What will force Putin to the negotiating table?

There have always been wars. And there has always been the transition from war to negotiation. But how does this transition come about?

A central idea of science is simplification. The reduction to the essentials.

We try to understand the world by abstracting it. In the end, however, the knowledge must be brought back into the real world. Otherwise, knowledge remains an end in itself.

Economics also works under this principle.

Human coexistence is analysed by reducing human interactions to core elements. This reduction can then, in turn, be applied to many cases of human coexistence.

For example, when warring parties go to war and when they are ready to negotiate. Looking at human interactions in this way, there have always been and still are two fundamental ways of human interactions throughout history.

In the one form of interaction, one side takes what it wants from the other, mainly by force (history is full of examples of this form of “human coexistence”). The other way of living together is based on voluntariness. You only get what you want if the other side is willing to give it.

The latter way is the principle of a free and civilised society, and negotiation is the means of putting this principle into practice.

In recent history we’ve seen a shift away from force to negotiation. Wars have become less common.

For example, between 1500 and today they were more than 50 wars between “Great Powers”. The number of years in which “Great Powers” fought one another in each century has declined over the centuries.

Furthermore human’s expectation to die violently has reduced dramatically through time. The rate of deaths per 100.000 people has been falling for decades.

Luckily, what we are seeing is mostly negotiation. Also in our daily life. We just rarely realise it any more (at least as long as everything goes smoothly, which it mostly does).

Buying bread rolls in the morning at the bakery, working in the office, booking a holiday by the sea – in every activity, there is a negotiation aspect that is usually not carried out openly since legislation dramatically shortens the negotiation process (buying bread rolls only takes a few moments, but, hey, ask a lawyer what happens in these few moments viewed from a legal position and you will spend a whole evening on this subject).

War, as it is currently happening in Ukraine, is the exact opposite of this way of living together. Rules are overridden. There are no negotiations. People take what they want – even human lives.

How can that change? How can this lousy form of human interaction, namely appropriation through violence, turn into a decent form again, where one does not do what the other does not want? How and when does war turn into a negotiation?

A debate has erupted (once again) in Germany about whether my country should halt arms deliveries to Ukraine and do whatever it takes to force both sides to the negotiating table. More than half a million people (!) have petitioned against the supply of weapons. The idea of these people is that if no more weapons were supplied, then negotiations were more likely to happen.

Is this train of thought promising?

To answer this question, one has to link the two possibilities of human interaction mentioned above (bargaining vs coercion).

In a world without morality, violent takeovers are an effective strategy. Unlike in negotiations, you don’t have to give anything for what you get.

This type of acquisition is effective as long as you are powerful enough to carry out the acquisition. If the other side becomes powerful too and can defend itself successfully, the strategy must change. Then negotiation replaces predation.

In other words, which form of human coexistence people/parties/countries choose – bargaining or force – depends on the conditions.

Referring to the war in Ukraine, this means that there will only be negotiations if negotiations are seen as more profitable for both sides than the continuation of violence.

Putin’s Russia, which started this war (and could end it overnight if it wanted to), will only be willing to negotiate if such negotiations promise a better outcome than moving on with the fighting. This means the weaker Russia’s position on the battlefield, the more likely negotiations will succeed.

We can draw parallels to the American Revolutionary War: Britain, the more powerful nation at the time, only agreed to negotiate independence after trying and failing to subdue the colonies. France supplied the US with arms, ammunition, military know-how and naval support. According to the US State Department, “French assistance was crucial” in winning the decisive battle of Yorktown and bringing the British to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 and gave the United States its independence.

What follows from these thoughts for the free world? Continued military support for Ukraine will strengthen the prospect of a negotiated settlement.

This is an uncomfortable truth for peace activists. It’s nonetheless the truth. Or as Wesley Clark, a retired four-star U.S.-general, recently said in the New York Times: “If we want to end the war with a negotiated peace, we have to figure out the battlefield situation that will lead to a successful negotiation.” And Clark added: “That probably requires going after Crimea in a serious way to convince Putin that he can’t win.”

This text was first published at World History Encyclopedia, a non-profit history encyclopedia with the mission to engage people with cultural heritage and to improve history education worldwide.

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