When is the Right Time to Negotiate

“When is the right time to negotiate?” is a question that is constantly being asked in every corner of the world from the local communities that we live in to the world stage which provides the backdrop for the diplomacy and battlefields that will determine not only the quality of our daily lives, but in some cases our very continued existence.  Illustrations abound all around us of the international, national, state and local contexts in which this universal inquiry is repeatedly made and broadcast on the news 24/7.

The quality of our daily lives is affected by the answer to those inquiries in multiple ways ranging from the mundane and parochial, e.g. Will we have a National Football League season to enjoy this year to whether we will be able to live unthreatened in a “flattened world” with our “neighbors” in the Middle East and Africa in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring.”  Which of these issues is more important depends on whether the analyst is on the couch with a beer on a Sunday afternoon in the fall or on the streets of Washington, D.C. or an Arab capital this summer.

The latest international context for the inquiry of “when is the right time to negotiate” to be propounded was broadcast in soap-opera style all last week.  It began with President Obama’s speech on the Middle East which was hyped in advance as his effort to “jumpstart” the renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  That speech preceeded Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit here by 48 hours.  The focus of the instant and arguably incorrect analysis of  that speech’s content regarding returning to Israel’s pre 1967 Boarders as the “basis” for “renewed negotiations” offended Netanyahu which resulted in a televised lecture and history lesson for the President of the United States on the virtues of recognizing historical realities as the basis for future Israeli –Palestinian peace negotiations.  It also raised the question of whether the right time to renew those negotiations was now or later after formal recognition and reconciliation of those historical realities including the recent agreement between Hamas (which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist) and Fatah to jointly govern and speak for the Palestinians in any future negotiations leading to the recognition of a Palestinian State.  The answer to the question of when is the right time to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will now unfortunately be answered at a later date and will be more dependent on political factors and high-level personality clashes than it should be.

Nationally, we see the question of “When is the right time to negotiate?” being posed most often in the context of federal, state and county governments trying to address a mounting “Debt Crisis.”  At the federal level we hear ominous warnings from Treasury Secretary Geithner and others that we have to negotiate an increase in the statutory federal debt limit or face a “default” which has the potential to cause a financial crisis far worse than the one we are recovering from as well as the “catastrophic” result of destroying the world’s confidence in our country’s economy and with it our economic stability and credibility. Weighing against this are both Republican and some Democrat political voices saying that the negotiations to raise the Debt Limit and prevent a default should not start until the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats agree to negotiate both an increase in the Debt Limit and spending cuts which are equal to the increase.   Democrats respond either by seeking to delink the issues of raising the Debt Limit from spending cuts or adding to the negotiations revenue-raising proposals at least in the form of eliminating certain corporate and special interest tax breaks.  In between childishly accusing each other of “exhibiting” or “lacking “courage,” these elected officials are very simply being irresponsible and ignoring what clearly must be done.  The time to negotiate a resolution of the Debt Limit and dealing with the federal debt crisis is now or before now.  That obviously means that the Debt Limit, spending cuts, and revenue enhancers should all be on the table for discussion in these negotiations.  The people we elected “to do the right thing” should recognize as Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard Political Science Professor and contributing writer for The New York Times, now a member of Canada’s Parliament and Deputy Leader of Canada’s Liberal Party has pointed out, “Good judgment in politics is messy- it means imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy- often yourself.”

Political theatre has visibly intruded on policy development as it so often does in our representative democracy.  This is natural.  But the staging of political theatre should not drive the timing of policy-making and its implementation.  Wise political leaders will not confuse the world as it is with the world as they, their handlers and advisors might wish it to be.  Nor will they assume their worldview is presumptively correct and therefore should not be questioned in negotiations.  In other words as former Governor of New York and as it turns out prescient political philosopher, Eliot Spitzer, speaking on the subject of “The Need for Both Passion and Humanity in Politics”, citing theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr as his authority said, “driven by hubris, we become blind to our own fallibility and make terrible mistakes.”

Finally right here in the state of Maryland and the counties that we live which are facing their own debt crisis’s, we see high profile political decision- making by all three branches of state and local government.  These decisions regard not only the compensation of public employees, but also their health care and their right through collective bargaining to have a say on those issues which directly affect the quality of their daily lives. All over the country, in our state and recently in our own Montgomery County, Maryland, we have seen Arbitrators decisions favoring public employees and enforcing collective bargaining agreements set aside by judges on constitutional, charter and statutory grounds.

These decisions bring into question the continued viability of the institutions and the integrity of the collective bargaining process itself.  They profoundly affect how and when future negotiations over the compensation and benefits of public employees at the state and local levels will take place.  It may well be that new governmental structures and processes as well as the staffing of these functions with Neutrals whose intellect, integrity, and judgment are respected by both management and labor may need to be designed to provide predictability and accountability for the negotiation of these issues. Clear and stable lines of communication from workers  to management as well as structures and processes which insure that results are final and not subject to politics or even budgetary economics must be guaranteed in order to insure that work confidence and morale is maintained and the quality of public services do not deteriorate.

The challenge at all levels of society and government as to how to determine when to negotiate is clear.  We need to understand as did Dr. Aaron Miller, Fellow of the Princeton University Center for Scholars in rejecting the conventional wisdom suggested by comedian Woody Allen that “90% of life is just showing up.”  Dr. Miller correctly noted “Woody Allen was wrong- 90% of life is showing up at the right time.”

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