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Some basic practices in non-decision-making

The Art of Non-Decision-Making (Part #2)

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  1. Stress positive achievements : It is essential to use the full panoply of public relations skills to stress the positive achievements of an international community initiative - no matter how insignificant they may be, or how unrelated to the basic challenge. For example one of the five 'solid' achievements claimed by negotiator Richard Holbrooke, during an August 1997 visit to Bosnia, was to have ensured a three digit telephone code for the country. Unfortunately, in the case of the G7 Summits and others, journalists have become increasingly sceptical about the lack of significant content in the Final Communiqués -- many regular intergovernmental conferences are no longer considered to be of media interest. The efforts to stress the positive may be taken to such lengths that any critical questioning is rejected. This provides an excellent cover for non-decision-making since minimal, token, cosmetic responses can then be extolled as significant positive achievements.

  2. Exclude critical reporters : Strong criticism of non-decision-making can however be toned down, and even eliminated, by implying that journalists, and others, who are too critical will not necessarily receive an invitation to the following event. Since for some journalists, this is a direct threat to their career path, this can be very effective. Overt exclusion on this basis is of course not possible, but for the inviting body, it is only necessary to imply that critics may not be invited. A major controversial intervention to the 1999 Davos Forum was simply suppressed from the official report of it -- although journalists commented extensively on it in the media.

  3. Rotation of praise and blame : It is vital for parties to international initiatives to appear successful, especially to their national constituencies. Basic to the art of non-decision-making is to allow each party to take turns in proposing an initiative in response to a crisis, thus achieving widespread positive recognition. One or more of the other parties must then be prepared to oppose this initiative in some way - thus ensuring that no decision is taken. Other parties can remain neutral during this process. For this process to be viable over a period of time, each party must take turns in proposing initiatives and opposing them. In this way the group can maintain media interest and an impression of getting somewhere, provided individual parties are prepared to weather their turn as 'opposer' and the heavy criticism this may arouse. The advantage of this technique, is that those making proposals do not have to face up to any possibility that these may be accepted. The procedure is therefore risk free. This process is somewhat analogous to price-fixing rings in business in that their existence can be easily denied.

  4. Proposal of solutions based on unacceptable criteria : In the event of an international crisis, such as the massacres in Rwanda, the party in need may specifically exclude assistance or intervention of a particular kind. It is then possible for those desiring to be seen to be taking an initiative, but unwilling to do so in practice, to gain widespread approval by proposing precisely the form of assistance which has been rejected in advance as unacceptable. This is absolutely risk free for the proposer. The French and Belgian governments have been able to use this technique with great success with respect to the Rwandan crisis.

  5. Focus on monitoring, review and study : This is a classical technique that is widely used. In the case of any crisis, attention is focused on the need for more information, study and analysis -- in the absence of which appropriate action can naturally not be taken. The impression is created that something is being done through a "study commission" -- indeed a decision of a kind has been made to undertake the study. No action is however taken on the crisis itself. Indeed the period of study may well exceed the period of duration of the crisis. This approach is much appreciated by academic groups who receive scarce funds to engage in the study. This approach was extensively used in relation to the 'Gulf War syndrome' and to the BSE ("mad cow") crisis. It is an easy way of dealing with many environmental issues, since many of the critics earn their living from monitoring-related processes.

  6. Displace attention to reframe the challenge : In a crisis, as in the Middle East, where two parties are engaged in acts unacceptable to each other, if media attention can be focused on the acts of one, then those of the other can be treated as of little consequence. In the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the media focus on "terrorist bombing" by Palestinians has successfully obscured the 'settlement building' by Israelis. Israelis are then able to insist that every priority be given to security restrictions on Palestinians as a prerequisite to wider discussions - but without in any way diminishing their ongoing settlement building programme. Since this programme, as a form of structural violence,  is a prime cause of continuing Palestinian protest, the Israelis are able to set up a situation in which nothing will be done about the crisis as a whole. This approach succeeds best when "settlement building" can be framed as a positive, innocent, non-violent activity in no way comparable to 'suicide bombing'.

  7. Celebrate achievements : Under conditions of effective non-response to pressing issues, much may be achieved by engaging in celebration. Any suitable anniversary may be chosen - let's have a party. Recent examples include the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, or the forthcoming millennium - although the Olympic Games also serve this function to some extent. By devoting sufficient resources to the celebration, the media are distracted. Critics are marginalized as engaging in 'sour grapes'. If the celebration requires several years planning, then attention can be usefully channelled over that period from other concerns on which action is more difficult.

  8. Scapegoating : This is the classic technique of imputing inability to act effectively to the actions of some other group. Provided it remains possible to locate or create scapegoats, decision-making can effectively be avoided. This has been extensively practiced in the Northern Ireland crisis.

  9. Claim unproven links : This approach is used to deny the relationship between two phenomena : acid rain and deforestation, offal reinforced feedstuffs and BSE, etc. It is then possible to avoid decision-making on the 'unproven' causative factor. Scientists can always be found to question the evidence for any link found by some other group of scientists.

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