UN organs such as the General Assembly and Security Council, which are the main focus of this Guide, make decisions on a wide range of issues. The deliberations that take place in both bodies can only move forward and produce outcomes if there is an agreement between the Member States. Sometimes this agreement is reached by consensus. At other times it is reached by a majority vote. What we are concerned about in this section is the process leading to a decision by a conference. This process is a negotiation.

Purpose of Negotiation

Kiyo Akasaka (right), USG for Communications and Public Information meets with Dato’ Ahmad Shabery Cheek (left), Minister of Youth and Sports, Malaysia

Negotiation is well-known and practised in all fields of human activity. It is a way of settling disputes without fighting, a way of making joint decisions when those who are making decisions hold different views or a way of achieving your objectives despite other participants having different objectives.

This means that negotiation is a way of coping with disagreement, with varying views and with different objectives. In short, it is a way of coping with conflict.

But it can only deal with conflict in cases where the parties have a sense that they have common interests. They may, for instance, want a dispute to be settled without fighting or they may want a decision to be taken despite there being differences of views or again, they may be conscious of having substantial common ground on which they agree, but different views of some aspects of a question before them. If they did not think that they had common interests, they could shout at each other (unproductively) or ignore each other: they would not be interested in seeking agreement.

Negotiation is about finding a way to reach an agreement. When an agreement is reached, a dispute is settled and a joint decision has been made.

Some individuals or governments are reticent about engaging in the negotiation because of a fear that they will be forced to accept outcomes that they consider damaging to their interests. Such fears come from a misunderstanding of the process of negotiation. The aim and the only outcome to which any delegation should agree is an improvement –from their point of view– of the situation they face before the negotiations start (or in other words, an improvement over the alternative to agreement). This often falls short of one’s ideal or preferred outcome; but the consideration that should be decisive is that it is nevertheless an improvement on the situation one would face without negotiation –usually because it involves other governments taking actions which you see as helping your interests. Also, it is not unusual for a negotiated outcome to include some elements which one regards as negative (i. e. some of your interests are worse off). This can be acceptable if they are part of a package which, overall, you rate as an improvement.

The word ’compromise‘ (and its translation into languages other than English) can have very negative connotations in everyday speech. To compromise your principles or your nation’s interests (meaning to put them at risk) would be very bad. But in international negotiation, the word is used to mean ’to reduce your immediate ambitions, to accommodate the concerns of other parties to the extent needed to make them agree to an outcome that you regard as an improvement‘. In that sense ’compromise‘ is in the interests of both you and the other parties. Conference negotiators often speak of ’the spirit of compromise‘ in terms that indicate they are talking of something desirable and admirable, not abject surrender.

Power in negotiations

GMUN delegates representing Malaysia

There is a widely-held belief among people who know little about international conferences that those delegates who represent the most powerful states will be able to impose their wishes. But military, economic or cultural power do not translate directly into an ability to impose one’s will in an international conference. Reality is far more nuanced. The real source of power in international conferences is a combination of several of the following:

  • whether your proposal is attractive to other delegations
  • how willing other governments are to conform with your government’s wishes because of bilateral relationships
  • how well your delegation understands the issues before the conference and the attitudes of other delegations to them
  • how active your delegation is and how hard it works
  • whether your delegation is able to show flexibility in meeting the concerns of others
  • whether your delegation can think creatively to produce proposals attractive to many other delegations
  • whether your delegation has clear ideas on achieving certain objectives and a determination to do so.

It would be foolish to imagine that the relative real power of governments evaporates when their delegates enter a conference room. A delegation of a large, powerful country has distinct advantages over that from a weaker country. The value other governments place on their bilateral relationship with the powerful country predisposes their delegation to comply with the wishes of the powerful country’s delegation. Governments of powerful nations are also well placed to brief their delegation well and to staff it with knowledgeable and suitable individuals. They can send many delegates. But sometimes smaller and poorer countries can also brief their delegations well and be represented by capable people. Finally, the power of the country that the delegation represents is not a major factor for most of the other points listed above.

In short, power relationships between nations are relevant in a conference room: but they are far from being the whole story. Weaker governments are often better placed in that context to achieve their objectives than they are in bilateral dealings. It is also important to remember that issues on which the objectives of different governments are strongly opposed to each other are the most difficult ones for conferences to handle and for agreed solutions to be found. Conversely, where governments of both powerful and less powerful countries have objectives that can be reconciled, conferences are well placed to produce results acceptable to all. Thus the issues which get referred to conferences are primarily those on which the interests on the participants are capable of mutual accommodation. Power struggles are not the point of many conferences nor relevant to the outcomes they produce.

Leading delegation

Typically, on any issue that comes up for negotiation in an international conference, many delegations do not feel compelled to take a particularly strong position. This can be because the question is not seen to have much impact on them or to be one on which they see much benefit in exerting themselves or, as is often the case, because what is proposed seems desirable or at least acceptable to them. Other delegations however may have a strong wish to influence a conference’s decision on the issue and, in a number of cases, some delegations may have mutually opposed wishes.

These delegations –those that aspire to influence the outcome and particularly those that have mutually opposed ambitions– become the leaders and drivers of the negotiation. Each such delegation can only achieve its objectives (in so far as these depend on the conference outcome) by securing the agreement of the conference. They are more likely to be successful if they attempt to resolve the issue together and if they try to meet each other’s aims. They will do even better if they also involve other delegations in the consultations because it may be one of the less involved delegations that actually finds the solution acceptable to all. The delegations that best accommodate differing concerns are ‘leading delegations’, because they will be followed.

The interdependence of negotiators

As long as they are not out to derail a conference, negotiators have important common interests. An international conference can only adopt words or make other decisions by agreement or approximations to agreement (consensus or a majority vote). Failure by the conference to agree means no outcome is achieved.

GMUN delegation from Samoa

This means that every delegation which wants the conference to adopt any particular set of words or to take any other decision, shares with every other delegate a common interest in the conference reaching agreement. This common interest is quite independent of whether or not the delegates have similar positions on the substantive and procedural questions before the conference.

This means each delegate has an incentive to produce or support proposals which are attractive to as many as possible –and preferably all– other delegations (because that is what will give these other delegations an incentive to agree). In short, it is very much in the interest of each delegate to exert him or herself to achieve as much as possible of the objectives of other delegations (as well as his/her own objectives) to the extent that this does not do unacceptable damage to his/her own aims.

Therefore, successful negotiation in an international conference often takes the form of a joint effort to achieve as much as possible of each other’s objectives –not withstanding any differences or even conflicts of objectives. Conversely, negotiations in which the participants lose sight of this factor are rarely very productive.

This awareness of the mutual interdependence of the negotiators is the cornerstone of successful strategies in multilateral conferences. Obviously, the more negotiators identify and value their common interest and objectives, the more likely that negotiation will be cooperative and result in agreement. Conversely, the more interests and objectives are seen to diverge, the more likely conflict will overshadow the negotiation process and the more challenging it will be to reach agreement.

The conference environment

GMUN delegates in the Main Hall

Just as a room full of people who are confused and angry with each other is extremely unlikely to reach agreement on anything at all, the reverse image would be an environment conducive to agreement.

It is therefore in the interests of the PGA and Chairmen, other officials of the General Committee and Committee Bureaus, and all those who want the conference to succeed to ensure that the conference environment and mood remains as positive as possible.

This has physical aspects such as temperature, ventilation, access to food and drink and all other factors which affect the comfort of delegates. But also conferences, like crowds and individuals, have temperaments and emotions. They can be optimistic, hopeful and cooperative. They can be animated by a strong wish to reach agreement. They can have a sense of momentum carrying them in a particular direction. Negatively, they can be despairing, irritated or tired etc.

Successful negotiators are aware of these factors, adapt to them and do what they can to create an atmosphere conducive to agreement.

Both time and timing are important. The successful negotiator must have a good sense of how much time will be needed by delegations to consult other delegations, for ideas to percolate and for individual delegations and the conference as a whole to reach the point at which they are ready to make a decision. The successful negotiator will also be able to judge at what moment he/she should approach another delegate, make an intervention or a proposal and so forth. There are occasions where a degree of discomfort can be deliberately inflicted on delegates to drive them towards agreement but this is a delicate strategy best left to those who know how to use it.