The theory and practice of bullhorn bargaining
Notes on noisy negotiations
In the first months of this publication, I’ve written repeatedly about public, semi-tacit negotiations between Russia and the US, to assure nuclear non-escalation as the US increasingly supports Ukraine. All along, I’ve wondered why this kind of analysis wasn’t already obvious, to foreign policy professionals and pundits alike.
I finally have a conjecture for that, which boils down to:
Negotiation theorists focus on communication-rich face-to-face negotiations (or their electronic equivalents).
Game theorists focus on situations with even less communication than there is between Russia and the US about Ukraine.
This article attempts to characterize that muddled middle between those better-analyzed domains, whih is where the US/Russia/Ukraine case actually resides. In this area, bargaining is conducted primarily through vague public rhetoric, supported by ambiguous non-verbal signaling. In particular, we briefly survey some elements of standard negotiation theory that still seem to apply.
Where negotiation theory is rich
Negotiation theory commonly focuses on scenarios with much contact between the parties, for example the negotiation of a management-labor contract or international treaty. Practical advice includes, for example:
Pre-negotiate the structure or framework of the negotiation to your advantage.
Ask many questions to help you understand the other party’s true opinions.
Work with the other party to creatively devise win-win outcomes.
But none of those rules make sense unless there indeed is a lot of detailed communication.
At the other extreme, there are theories of very low-touch bargaining. If one assumes no communication between the parties at all, one is in the realm of mathematical examples such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If one allows for a small amount of signaling, then we have tacit bargaining of the kinds discussed by Tom Schelling.
Where negotiation theory is sparser
The messy area between these extremes, however, seems lacking in well-developed theory. We won’t fix that in one brief article, but let’s at least try to frame some issues.
Some precepts of negotiation do seem independent of the parties’ level of communication. Examples include such basics as:
Understand the other party’s interests as well as you can.
In particular, consider which constituencies the other party wants to please.
Look for choices that benefit you a lot without much hurting the other party, and vice-versa.
Consider all parties’ BATNAs. (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)
Also, as discussed below, it seems that anchor and/or focal points are central to bullhorn bargaining strategy.
Our motivating example
To proceed further, let’s be clearer about the kinds of scenarios we’re considering. The paradigmatic example is the one I keep writing about here:
The US and Russia have the power to blow each other up in mutually suicidal nuclear war.
They also are bitter adversaries. For example, the US is currently helping Ukraine kill a lot of Russian soldiers.
If we let history be our guide, and assume that neither side will be totally passive while the other does as it pleases – i.e. that confrontations will continue – it follows that:
Both parties need an agreed framework as to what Russia and the US may and may not do in confronting and undermining each other, because ...
… the alternative is a distressingly high risk of blundering into nuclear war, …
… which is a hell of a lousy BATNA.
Yet a full formal agreement is unlikely for a variety of reasons, such as the widespread beliefs that:
Russia doesn’t reliably adhere to treaties.
Detailed “laws of war” aren’t reliably followed by anybody.
The Cuban Missile Crisis seems to have brought these points home to American and Soviet leadership alike, and there have been rough informal agreements that worked pretty well over the six decades since. But how are modifications or clarifications to the current agreement negotiated? Generally, the countries make short statements to the media, and take (or refrain from!) actions in ways that illustrate intent. Back-channel direct communications surely occur as well, but not to the extent required to make formally binding policy commitments.
Simplicity is of the essence
The title of this article, “Bullhorn Bargaining”, refers to two key features of this scenario:
The parties are “shouting” at each other.
Anybody can listen in, including other constituencies each party may want to intimidate, placate, reassure or otherwise influence.
This is different from “tacit bargaining”, in that words commonly play a central role. But non-verbal signals can of course be important too.
The subtitle refers to “noisy negotiations”, in part as a pun on “bullhorn”, but mainly in the “signal/noise” sense. Those public statements, tailored for multiple audiences at once, are limited as to how much nuance they could accurately transmit; complex proposals or ideas have little chance of holding up all the way to adoption.
And so one crucial limitation on bullhorn kinds of negotiations seems to be:
Everything communicated – such as proposed deal terms or arguments in their support – needs to be simple.
US/Russia agreed non-escalation rules seem to have largely met that test. Mainly, they have been:
Don’t attack each others’ territories, nor that of designated allies (e.g. NATO).
Don’t fire directly at each other’s soldiers.
Do have officers on each side who can communicate about possible misunderstandings.
But in one important area, simplicity broke down: what is or isn’t OK for the US in terms of militarily supporting Russia’s near neighbors (especially ones who used to be part of the USSR). This ambiguity had a lot to do with causing terrible war in Ukraine, in that:
The US did little to support previous victims of Russian aggression, e.g. Georgia or 2014 Ukraine.
Russia felt emboldened to proceed further, invading Ukraine again in 2022.
The US felt that this broke a global norm too drastically and/or once too often, in trying to change national borders through military force.
America’s response was to vigorously aid Ukraine. In connection with that effort, the US unilaterally reopened negotiations, basically renouncing previous limitations on US support.
One may wonder how conscious and purposeful this all was. Notably, there’s little explanation of why the US volunteered the troublesome concession of not helping Ukraine hit rear areas behind its Russian border. But there can be little doubt that, purposeful or not, a “bullhorn bargain” was indeed struck.
However the US conceives of its strategy, its messaging to support its choices has indeed been simple. Primarily, the US has kept repeating versions of:
Russia badly violated international law and norms by attacking Ukraine.
We’re helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.
All specific military and diplomatic decisions are Ukraine’s to make, and need no explanation from us.
Anchor and/or focal points are key
A defining characteristic of bullhorn bargaining is that it doesn’t permit much haggling. So an obvious guess from the standpoint of bargaining theory is that – more than in conventional complex negotiations – outcomes might tend toward one or both of:
An anchor point (one side’s self-serving but still plausible-sounding opening offer).
A focal point (an outcome so plausible that both sides might have thought of it unprompted).
The six decades of US/Russia non-escalation negotiations support that guess.
“Don’t fire weapons at each other’s territory” is an obvious focal point.
“Don’t fire weapons at each other’s people” is an obvious focal point too.
“Our NATO allies get the same protections we do” is an anchor point the US successfully enforced.
The US’ recent unilateral declarations of somewhat new rules, complained about but not substantively challenged by Russia, amount to anchor points as well.
Similar examples of bullhorn bargaining
The aspects of the Russia/US/Ukraine non-escalation negotiation we’ve focused on are:
An inhibition on polite, productive conversation.
In particular, the unlikelihood of a conventionally-negotiated precise agreement.
A lousy BATNA of possible or definite highly destructive conflict.
Similar scenarios include:
Hostile countries, who may have unresolved disputes, but who don’t want to fight an actual war. That isn’t limited to just US/NATO/Russia. Another example is Taiwan/mainland China (if we overlook that China likes to be deliberately provocative at times, including this past week). Positions are simple and moralistic-sounding. There’s an “unofficial” sea border in the obvious place – at the median distance between the two. Etc.
Air intercepts, etc. This is a smaller version of the previous point. And there usually are rules. Indeed, if a country issues a press statement about a minor encounter in the air or sea, it often feels justified to comment as to whether or not the other country’s forces behaved in a “safe” or “professional” way.
“Don’t invade us; we have nukes!” is a consistently successful anchor point.
“Don’t change international borders by force!” is a consistently successful focal point. And the rare violators, like Saddam’s Iraq and Putin’s Russia, risk great backlash to their attempts.
Similarly, “It’s not OK to invade us!” can be regarded as an anchor point and focal point at once, and usually a successful one.
Creating “facts on the ground” -- such as Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories or Russia’s exceptions to the previous point -- is an exercise in proposing non-focal anchor points. It can work, but at the cost of ill will, which in Russia’s case has now exploded into catastrophe.
“No first use of nukes” is a popular focal/anchor point, despite the difficulties of actually getting it encoded into treaty form.
The simplicity precept is often followed as well, some meandering speeches by long-winded dictators notwithstanding.
Other example domains
Looking further afield, grass roots political movements could be a fertile area of inquiry.
Issue-based political movements have two main avenues of success:
Electing politicians who support their cause.
Convincing politicians who already are in office, or who are elected for other reasons.
The latter option can involve considerable bullhorn bargaining, because such movements rarely are so tightly controlled by their leaders that conventional sit-down political negotiation is practicable.
Notes on that include:
Success for such movements is commonly characterized as shifting the Overton Window to include the movement’s preferred policy choice.
The preferred policy choice is a lot like an anchor point, and commonly is simple.
An Overton Window is a lot like a focal point, even though it is usually a range of outcomes rather than a single point.
NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) politics are similar but more local, and commonly involve bullhorn bargaining too. Success for such efforts entails starting from an anchor point that can be stated in two letters – NO – and enforcing that anchor point in full.
Widespread civil unrest can involve bullhorn bargaining of the most literal kind. But BATNAs need to be carefully considered, to confirm that violent handling of protesters is seen as bad for ruled and rulers alike.
And with that, this article has gotten plenty long enough. Please stay tuned for followup.
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