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Friday, 26 October 2007

26 October 2007

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” So said Winston Churchill, more than 50 years ago. In other words, if you have a dispute, talk it out, don’t shoot it out.

“Trying is almost always worthwhile.” So said the then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, in a lecture last June about Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution.

Unarguable, you may think. But it’s not necessarily so, according to the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who has just written a fascinating account of the Northern Ireland peace process (“Misunderstanding Ulster”, published by Conservative Friends of Israel) in which he argues that talking isn’t always and automatically a good idea, and that negotiating without pre-conditions can sometimes be counter-productive.

Let’s look at two examples. Some time within the next couple of months, if US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has her way, there’ll be an international meeting about the Middle East, designed to draw up a framework for future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects at present look pretty dismal; so much so that many in the region are saying it’d be better to scrap the whole idea than to have the meeting and come up with nothing.

As it happens, I was in Israel seven years ago at the start of the violent Palestinian uprising that became known as the second intifada. It came shortly after a failed Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David, held in the dying weeks of President Clinton’s second term. I wrote then: “I have never encountered such universal pessimism … Most worrying of all is what seems to be a total loss of confidence on both sides in the idea that problems can be solved by negotiation.”

That’s what happens when talks fail. If jaw-jaw doesn’t work, the strong temptation is to return to war-war. That’s why, Mr Hain notwithstanding, it may not always be worthwhile to try, if success doesn’t follow.

My second example is Darfur. Peace talks are meant to start in Libya this weekend – but as we reported on Wednesday night’s programme, it looks at the moment as if virtually none of the parties to the conflict will be there. Instead, one of the countless rebel groups in Darfur says it has kidnapped two foreign oil workers – a Canadian and an Iraqi – from an oil field that’s operated by a Chinese-led consortium.

When you’re invited to enter negotiations, you want as strong a hand as you can get. Maybe a couple of abducted foreigners make good bargaining chips. Could it be that all the efforts that went into setting up the Libya talks have simply increased the dangers?

The conventional wisdom among diplomats is that successful negotiations need to be meticulously planned. Each side needs to have a detailed and in-depth understanding of how far the other side can go to reach a deal. Oh yes, and it helps if each side trusts in the good faith of the other. A US president nearing the end of his time in the White House may be impatient for results, but that’s not the same as proper preparation for a handshake in front of the world’s TV cameras.

So am I saying it’s not worth even trying to negotiate a settlement in the Middle East, or in Darfur? No, of course not. But I do think there’s a danger in always assuming that jaw-jaw will end war-war. As I fear we are about to discover, it ain’t necessarily so.

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