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Online negotiating: an evolutionary step forward?

Published on 21 July 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Imagine that, for some reason, as of today all diplomatic negotiations have to be conducted online, through chat-rooms or ‘hypertext’ for instance, and in writing; diplomats start to exploit the Internet resources in full and consider the Internet-based (or computer mediated) communication channels as the only legitimate, or permissible, ones. Should one welcome such a development? In other words, is such a development likely, or not, to improve diplomatic communication in the sense of making it easier, more rational, and more efficient overall? Here I do not attempt to answer the question which is not easy to answer at all. My only purpose is to present the question in a more tangible form. Perhaps needless to say, I consider the question as extremely important primarily because it inspires us to perform a bit of dialectics, a challenging thought-experiment that may widen and enrich our view of a crucial part of diplomatic practice. Hence, what should we take the question to mean in a more specific sense?

First, one should notice that the question may be put as a question of material costs. Obviously the whole problem of organizing, planning and doing distant, or close, air-traveling should disappear. Hence, the money, time, and energy required for organizing and performing visits and meetings in a real state will be saved and redirected to negotiations proper conducted in computer-mediated space. Also, as the venue of negotiations especially in a more heated, or conflicting, international political environment poses a special problem, and is something that sometimes requires a prolonged period of pre-negotiating, computer-mediated negotiations will elegantly bypass the problem (1). However, I immediately warn the reader about the possibility that the question of online negotiating is not as easy to answer as the previous two sentences seem to suggest. One should, for instance, have in mind that the institution of a resident ambassador (which of course does not come cost-free!) already serves the purpose of mitigating considerably the costs of air-travel. 

Secondly, communicating and negotiating in a real place implies many contextual distractions; for instance, the weather conditions may be harsh, or the building may be dark and stuffy, or the persons one meets may appear to be somewhat distant, withdrawn, and reserved, or the table may be of a strange color… (2). Compare that to a neat and quiet chat-room which is a part of a familiar environment situated in a land with weather-conditions to which one is already adapted.  

Thirdly, one should emphasize that online negotiating must be performed fully in writing (3). This has important consequences for the very process of communicating in the sense that the key contextual factors pertaining to verbal or oral exchange of messages do not pertain to a written form of communication. For instance, online negotiator is unlikely to see facial expression, or other bodily gestures that play an important part in a living, oral kind of talk. S/he is also unlikely to hear variation in vocal aspects of the message, such as intonation or speeding up of a message, or the emotive tone behind language. Also, in online negotiating, if it is fully in writing, one will not have eye-contact with one’s interlocutor. His or her focus will be exclusively on the rational, non-emotive, propositional, or argument-responsive aspect of the interlocutor’s communication. Additionally, we should have in mind that negotiations aim ultimately at production of a document, which is a written kind of language, and online negotiating is likely to help one realize and place emphasis on the fact at the very opening of the process (4).

The three aspects of online negotiating could, in my opinion, serve well to give a more tangible form to the question addressed in the title of this comment. They provide three different routes to get a better understanding of the potential value of online negotiating. So, assuming that my remarks above have at least implied some argument in favor of online negotiating, let us turn now to the negative side of dialectics. I will start in reverse order.

First, all the contextual factors that pertain to verbal or oral kind of communication also serve as the bits of information that make it easier for one to get a clear understanding of the message. In other words, contextual factors of the kind often enable one to avoid serious misunderstanding of the spoken message. Such factors are not simply emotive, or arbitrary; they add to the understanding of the very propositional content of an utterance/sentence. Therefore, communication in writing should perhaps be considered as potentially more rational than oral communication, but this comes at a price – the likelihood of misunderstanding, or erroneous interpretation, is higher in written communication than in oral one (5). This is not to deny that the context may be added, but it is an extra burden on the communicator. Also, one needs to have in mind that it is nearly impossible to avoid all kinds of emotive undertone in communicating in writing, by which I do not mean emoticons, but phenomena such as pausing, repetition, typographical errors, and the length of sentences that necessarily carry some emotive undertones. 

Secondly, being able to cope with contextual distractions is a sign not of a weak, but a strong mind. Besides, if one is in position to choose between online and in situ negotiating, one is likely to evince a stronger determination and a commitment to the process of negotiating by choosing to travel to conduct negotiations in person, meeting one’s interlocutors face-to-face. Think, for instance, of Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Knesset which paved the way to 1978 Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel.

Thirdly, to travel and pay diplomatic visits to negotiate in person may be costly, but we need to have in mind that investments into a project, or a process, add to its intrinsic worth; in other words, if online negotiating implies a relatively small amount of investment (of time, money, and energy) into the process of negotiating, the break-up, or postponement of the process implies a low cost as well. In addition to this, one should perhaps have a wider view of costs – for instance, the costs of not coming to a negotiated settlement may be so high that even larger amounts of investment to prevent such costs may be fully meaningful. Similar considerations apply to the issue of the negotiating venue. In one perspective, negotiations concerning the choice of venue are meaningless, but in another such negotiations may produce several beneficial effects: for instance, they may help the parties to get used to the idea of negotiating, or to learn more about the interlocutors, or to demonstrate to themselves that a compromise with the opposed party is possible….Also, negotiating on a choice of venue may bring the parties to the point where the process of negotiating has gained such a momentum that it may be very imprudent or risky to reverse it (6).

Considerations proposed here may serve the useful purpose of clarifying a question, but nonetheless they are bound to remain in the realm of speculative exercise. I think that the only way to gain a more thorough understanding of the question, and to outline some tentative answers to it, is by doing the real thing, that is, by deciding to negotiate online as often as possible.  


(1) For some illustrations of the problem of negotiating the choice of venue, see G.R. Berridge, Diplomacy – Theory and Practice, p. 131, and A. Dobrynin, In Confidence, pp. 167-8.
(2) For instance, it was in the course of his trip through Crimea to Yalta that the US President Roosevelt for the first time saw in reality the destruction the German war-machine effected on the Soviet or any soil; and perhaps Stalin wanted him to see that.
(3) Among contemporary linguists Roy Harris stands out as one who has done most to clear away some conceptual errors concerning the relationship between the spoken and the written language; for a brief overview, see R. Harris, ‘How does writing restructure thought?’ (Language & Communication vol. 9, pp. 99-106).
(4) Hypertext may serve here as a pertinent illustration; for a diplomatic use of hypertext, see J. Kurbalija, ‘Hypertext in diplomacy’ (in: Language and Diplomacy, eds. Kurbalija, Slavik).  
(5) Also emphasized in D. Crystal, ‘Internet language’ (in: Cummings (ed.), The Pragmatics Encyclopedia, pp. 234-6).
(6) I am aware that I have sidestepped the issue of confidentiality: should the online kind of negotiating be considered as more prone to violations of the principle, or requirement, of confidentiality than the oral kind? I leave it to the reader to try to construct some dialectical notions concerning the topic.  


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