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Not even in the room

Stephen White
Negotiation Meeting
© Adobe Stock

Summer holidays. The kids want to go to the seaside. Mum also wants to be able to fall out of bed onto a golf course. Dad hates the heat and wants to indulge his fascination with all things historical. And he is hoping for change out of £2000. A family meeting is called. Each faction promotes their preference but there is no meeting of minds, no surrender by any of the parties and scant opportunity for compromise.  The meeting breaks down with no agreement. Eventually, Mum takes unilateral action and books an AirBnB in Sicily 15 minutes walk to the nearest beach, a 20-minute drive to the golf course, two hours from historic Palermo, all-in for £3500, just £1500 more than the budget, which as the senior breadwinner she offers to cover.

And then they remember Grandpa, who always comes with and wasn’t even invited to the meeting. When they tell him of the Sicily decision he has a hissy fit. He wants to go to Bournemouth!

A similar gathering took place on Tuesday in Vilnius between the representatives of the 31 member countries of NATO. Plus President Zelensky, who wasn’t even in the room. When representatives of many countries come together to agree a common position on an issue there is high potential for a less-than-perfect outcome.  Unsurprisingly the Summit did not go as smoothly as was hoped.

The hot topic of contention is Ukraine’s entry into NATO. Every NATO member recognises that this is inevitable; there is no point in the massive support which NATO countries (and others) are giving to Ukraine to help them win against Russian aggression if cementing Ukraine into the Western alliance doesn’t eventually happen.  The question is when? And what guarantees can Ukraine be given now that it will happen in the future?

The problem is that a guarantee of entry in the future is tantamount to a NATO declaration of war because Russia would view such a guarantee as a de jure award of membership. The conflagration would immediately spread, and neither side really want that. On the other hand pussyfooting around the issue identifies the weakness and prevents the show of strength that NATO want to portray.

Negotiators have several options in this type of scenario. One is Unilateral Action – like Mum booking the AirBnB. It relies on the other parties acquiescing. This is what the USA decided to do on a related matter – the supply of cluster bombs to Ukraine. Another option is deferral; pushing communiques back to the next Summit, or creating a Working Party to examine the pros and cons. Yet another is détente – using a form of words which can be interpreted differently by the different parties. The official statement issued on Tuesday read "We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met." In other words, it will happen - definitely maybe.

Détente is fine as long as everyone buys into the fudge. On this occasion President Zelensky was initially not satisfied. The (private) bilateral meetings which took place on Wednesday seemed to calm the troubled waters, notwithstanding George Wallace’s comments about the expectation of some gratitude from Ukraine for the arms already supplied. President Zelensky must reckon it is better to keep his criticism of the NATO position muted and keep receiving increasing quantities of weapons from the West, albeit not as quickly as he would like (has anyone told him about Amazon Prime?).

Grandpa might not get to Bournemouth this year, but he has discovered online that there is an English Pub serving craft beer and pie and mash a short walk from the AirBnB. An uneasy peace reigns.

Stephen White
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