Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 5th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 2: Prenegotiations

p. 27, line 6 down, ‘informal and well out of the public gaze’: in nineteenth century Europe, favoured venues were the spa towns of France, Germany, Austria and Belgium, where statesmen and diplomats took annual ‘cures’ by drinking their mineral waters (Sorota, see Further reading below).

p. 27, first para, ‘In bilateral relationships, these discussions are usually informal and well out of the public gaze’: I should have added here that, however, prenegotiations might well be launched formally and publicly. This is the more necessary for a demandeur anxious to prompt the other party to announce a fair wind for a negotiation, especially if the latter’s leadership is notoriously unreliable. A recent case in point was the preliminary discussion in Washington in late January 2017 between British prime minister Theresa May and US president Donald Trump of the sort of UK-USA trade deal that would be negotiated following Britain’s exit from the EU, and how a formula would be drafted – by joint UK-US working groups (see McTague in Further reading below).

p. 29, middle para: ‘non-papers’ are sometimes used when parties explore whether serious negotiations are worthwhile. A case in point at the time of writing (late September 2019) is the submission in confidence of non-papers by the British government to the EU Commission on the so-called ‘back-stop’ provision in the agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson’s predecessor. Theresa May, and on which that agreement most spectacularly foundered. As we wrote in the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Diplomacy, a non-paper is ‘an authoritative but unofficial document … usually focused on a controversial question where the [state or other body concerned] either has not formulated an official position, or has but does not yet wish to imply commitment to it. The purpose of the non-paper is to test the reaction of the other … and hopefully to generate movement in negotiations on the subject. Being unofficial, it can easily be abandoned if it should arouse strong opposition.’ Since the non-papers submitted by the ridiculous non-prime minister, Boris Johnson, is reported to have contained nothing that had not already been floated before and dismissed by the EU Commission, it is a moot point as to whether the current gambit is a serious one.

p. 31: Agenda-setting
An agenda-setting prenegotiation of great importance to watch at the moment (May-July 2015) is that announced in early May by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. Preparatory to attempting to launch what will in effect be ‘Geneva III’ on the appalling Syria crisis, these initial ‘one-on-one’ meetings between the Special Envoy and the interested parties have been billed as ‘low key consultations’ designed ‘to find areas where negotiation, even on a modest temporary ceasefire in some towns, might be possible’; that is, prenegotiations designed to produce a realistic agenda for around-the-table talks. However, since the UN is once more wisely seeking to bring Iran (hitherto kept out) into the substantive negotiations on Syria and give them a novel ‘multistakeholder’ dimension, while awkwardly if understandably barring them to the powerful jihadist groups fighting in the country, it is evident that the list of invitees will also be a bone of contention in these prenegotiations. See also the good article by James Denselow (Futher reading below).

p. 32, ‘The order of the agenda …’: Brexit prenegotiations in early 2017 provide a perfect example of the difficulties that can be produced by different views on the order or sequence in which subjects are taken. The EU 27 want the ‘divorce settlement’ to be taken first, only after which should the character of the future relationship (especially trade) be discussed. The British, however, want these to be discussed simultaneously or, as it is sometimes put, ‘in parallel’. It’s not difficult to see why: the EU wants to be sure of getting the money it’s owed and advertise the costs of departure, in order to discourage other members from following the UK’s lead, while the interests of the Europhobe British government are exactly the opposite.

pp. 36-40: Venue. For more contemporary examples of the difficulties presented in prenegotiations by choice of venue (e.g. regarding Afghanistan, Libya, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen), search the Internet using key words ‘venue-peace-talks’.

p. 40, ‘Delegations’: by way of footnotes to the first paragraph of this section, it is worth adding (1) that small delegations should make it easier to picture the connections between any different issues that might come up in the around-the-table stage, but that on the other hand (2) such delegations will not enjoy the back-up of the technical officers available to larger delegations (albeit mitigated to some extent by ready communications with home) or their ability to rotate staff in long, exhausting negotiations. (I am grateful for these points to the diplomats on my 2017 DiploFoundation course.)

Further reading: additions and links

  • Clarke, Colin P. and Christopher Paul, From Stalemate to Settlement: Lessons for Afghanistan from historical insurgencies that have been resolved through negotiations (Rand Corporation for the Office of the Secretary of Defense: Santa Monica, CA, 2014)[free e-book]
  • Denselow, James,  ‘More talks about talks as Syrians suffer’, Al Jazeera, 6 May 2015
  • McTague, Tom, ‘US, Britain to begin preliminary trade talks’, Politico, 30 January 2017
  • Powell, Jonathan, ‘5 reasons the UK failed in Brexit talks’, Politico, 20 December 2020
  • Rozen, Laura, ‘Diplomats: Agenda, timetable agreed for Iran final deal talks’, Al-Monitor, 19 February, 2014
  • Salem, Elie A., Violence and Diplomacy in Lebanon: The Troubled Years, 1982-1988 (Tauris: London, 1995). Salem was Lebanon’s foreign minister from 1982 until 1984, and then adviser to its president until 1988. His account of the prenegotiations on Israel’s military withdrawal from his country (for example, on negotiating teams and the agenda in Chapter 2, most of which is available on the publisher’s website) is highly illuminating.
  • Sorota, Marina, The Summer Capitals of Europe, 1814-1919 (Routledge, 2017).
  • Zartman, I. William, ‘“Ripeness”: the importance of timing in negotiation and conflict resolution’, 20 December 2008, E-International Relations