political blog, I discussed the president's plan to hold a bipartisan session on health insurance reform, which at face value seems to represent an offer to mediate or negotiate a consensus bill, or at least to invite the Republicans back into the process. The Republican leadership has responded by demanding that the Democrats admit that their whole effort to reform the health care system was a mistake and that they agree to start over. The Democrats don't seem inclined to do that, but they don't seem to expect they will persuade many Republicans to support the bills passed by the House or Senate either. Rather, their offer to hold a public negotiating session may aim only to expose the Republican opposition's proposals as failing to meet the administration's announced criteria for reform. Since they seem more interested in defeating rather than embracing the Republicans' ideas, Democrats must instead plan on using these negotiations to gain more public support for their own proposals.
If this health care summit goes forward, it will do so with the recognition that it carries risks as well as rewards for each side. Both sides may decide that such an effort is worthwhile even if they have no expectation of persuading the other side to accept the soundness of their principles. It is worthwhile because political opponents understand that they are going to remain in conflict over basic principles forever, but nevertheless recognize the occasional need to debate and compromise in some sort of civil fashion in order to get anything done at all. They may be engaging in debate as sport for we the people to judge. So what we learn from watching political or religious or philosophical debates is that resolving these kinds of conflicts may not be the point of the debate at all. Rather, public diplomacy or debate is just the arena for managing the continuing unresolvable conflict, and helping to prevent it from erupting into violence.
In private disputes, parties are more likely to enter into negotiations or mediation with the goal of reaching an agreement. Reaching an agreement in a private dispute is less likely to require the parties to surrender their principles, while still allowing them to satisfy at least some of their (perhaps purely monetary) goals. Ideally, an agreement may even allow parties to reconcile, to put their disputes behind them, and to achieve justice as well as peace. But oftentimes, mediation will not achieve any of these results, or will only achieve a few of them, because many private conflicts are as intractable as public ones.
A mediation should not be deemed a failure if it does not result in settlement. Indeed in some cases, settlement might even be viewed as failure, if settlement leaves one or both parties feeling unsatisfied or defeated. Mediation, however, whether or not it results in settlement, is almost always a useful way to gain valuable information; to test out the soundness of each side's legal and factual positions; to convey those positions to the other side; or to help both sides see their options more clearly. In most cases, settlement will emerge as the better alternative to continued litigation, but even if the parties remain in conflict, they should still gain a means of managing that conflict in a less self-destructive fashion as a result of participating in mediation.
(photo of political debate in South Korea from crazynews)