiration.  Communism as a political system had seen its day and dictatorships, though still there for all to see and scorn in far-off places, seemed to have had their day in civilised society.  In 2010, all looked well and inclusive in our world, though I will hastily grant you – not everywhere.

How quickly things change. 

  • President Trump plays to a US audience hardly interested in anyone but themselves and their rights. Contracts will soon be signed to keep all the Mexican criminals out of the USA…
  • President Putin stages smash and grab raids on bits of Ukraine and is re-elected.
  • The United Kingdom votes, albeit by the narrowest of margins, to play to its worries about immigration and for Brexit.
  • Italy seems to be going down the same rather narrow nationalist path.
  • The Chinese National People’s Congress pass a set of constitutional amendments in March 2018, including the removal of term limits for the office of president (amongst others), thus ensuring that President Xi Jinping basically has a job for life.
  • Then, there’s the latest news from Turkey where President Erdogan, another divisive figure who has polarised opinion, imprisoned some 160,000 political opponents and is now planning to abolish the position of prime minister and severely curtail the powers of parliament.

Let’s take the last example and gauge world reaction.  Predictably, President Putin sent warm congratulations, as did a number of Islamic leaders including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

All of a sudden, it’s a case of “stop the bus; I want to get off”!

So, what does the negotiator do in these circumstances?  Here are a few thoughts.

  • Remember that you do not have to agree with people to do deals with them.
  • Competitive stances breed competitive stances.
  • Some things should remain non-negotiable and our politicians should have the courage, occasionally, to call out bad or immoral behaviour.
  • Never reward bad behaviour by giving in to the bully.
  • Let your actions speak louder than your words.
  • Always make concessions conditional and be very specific about what you are asking for in return.

We live in interesting and, dare I say it, worrying times.

Robin Copland
More by Robin Copland:
The Precedent
Opening Statement
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