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When Three Is Not a Crowd


Suppose you and your spouse are deciding where to go out for dinner. In all likelihood, the two of you will discuss the options, weigh the pros and cons, and choose a restaurant—a simple bilateral negotiation. Now picture a discussion on the same topic at a family reunion. There’s you, your spouse, your three sisters, and their spouses, a group that includes a vegan, a person on a weight- loss regime, another worried about high cholesterol, and still another on a tight budget. You will have on your hands a multilateral negotiation whose complexity approaches that of the Uruguay Round, the eight-year, 123-nation negotiating process that resulted in the founding of the World Trade Organization in 1995. The more parties there are to the negotiation, and the more numerous the issues and interests that have to be accommodated, the more complex and drawn-out the process becomes.

If one has a choice, a bilateral negotiation is clearly preferable to a complicated multilateral negotiation—isn’t it? Not necessarily. Suppose you are Mexico and you are negotiating with the United States. Do you really want to face your more powerful northern neighbor alone? The fact is, multilateral talks like the Uruguay Round can be advantageous for weaker parties because the power dynamics are different: parties can form coalitions and alliances with other parties that have similar interests. Such coalitions can achieve results that might be impossible in a bilateral discussion.

Fundamental to decision making in any group, coalition building generally has either of two purposes: to create a “winning coalition” to achieve a favorable decision, or to create a “blocking coalition” to prevent an unfavorable result. In multilateral conferences, developing countries often build coalitions to block decisions favored by developed countries and to push for decisions that advance the interests of the developing world. The same can happen at your family reunion. The vegan, the weight-loss guy, and the cholesterol watcher may build an effective blocking coalition to stop any move toward that great steak house you remember from your youth. They may even succeed in constructing a winning coalition, forcing you to spend the evening in a tacky vegetarian restaurant called Les Gros Legumes.

If you believe you are in the dominant position in a negotiation, a bilateral, one-to-one process allows you to apply your power without restrictions. A multilateral negotiation may dilute your power and reduce your influence. It is for this reason that a country’s preference for a bilateral or multilateral setting in which to negotiate depends largely on its perception of how a particular setting will affect its negotiating power. Thus, the United States and other powerful countries insist on conducting important diplomatic business on a bilateral basis, while small developing countries prefer to discuss those same issues in multilateral meetings and conferences.

Sometimes it’s advantageous to try to convert a multilateral conversation into a bilateral one. Let’s say you are chairing a staff meeting to make a decision on a new strategic initiative, and the discussion, going in a dozen directions, is approaching a state of chaos. Consider selecting two persons who represent dominant, but differing, views and ask them to meet together to negotiate a solution for presentation to the group. You have “bilateralized” what began as a multilateral negotiation.

On the other hand, there may be instances when “multilateralizing” a bilateral conversation helps achieve a solution. For example, if your spouse is once again pushing to go to an uncle’s decrepit lake house in the boring north woods for this year’s vacation (a place you have been dragged to for the past three summers), it may be a good idea to suggest that your two teenage children, who don’t like the lake house any more than you do, get in on the conversation. Similarly, if your department head is pushing to launch a project that you think will be a disaster, try to convert the conversation into a multilateral negotiation by involving your top technical folks in the decision making.

Basic instruments of diplomacy, coalitions are also fundamental tools for leading any organization and indeed for negotiating life. So how do you build a winning coalition? That’s a topic for a future column.

Jeswald W. Salacuse is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is The Three Laws of International Investment (Oxford University Press).

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