Negotiating Without Understanding

June 13th, 2012

By Dan Miller

When we don’t understand what other countries mean we usually screw up. That can be unhealthy.

Atomic Bombfirst politicianNorth Korea is either developing nuclear weapons or it is not. Ditto Iran. Both could give our home-grown “statesmen” lessons in flip-flopping to appeal to different audiences. Even if we (and they) have reasonably competent translators of the written word and interpreters of the spoken word, intimate with the cultures of those with whom we are trying to negotiate (sometimes they are not) and with our own culture, negotiation remains difficult and mistakes can be unfortunate and many.


Here is an article by Jason Lim, a Korean language interpreter for about twenty years. He begins by asking what would happen if Kim Jong-un and President Obama were to meet. He observes,

without an interpreter, the best they can do is shake hands and smile awkwardly at each other in their best imitation of a junior high school dance.

This is obviously an outlandish scenario, but I wanted to make the point that an interpreter, who is often overlooked, is a critical piece to any dialogue that involves more than one language. This is more so when the language pair is English and Korean since their underlying culture, syntax, and embedded preconceptions can be very different and lead to unintended misunderstandings.

A famous case in point is when former [South Korean] President Kim Dae-jung met with former President Bush for the first time in 2001. In his introduction for a post-summit press conference, Bush used the term,  “This man…” when referring (glowingly, in fact) to Kim.

This was taken by some Koreans to be offensive because of different cultural optics since Korean language tends to be so sensitive to honorifics; one Korean assemblyman actually sent an official letter of protest to the U.S. government for the “insulting” word. …

[P]ace and rhythm is often more important than accuracy. Rhythm of a dialogue is far more important in conveying a sense of confidence, trust, and humanity than the actual definition of the words that are spoken. Of course, if you were interpreting in a nuclear negotiation, you would have to be extremely careful with the choice of words, since the words conveyed would change the whole texture of the talks.

However, you should also keep in mind that research shows that only 7 percent of communication actually occurs through words. This means that factors like likeability, trust, energy, atmosphere, and others will dictate what type of a result your client will achieve out of any conversation. (Emphasis added.)

Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish would be a convenient resource but is unexpectedly unavailable.

While understanding the spoken word is difficult, it is probably little less so than understanding apparently contradictory statements, often written, that may or may not have been issued for foreign consumption.  On or about May 22, North Korea issued a statement that

it never planned to conduct a nuclear test and its missile tests were purely for scientific research. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said the regime “from the beginning” never envisaged “such a military measure as a nuclear test,” and the aim of a failed rocket launch last month was to put a satellite into orbit for peaceful purposes.

The North was responding to a statement on Saturday from the G8 nations condemning the April 13 rocket launch and pledging tougher UN sanctions against the Stalinist country in response to any further provocations or a nuclear test. …

The North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that the regime has no choice but to bolster its nuclear arsenal while the U.S. keeps up “hostile” acts. “If the US persists in its moves to ratchet up sanctions and pressure on us despite our peace-loving efforts, we will be left with no option but to take counter-measures for self-defense,” the spokesman said.

North Korea was then, apparently, “technically ready” to attempt another nuclear test. About a month earlier, on April 13th, the North Korean constitution had been revised to provide:

“National Defence Commission chairman Kim Jong-Il turned our fatherland into an invincible state of political ideology, a nuclear-armed state and an indomitable military power, paving the ground for the construction of a strong and prosperous nation,” says part of the preamble.

The text was carried by the “Naenara” (My Nation) website.

The previous constitution, last revised on April 9, 2010, did not carry the term “nuclear-armed state”. (Emphasis added)

Barack ObamaDPRK Venerating KimThe constitutional revision came about a month before the North Korean claim quoted above that it had not contemplated a nuclear test but that “the regime has no choice but to bolster its nuclear arsenal while the U.S. keeps up ‘hostile acts’.”  Was the constitutional revision the same old policy wrapped in new constitutional language and merely intended further to eulogize its great men on horseback? Was it merely propaganda aimed at North Korean serfs? Aimed even at the Kim Regency itself? Aimed somewhere in between? Or was it meant to be taken seriously outside the country? Since the written constitution of North Korea has little to do with what happens there, it may be meaningless insofar as negotiations are concerned. Or, it may be significant; we had better figure out that sort of thing before serious negotiations are resumed.

Even assuming that reasonably competent interpreters and translators, with no positions of their own to push, are employed by our government (and of course by the governments with which we are trying to negotiate), how likely is it that the perceptions of our adversaries are accurately transmitted to those charged with making decisions for us and vice versa? Are they ignored if and to the extent inconsistent with government rulers’ fixed ideas or big picture hopes and dreams?

Obama in DPRK

Confucius say, Man with rose color glasses see no great evil.

As noted here,

The North Koreans don’t care much for democracy, but they sure enjoy negotiating with democracies in an election year — especially when they detect that mission number one in Washington is to avoid troubling foreign policy headlines until after November 6. The Obama administration actually started out with a pretty tough stance on North Korea, captured in an impressive statement of policy issued by Hillary Clinton while in Thailand in July 2009. By about mid-2011, however, the administration began getting nervous that its lack of “engagement” might tempt Pyongyang to conduct nuclear or missile tests. Once again, engagement slipped from being a marginally useful means to the end of the policy in itself. After a flurry of negotiations the North agreed in the February 29 “Leap Year” deal that it would stop nuclear and missile tests for a while and let IAEA inspectors back at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for food aid (now euphemistically called “nutritional assistance”). Nobody in the administration was convinced this was a breakthrough, but it seemed to kick the North Korea problem down the road for a while. Problem solved. (Emphasis added.)

Tangential, probably, but there may perhaps be a dim ray of hope. At least India seems to be reconsidering her appointment of a stenographer as her envoy to North Korea. He was merely “a principal staff officer in the stenographer cadre. He has worked as counselor in Suva only for the purpose of handling pay and allowances.” It’s apparently difficult to find qualified diplomats willing “to be posted to the hermit nation that offers little by way of a social life.”

Iran and elsewhere?

Itamar Rabinovich, who was also Israel’s chief negotiator under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in abortive efforts at peacemaking with Syria in 1992-95, said that “it’s not Russia that’s preventing intervention. Russia is the pretext, the alibi” for the lack of substantive international action. “If someone wanted to ratchet up the pressure on Syria, they could,” he said.

The real block, he told Army Radio, is the US government. “The Obama administration is not looking for another major Middle East crisis before November.”

Asked therefore whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite her bitter rhetoric against Damascus, did not actually intend to take any action now, Rabinovich said, “Later, after November.”

Gee whiz!  Who blabbed that big secret? Elections matter in the United States; to President Obama, perhaps even more than doing whatever he can to reinforce his own perceptions. It appears to be Israel’s perception that it can’t rest until Iran drops Uranium enrichment; President Obama seems to look forward to a pleasant post-reelection rest from the wearisome burdens of office, when he will have greater flexibility for big picture initiatives. He will likely worry when Iran drops the bomb instead of dropping enrichment.

Iran’s “dignity” matters to the United States’ Justice Department. What matters to Iran and other Islamist countries? Are they “rational actors?” Probably, to the extent that “rational” means their own reasoned interpretations of their own perceptions, without regard to whether those perceptions are accurate or even realistic. To us, it probably does not seem rational to slaughter those believed to have offended Mohamed. It must seem not only rational but necessary to them because they so interpret their scriptures. Nuclear war in the Middle East may seem irrational to those who earlier refrained from using nuclear weapons due to their fears of mutually assured destruction. To those awaiting, and hoping to hasten, the coming of their Great Maddahi? Iran appears to have not only different perceptions but different voices being heard by different ears as well.

Do continued efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons by merely trying to heap on sanctions, as distinguished from the preemptive use of military force, seem rational? To the United States, probably; the United States continues to have some regard for her own people (“Elections matter”) who (except for those deployed in the Middle East) probably would not be in immediate physical danger on account of the advent of Iranian nuclear weaponry. However, should it become politically expedient for the West to do more shortly before November, the perceived dangers might suddenly become palpable and severe. Iran? Beats me.

Does our current approach to Iran’s nuclear weapons development make sense to Israel? Probably not, since the powers that control Iran have promised to wipe her off the face of the Earth. To Iran?

The mullahs’ heady brew of religion and power madness almost certainly makes them immune to these forms of economic pressure, the more so since they mainly affect the already-battered Iranian public.

If the mullahs cared about their people, things would have been different a long time ago. And, unfortunately, that Iranian public seems less to be relied upon, the Green Revolution fading into a sad and, increasingly distant, memory. (I may be wrong about this, but watching the horrifying results of the demonstrations in Egypt and Syria cannot be encouraging to the remaining Greens and their sympathizers.)

The Fars New Agency, “which is run by the Revolutionary Guards tightly and usually publishes official opinion,” recently published an article proclaiming

Iran could possibly rationalize its “peaceful objectives” for nuclear power by arguing that a nuclear bomb would create peace if it were to be used on Israel to achieve Ahmadinejad’s stated objective of annihilating Zionism. Forghani wrote in February that Iran should stage a “pre-emptive” strike on Israel.

Forghani wrote on Sunday, “The fatwa from Imam Khomeini [the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution — ed.] said ‘all Islamic countries have Islamic blood.’ Therefore the Islamic world should rise up and shout that a nuclear bomb is our right, and disrupt the dreams of America and Israel.”

“Having a nuclear bomb is our right. Israel would have been destroyed completely 30 years ago” but remains because of its assumed possession of nuclear warheads.

What do Iran and other Islamist states mean by “peace?”  Something on which we can all agree? How about submission to Islam or, alternatively, the peace that death brings?

It’s all a big mess.

North Korea has her own religion, rather different from Islam, based upon the deification and hence perpetuation of the Kim Regime. The “big picture” for neither Iran nor North Korea seems to focus on the well being of its people. Their people don’t have any significant voice in who gains or loses power so they don’t much matter; they can be restrained by violence, threats of violence, a few meager handouts or even vague promises that plenty will soon arrive.

What does it all mean? Our desires and perceptions are different from those of people barely surviving under totalitarian governments; even among them, substantial disagreement exists based on tribal and religious affiliation and proximity to power. The desires and perceptions of the leaders of those governments are also different not only from ours but also from those of many of “their” people, again based on tribal and religious affiliation and proximity to power. We can not afford to base our perceptions of what they mean on our own desires and perceptions.  We need far more understanding, by which I mean neither empathy with nor sympathy for those suffering under brutal and inefficient regimes.

There may be a bright side.

Perhaps it’s a good thing for the United States that President Obama is extraordinarily busy attending to far more important problems.

clinton obama campaign

Otherwise, we might drown because of leaks.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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