UN Geneva

From the collapse of the Doha Development Agenda to the ongoing impasse over climate change, the failure of governments to achieve real progress at the international negotiating table happens with depressing regularity.

This question of why we get to a point of not talking to one another is not normally broached.

Dr. Amrita Narlikar

Now a new study suggests that one of the reasons why so many diplomatic discussions end up in a state of deadlock could be because most politicians are looking at the problem the wrong way round.

The book, Deadlocks In Multilateral Negotiations, aims to offer a new approach to resolving deadlocks in international negotiations by investigating their deeper causes, before proposing any solutions.

It argues that this has not been the traditional approach of ministers when diplomatic discussions grind to a halt. Typically, it suggests, politicians and analysts alike will try to focus on reviving co-operation, without properly understanding how a stand-off began.

The study, which is written by an international team of academics from a range of different disciplines, looks at various recent deadlocks in the diplomatic process in an effort to find common causes and solutions.

Among other examples, it covers the Doha discussions on international trade, the US walkout from the Kyoto Protocol talks in 2000, and divisions within the international community over whether or not to recognise Kosovo. The book begins with a set of hypotheses explaining why deadlocks might occur, which are then systematically applied over the subsequent chapters.

In most cases, it finds an intersecting set of reasons that explain why discussions reached a standstill, each with their own solutions. In particular, however, the researchers identify two recurring causes: the balance of power between the negotiators, and the influence of domestic pressures on each.

The authors hope that the book will function as a "toolkit" for diplomats and politicians, as well as fellow-analysts, by both explaining why deadlocks happen, and what strategies could be applied to break them.

"This question of why we get to a point of not talking to one another is not normally broached," Dr. Amrita Narlikar, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Politics and International Studies, who edited the book, said.

"Usually it is more a case of asking: 'How do we start talking again?' The difficulty is that breakthroughs will rarely happen, once negotiations have stalled, without a clear analysis of what caused deadlock in the first place."

Uniquely, the book brings together scholars from a variety of areas, including politics, international relations, economics and law, to examine the causes of deadlocks in talks between several different parties.

In each case, the researcher was asked to explore the applicability of a number of six possible explanations for why a breakdown in discussions might occur.

These included: (i) Parties favouring an alternative to negotiated agreement; (ii) uncertainty that exacerbates mistrust between the negotiators; (iii) a balance of power that means that no party can dominate the process; (iv) institutional design problems within international organisations; (v) a prevailing concern with the fairness of the agreement; and (vi) domestic pressures on those involved.

They found that the most common cause of deadlock is a balance of power between those involved. This can happen either because there is simply a relatively even distribution of power between the negotiators, or because the parties with power comprise a variety of cultures with different perspectives.

In the case of Kosovo, for example, discussions between the Serbs and Kosovans over the independence of the latter have not been resolved because different countries have thrown their weight behind each of the parties involved, evening out the balance.

Similarly, one of the key reasons cited for the breakdown in the Doha Development Agenda is the rise of emerging powers, such as China, India and Brazil. Inevitably, their priorities are different to those of the "old guard" of the US, EU, Canada and Japan, which once dominated trade relations.

Almost as many studies stressed the importance of domestic influences on the progress of international agreement. The influence of certain domestic lobbies and institutions, it shows, have repeatedly blocked agreements in areas such as trade and climate change.

The recurrence of these two causes may imply that diplomats should be looking to certain types of solution in some cases. Where the balance of power is a potent reason for talks breaking down, for example, coalition-building may be one way to bring parties back to the negotiating table.

Overall, however, the various causes behind deadlocks are usually interlinked, requiring a case-by-case blending of approaches to reach a solution. "For practitioners seeking to break deadlocks this may offer the greatest reassurance," Dr. Narlikar added. "Working around the central, polarising issue and addressing less emotional side-issues may, in some instances, be just as effective and relatively easy to implement."

Deadlocks In Multilateral Negotiations; causes and solutions is published by Cambridge University Press.

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