“Somewhat ironically, harsh public rhetoric can help smooth the way to successful settlements during secret negotiations.”

— Julie Browne and Eric Dickson, ‘We don’t talk to terrorists’:  On the rhetoric and practice of secret negotiations, Journal of Conflict Resolution 54(3), 379-407.

Refusal to negotiate is a common posture in statecraft. Hamas refuses to negotiate with Israel.  Turkey refuses to negotiate with the PKK.  It’s even deployed in lower-stakes conflicts:  In a number of instances, firms (Nestle in India, for instance, or McDonalds in Russia) have refused to negotiate with labour unions that they considered to be illegitimate.

But states, firms (and even individuals) do end up negotiating against counterparts they view as illegitimate, evil, or otherwise beneath diplomacy.  Sometimes they negotiate in secret at the very same moment they are promising never to negotiate.

Browne and Dickson present some interesting game-theoretic modelling showing how the rhetoric of refusal to negotiate can, counterintuitively, help parties reach a negotiated settlement.  If one party blusters and make commitments to powerful constituents never to negotiate, they have high ‘audience costs’ for engaging in negotiation.  They can’t afford to be spurned, won’t come back if a deal can’t be made, and won’t tolerate impasse.  This can be a powerful incentive for otherwise reluctant parties to meet them at the table.

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