Conflict, Culture, and Negotiation in Natural Resource Bargaining


As the various papers presented in this volume attest, growing populations and ever-dwindling global resources have rendered negotiation over the sharing of natural resources can increasingly urgent and critical issue. Such negotiations constitute a special category within the discipline of conflict resolution, not only because they deal with sensitive environmental and resource issues, but also because they are typically inter-cultural negotiations dealing with various parties and stakeholders, either within one state's boundaries or in an international context. In the paragraphs that follow, I offer some reflections on the papers, with special reference to the obstacles and challenges facing the inner-cultural, natural resource conflict-resolution process.

Heat Beyond the Cold War

To put the issues related to resource bargaining in the 1990s in context, I believe it is of importance to keep the global framework in mind. Although it has brought an end to one mighty struggle between two armed supper powers, the conclusion of the Cold War has rearranged global tensions in new and comparably dangerous ways, (i) Whereas the Cold War had a heavy ideological content and in many ways was a global contest for people's minds, the "new world order" has fewer intellectual pretensions and is much more a direct contest for control of material resources. (ii) While conflict was organized and, to some degree, managed in the bipolar framework of the Cold War, the mutli-polar framework of the post-Cold War is much less amenable to conflict management and control. (iii) As the east-west ideological discourse highlighting questions of capitalism, socialism, imperialism, etc., ebbed, alternative discourses of identity, culture, religion, and resurgent nationalism came to the fore; the latter set of issues often proved more volatile and unmanageable in conflict situations than the former set. Gamman and Rothman emphasize the increasing salience of culture and nationalism, respectively, in global conflict situations. And (iv) as Kumar Rupesinghe argues, whereas the Cold War was largely a horizontal contest between states, post-Cold War tensions are more multi-tiered, involving not only states but strong sub-state and trans-state actors organized in myriad formal and informal ways. Conflict in the former context could be managed through traditional diplomatic and balance-of-power strategies, but in the latter context, conflict management is a far, more complex and challenging affair. As some of the southers have implied, therefore, as we move into the 21st century, we should be aware that, despite the end of the Cold War, other forms and axes of conflict pose equally challenging threats that need to be met with vigor and creativity.

The Variable Environments of Natural Resource Negotiation

Rothman showed in his paper that as with all limited resources in negotiation situations, the scarcity of the resource can be a force for either cooperation or escalation. The parties can surmise that the gains of sharing outweigh the risk/opportunity ratio of competition. Alternatively, they might perceive the contest in zero-sum terms and spurn cooperation in favor of more coercive tactics. In the Middle East, for example, scarce resources (oil, water, land) have at certain points provided the impetus for rapid escalation and confrontation (the U.S.-Iraqi Gulf War over oil; Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian tensions over the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates). At other points, they have provided the bases for negotiation and cooperation (the Madrid-launched, Arab-Israeli peace process over sharing land and water). It is important for conflict managers to be aware of the dangerous, dual tendencies of natural resource bargaining and to frame resource conflicts, as much as possible, in expanding-pie rather than zero-sum terms.

When it comes to land disputes, negotiations are made all the more difficult because land is regarded as simply a "resource" to be put on the table for bargaining. Riley and Sebenius give special importance to the various ways in which different societies value such natural resources. In pre-agrarian societies, land-ownership itself is a fairly foreign concept, and the land that sustains, land comes under human control and command. However, as the sole basis for economic production, land in agrarian societies, land comes under human control and command. However, as the sole basis for economic production, land takes on a mixed status: on the one hand, land is reduced to one among several important economic resources (alongside capital, technology, information, access to markets, etc.); on the other hand, historically, land in industrializing societies acquired an exalted status within the ideology of territorial nationalism that organized politics in Europe and much of the post-colonial world.

Within the experience of imperialism, however, distinctions were made between national territory and colonial holdings: the former was sacred and inviolate, while the latter was the object of fairly dispassionate bargaining. Indeed, the colonialist legacy and its psychological scars are important to keep in mind when pursuing inter-cultural, land use negotiations involving "first" and "third world" parties. Anti-colonial hostility may still be quite present for decades after colonialism has been dismantled, and even if the "first world" party has nothing to do with that past.

Natural resource negotiations, hence, pose peculiar challenges, not only because they are negotiations over a limited good but also because different societies place different value on land and other vital natural resources.

The Question of Culture

This is not the place to debate the various definitions of "culture." Suffice it to say that in the contemporary, scholarly fasionableness of "multiculturalism" in its many branches, there is a danger of exaggerating the usefulness of the concept. In the papers of Gamman and MacDuff, as well as several others, the centrality of the concept of culture suggests a number of cautions: (i) although members of living communities share many beliefs share many beliefs and attitudes, there is often much variation and polarity within a community to the degree that one must truly speak of cultures in the plural. To speak of Indian culture, or Arab culture, or American culture, might be historically meaningful and academically interesting, but it hides as much as it informs when one gets down to real life situations of dealing with particular individuals and organizations within those macro-cultural frameworks. It is much more useful in that context to investigate the particular sub-cultures within which the individuals and organizations operate. (ii) An emphasis on culture as the decisive variable in understanding the actual attitudes and behavior of particular individuals and groups masks a set of other variables such as class, generation group, individual or group characteristics, educational background, etc., of the interlocuting parties. An examination and understanding of these factors might yield insights that are as important, or more, than a general examination of the interlocutor's overall "culture." Finally, (iv) there is a danger in assuming that "culture" somehow predetermines or dictates positions on particular issues. In most cases "culture" is merely a framework of symbols and values within which particular individuals and groups navigate in staking out their own positions and defining their own interests.

All this is not to say that one should abandon a "group approach" in favor of an "individual approach," or that "culture" is not a useful sociological concept, but simply to say that in understanding the beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral patterns of interlocutors in a negotiation (or any other) situation, one would do well to take equal account of the overall culture to which that interlocutor belongs, as well as the particular sub-group and subculture, as well as to that interlocutor's individual background background, mind-set, and behavioral patterns. In other words, an appreciation of "culture" is not a quick fix for understanding the beliefs and behavioral patterns of interlocutors; a consistently more complex and nuanced, mutual comprehension approach is required.

Refining the Process

Reflections on culture, resources and conflict aside, what concerns the practitioner most is to hit upon a process that will take the parties from their initial positions of disagreement to a condition, more or less, of limited consensus. From the many case studies presented in this volume, it becomes obvious that far from there being one "culturally sensitive" process that negotiators can employ in all contexts, the challenge of developing a mutually acceptable process in each multi-"cultural" negotiation situation should be conceived of as a separate and preliminary phase of each negotiation. McCreary suggests employing independent review teams; Ross insists that cross-cultural teams must work together to develop a mutually acceptable conflict resolution approach; and Solomon warns that cross-culture communication is a necessarily collaborative learning process. Rothman suggests a preliminary phase of "reflexive conflict discourse" about identity, values, and cultural frameworks, even as a prelude to developing a conflict resolution approach. Whatever the best course might be in any given case, one should note that in devising an "appropriate" negotiating process for a particular case, one should pay special attention to (i) local consensus-building and conflict management techniques that could be emulated (see Moore and Santosa), (ii) the particular backgrounds and agendas of the negotiating individuals and groups (see Riley and Sebenius), (iii) the motivations of the particular interlocutors in being at the negotiations and reaching closure, (iv) the attitudes and perceptions of the interlocutors with regard to each other, and (v) general cultural frameworks within which the various interlocutors operate.

However, I feel there is a danger in overemhasizing process in mutli-"cultural" negotiations as there is in overemphasizing culture itself. As Merculieff does to some degree with regard to the Aleuts, there is a temptation to perceive a strict dichotomy between western approaches to negotiation as "goal oriented," and non-western approaches as "process oriented." Part of the risk is that one might be blind to the amount of process that one misses in non-western approaches as "process oriented." Part of the risk is that one might be blind to the amount of process that is interalized - and hence not consciously realized-by westerners in their own approaches, and the amount of goal-orientation that one misses in non-western approaches because of one's fascination with the different process. Indeed, one might become so preoccupied withe understanding the different process as to forget that, after all, hidden behind different process. Indeed, one might become so preoccupied with understanding the different process as to forget that, after all, hidden behind different rituals and patterns is usually a fairly hard-nosed process of bargaining and agreement-building hat has many inherent characteristics that differ little from "culture" to "culture." For example, one can easily become fascinated with the different details of the bargaining process in the markets of Hong Kong, Kabul, Akra, Casablanca, San Juan, and Anchorage, but one would do so at the expense of overlooking the profound similarities in the process across all cases. There might be more such similarities of internal process across cultures than at first meets the eye.

In closing, and in addition to the above remarks regarding the risks of post-Cold War world, the challenges of natural resource bargaining, and the problems of overemphasizing culture and process, I would simply like to add my voice to others in this volume, especially Rupesinghe, Mayer, Wildau, Valchev, Riley and Sebenius, who have underscored the importance of pro-active initiatives in building consensus and mutual understanding over issues of resource-sharing in an ever-shrinking world. For many cases of natural resource conflict, positions have become so hardened and levels of trust so low that they are beyond immediate satisfactory resolution. But for the myriad problems of resource sharing that will emerge in the immediate and medium-term future, it is never too early to begin building bases of common understanding and trust.

Although particular conflicts are often the occasion for initiating dialogue and reaching agreement, building trust and understanding beforehand is a surer way of reducing the number of escalated conflicts and minimizing the repercussions of conflicts when they do occur. A special appreciation of the complexity of natural resource negotiation in the late 20th century and a healthy respect for the complexities of "cultures" and negotiation processes can only help in working toward broader bases of understanding and trust.

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