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Cooperation essential in troubled world

A story circulating the U.S. many years ago illustrates the subject of this month’s column.

A U.S. battleship, badly damaged in a storm and separated from its fleet, was making its way toward home port. Without sonar capability, the ship progressed on its perilous journey as the commander frantically radioed ahead, clearing sea lanes. For some time, all ocean traffic gave way, but then the ship encountered a light that would not move. Furious, the commander barked out an angry message: “Attention! I am a U.S. battleship. Failure to turn your vessel immediately will result in collision. I will not give way.”

On the battleship, tension thickened as collision seemed inevitable. Suddenly, the radio crackled to life, and a voice responded: “Understood: You are a U.S. battleship. You will not yield.” Another pause … total silence as the large ship bore down on it’s challenger’s position. Then, the radio crackled again, and the voice behind the stubborn light continued: “Before proceeding further, however, you should understand one thing … I am not a vessel. I am a lighthouse.”



Morals can be sliced many ways from this story. Here’s mine: At some point in life, EVERYBODY must come to terms with limits, and in human relations the greatest limitation is almost always oneself. Doesn’t matter whether the conflict is personal or geopolitical – NH 2020, the TV remote or invading Iraq – if we want lasting solutions to core issues, we’d better be sure of our own course before blowing others out of the water.

For one thing – and let’s not kid ourselves here – on every level imaginable, NOBODY understands “the problem” as well as we’d like to think. For another, on all the same levels, the cost of imposing aggressive, heavy-handed power plays is far greater than many seem to believe. Fortunately, negotiation strategies have been developed to save us from ourselves.




In 1978, President Jimmy Carter called Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat together in the faint hope of achieving an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Realizing the enormity of his task, he utilized a specific strategy developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project. The result was the historic and lasting agreement known as the Camp David Peace Accord, the only such treaty between Israel and an Arab nation. Based on creating solutions to mutual problems, not defeating adversaries, Principled Negotiation espouses four key points:

— Separating people from the problem

— Focusing on interests and needs, not positions

— Inventing options for MUTUAL gain

— Insisting on objective criteria

Nifty concepts. Separating individuals from the problem (with the commitment to be “hard on merits, but soft on people”) reduces personal animosity, keeping participants at the table. Insisting parties relate only needs and interests (e.g., safe borders), not positions (e.g., return of the Golan Heights), forcing negotiators to remain open to “the other’s” core issues. In this way, participants become partners in a process, rather than enemies on the battlefield, and EVERYONE’s needs are included in devising creative solutions “not already in mind” before the process began.

Such openness is based on accepting personal limits, and stands the Adversarial Model on its head because it allows for the new, the unknown, in our relations, rather than simply defending “bottom lines” (“NO on NH 2020” … “YES on NH 2020”). Most important, we are opened to the unknown potential that we and our “opponents” have for creating yet unimagined solutions to ongoing problems.

The danger in taking on the attitude of a battleship, even in small doses, is that such armoring inevitably rigidifies perception, leading to behavior patterns that impair our ability to negotiate even routine matters. Words like “commie,” “fascist,” and “extremist” are used in politics for exactly the same reasons words like “kraut” and worse epithets are used in war: to objectify opponents so we can ignore what they have to say and attack their positions. Such dehumanization as this may be necessary to instill the moral numbness essential for killing others, but invoking a war mentality in working the democratic process with neighbors is obviously a flawed concept.

We live in complex, troubled times that increasingly require cooperation more than “rugged individualism.” As storm clouds continue to mount, the temptation is to grasp for emotional ballast by taking on the persona of a battleship, but we do this at our peril. For many reasons.

Like it or not, we are all small vessels wandering a sea of uncertainty, and as we roll through the waves of last year’s turbulence, the hardest task may be to remember that – from our leaders on down – not one of us is a lighthouse. That is to say, rather than being beacons unto ourselves, we need each other – depend on one another – to help navigate a united course through these troubled waters.

William Larsen lives in Nevada City and writes a monthly column.


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