Journal Article - Negotiation Journal

Back Channel Negotiations and Dangerous Waiting

| July 2018


In times of unfettered international threats, the wise advice of Thomas Schelling deserves attention. Tom prized communication. He stressed the need for enemies to establish channels of communication so that neither chance events nor innocent acts would be misinterpreted and thereby escalate a crisis, and possibly lead to catastrophic consequences. Tom was the intellectual father of the hotline that has connected first the Soviet Union and now Russia to the United States from 1963 to the present day. He worked tirelessly with international missions between the two nations, seeking to establish better communication and its hopeful follow‐on, greater trust. In the current Syrian conflict, Russian and U.S. forces – albeit aligned on opposite sides – communicate regularly to avoid force‐to‐force clashes. Tom also emphasized the importance of tacit communication between adversaries in order to avoid the hostilities mistakes can produce.

Tom observed that in the era of nuclear weapons, given the ability of nations to inflict massive losses on each other, the payoffs from cooperation intended to avoid active hostilities were greatest between nations that were adversaries. He saw that neither war nor its avoidance is a zero‐sum game. He did not believe that communication could solve every question of conflict. “War cannot be made impossible,” he once wrote (Schelling 1961: 722). But he did believe that effective communication could avoid many conflicts. For instance, he identified the violent conflict between the United States and Communist China during the Korean War as a consequence of a two‐way communication failure.

In support of his work on conflict avoidance, Tom analyzed some of the central strategies available to those communicating with an enemy, including how to dissect the essential elements of promises and threats. He was also vitally concerned with securing agreements to control armaments and to avoid or terminate hostilities. Such agreements are invariably produced through negotiations. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about negotiations and the benefits that both parties can achieve. Comparatively few of these works, however, have discussed the challenges of getting two hostile parties to begin negotiations or the dangers that lurk during the period of waiting before negotiations commence.

We believe that back channel negotiations (BCN) have provided and will continue to provide a critical mechanism that enables enemies to find cooperative solutions. We examine its usefulness and apply our insights to the current rapidly evolving situation between the United States and North Korea. (The initial version of this paper was written when Donald Trump and Kim Jong‐un were hurling threats and insults at each other. It was completed in April 2018, when back channel communication (BCC), with South Korea playing a prominent role, created the potential for their face‐to‐face meeting.)

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation:

Mukharji, Aroop and Richard J. Zeckhauser. "Back Channel Negotiations and Dangerous Waiting." Negotiation Journal, vol. 34. no. 3. (July 2018): 297–307.