Q&A with William Ury at the Institute for Peace and Justice

Delivered on the 18th of November, 2009 at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice
Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego
San Diego, California

William Ury
From the Boardroom to the Border: Negotiating for Sustainable Agreements

Editor – Kaitlin Barker
Senior Program Officer – Diana Kutlow

The audience submitted questions that were read by Milburn Line.

ML: Thank you, Dr. Ury, for that fantastic talk. I wanted to follow up on your point about caminante and about finding the path. Is there a moment in your path that was transformative to you, when that insight of positions versus interests came to you?

WU: I wish I could say that there was, but I think all of these insights are insights of what I would call uncommon sense. They’re common sense, but they’re uncommonly applied. So I can’t honestly say that there was a moment of illumination around positions and interests, although I’m sure there was a clarification of it.

One thing that drew me into this field and that fills me with passion is an abiding question, which probably occurred to me when I was a child in Switzerland going to school with people from about 30 different countries: How do we deal with our differences?

But I think it came more profoundly from being a child in the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atomic bomb. Just trying to wonder, Do we actually have a future? Could our world as we know it end just like that on a particular day with a particular crisis? It also came from realizing that there’s a race going on in the world today between the human genius at devising weapons of incredible destructiveness – that are becoming both more destructive and accessible – on the one hand, and the human genius at being able to devise social, psychological, emotional technologies for getting along with each other on the other hand. That race has really impelled me to see whether I could contribute a little bit to solutions.

I believe in the power of the third side. The third side is us. It’s incumbent upon us at this particular moment in time to deal with our differences. The question is can we learn to get along? I happen to hold the hope that we can.

ML: Excellent, thank you. From the audience, why does the United States persist in trying to bring about a solution in the Middle East when the Palestinians do not view the United States as an unbiased mediator? Who could be an honest broker for both sides?

WU: I can be critical of the United States and its role, but I would also say that the United States has a definite useful role to play. Even in conflicts where you are not perceived to be neutral, third parties (or the United States in this case) can play an important role, as long as it is accepted by both sides.

At least historically, the United States has been accepted or invited by people on both or all sides of that conflict to play a role. When I talk to Palestinians, they don’t ask the United States to stop being a mediator. They just want the United States to act in a way that feels more balanced for them. But I think in the end what it’s going to take in the Middle East is less of a focus on one player, the United States, and one role, mediator. The idea of the third side is that there are at least 10 different roles that need to be played by the worldwide community in supporting the third side within and among the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The Abraham Path, for example, plays the role of provider when it helps with economic development in those places. People need jobs, they need opportunity. There’s healing that needs to be done. There’s bridge-building. There’s equalizing the power between two unequal players. There’s refereeing. There’s peacekeeping.

Take the analogy of a family. In a healthy family, there are lots of conflicts and disputes that are all part of life. The parents play the role of a third side. They will sometimes be a mediator, sometimes an arbiter, sometimes a bridge-builder building relationships. Sometimes they’ll be a healer trying to get forgiveness. Sometimes they have to be a referee: “Just pillows, no fists.” Sometimes they’re a peacemaker and they have to go and separate the parties, or they’re the provider, providing love and attention and basic needs. That’s what makes for a healthy system.

If you look at the Middle East and ask how many of those roles are being played effectively, the answer is not very many. So maybe it’s not a surprise that we’re not doing so well. When people say, “What about peace in the Middle East?”, my answer is, “Have we really tried?” Can we really say we’ve tried until we’ve really effectively deployed the roles that we would play in a family and play those as a human family? To me the Abraham Path is an attempt, an effort, to activate that third side by bringing people as witnesses to the Middle East. Witness is one of the key roles – to pay constructive attention to the conflict.

ML: Thank you. I’m going to continue with the same region but a different approach. Roger Cohen’s op-ed in the New York Times yesterday17 is along the same line: Does the negotiation process ever give way to polarity management? With the rise of fundamentalism and fixed positions, isn’t it more a case of managing polarities that may never give way to full resolution?

WU: If I understand that question, I think the answer for me would be yes. The field is often called conflict resolution, but I happen to prefer the term conflict transformation because the term “resolution” sometimes sounds like you’re going to wrap it up and tie it up with a nice bow. We sometimes think that if only we could get the Israelis and the Palestinians in a conference together and they’d reach an agreement, we could say, “OK, their conflict is resolved.” But we know that in our own lives, if a husband and wife were having a very bitter struggle and went away for a weekend therapy workshop and said, “We have now resolved our conflict,” everyone would laugh. But somehow we expect that to happen out of a place like Camp David. No, you just change the form of the conflict from a form that is destructive to a form that is constructive. So in that sense, there is some polarity management.

ML: Expanding the region a little bit, one last question on this subject. How would you handle the current situation with Iran’s nuclear program? Would you accept anything short of preventing nuclear weapons? How do you deal with the fact that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons?

WU: Let me just say, none of these conflicts are easy. This conflict is extremely hard. The very first thing in dealing with Iran goes back to something I was talking about earlier, which is respect. It’s beginning to happen, but there’s been a profound lack of respect in this country in its dealings with Iran, and it costs us nothing to really understand. There’s a profound ignorance in this country and also probably in Iran, but I can only speak for my own country for now.

It’s partly because we haven’t had any diplomatic relations for so many years, since the Iranian hostage crisis, but if you put yourself in the shoes of an Iranian – and not even an Iranian who’s in favor of nuclear weapons, a dissident Iranian – they see very little appreciation for their country. They have a great history, the incredible Persian civilization, and the way that they’ve been treated doesn’t appreciate that.

For us as Americans, history is almost non-existent. We just want to forget it, get over it, think about tomorrow. But Iranians have a keen sense of history, and for them 1953 was yesterday, which was when the United States with a CIA plot toppled the first democratically elected executive in the Middle East and stopped the growth of democracy in that sense – because of material interests.

The Iranians remember that, and all I’m saying is that we need to start there. That opens the door. That opens the conversation. But it’s very difficult at this point because nuclear development, quite apart from nuclear weapons, has now become a matter tied to Iranian national pride. And we have to understand that. We also have to understand that Iran has a history where they’ve been attacked by their neighbors very recently. Iraq attacked them with American support, so they have fears. They have Iraq on one side and Afghanistan on the other.

If you’re trying to shift someone, you have to really understand them. And then from that perspective we have to think about how we initiate a different kind of relationship with Iran, because there are a lot of natural common interests between the United States and Iran. They don’t like the Taliban any more than we do. They didn’t like Saddam Hussein.

We need to really rethink the way in which we sit down. This is one of the toughest situations, but it requires at first some humility, some respect, some understanding, and then some real strategy around alternatives – like looking to Russia and the other countries around Iran for a third-side way of dealing with an extremely delicate situation that if not handled properly could lead to devastation in that region and in the world.

ML: Beyond the Middle East, but unfortunately not an easier question: What about Somalia, where there’s been a failed state scenario for almost 20 years? What can be done?

WU: I can’t claim expertise in many of these contexts, but Somalia I happen to know a little bit. One of the principal lessons we can draw is that there’s a tendency for us as a country, and for the world generally, to only pay attention to conflicts when they’re really hot. Then our attention span moves. Unfortunately with Somalia there’s been very little concentrated world attention – third-side attention – because the situation moved on. In other words, it really requires us to be patient. This is difficult for Americans because among the world cultures, we’re probably the most impatient culture on earth. That’s another thing we have to learn in dealing with Iran. Anyone can tell you that in a negotiation, if you’re impatient and the other is not, you won’t do so well in that negotiation.

It takes some patience and some persistence, and it really takes the world looking and saying, “Where is the natural third side in Somalia?” Those traditions exist; the Somalis have their traditions of circles. How can we strengthen that? And how can the outside third side support the inside third side? It will take time and persistence, but there are other situations where seemingly impossible conflicts gradually get transformed. It will not be easy, but it is possible.

ML: Has there ever been a situation where you felt physically threatened during tense negotiations? If so, how did you handle your fear without compromising your effectiveness as a negotiator?

WU: There have been a few times when I felt physically threatened. One time in the midst of the war in Yugoslavia, I was going to meet with some leaders of a rebel republic that had been established in Yugoslavia. I was in a helicopter and someone shot at the helicopter, so I guess that would qualify. But for me, the important thing is to have some faith. Have some trust. The helicopter ended up being OK, and I landed and we spent two days with the leaders of this secessionist republic.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but you just have to learn to go to the balcony, which is why I try to practice what I preach. It’s not always perfect. In different situations, even with the Abraham Path, there’s a lot of mistrust. People in the region might think it’s a plot. I’ve received some threats at different times, but I think what keeps me going is just trying to have faith. Maybe that’s why I like the figure of Abraham – because he teaches that basic virtue of trying to have some trust that things will turn out for the best.

ML: The next question may have crossed your mind as they were firing at your helicopter. Is there a point when negotiation fails and conflict becomes a necessary evil?

WU: Paradoxically, I happen to be a believer in conflict. I believe the world actually needs more conflict, not less, in the sense that every injustice in the world, every difficult issue, needs to be engaged. You need to move into the conflict. Just like in martial arts, they teach you to move into the conflict. Then the question is how you transform it from destructive to constructive.

I’m not a total pacifist. It happens at times that conflict becomes a necessary evil. I do think that sometimes force as a last resort is necessary as a protective means to protect innocent lives. But it’s a last resort, and it has to be done as a third-side response. It has to be done acknowledging that it’s a genuine failure. To me, when we do have force, it means it’s a failure of the third side to really step in. So it needs to be understood as a last resort, and sometimes in certain cases, it is necessary. Just looking at history for example, in dealing with Hitler my druthers would have been a preventive use of force long before it was necessary. There were opportunities back in the early ‘30s to step forth, and I think that might have prevented a great deal of tragic bloodshed.

ML: How can the third side accommodate the corrosive aspects of media and technology in contemporary American political life?

WU: Everyone is a potential third-sider, even the media. And the media in particular really have a potentially constructive role to play, which is being the eyes and ears of the third side. By media I don’t just mean the official media, but now the social media, the Internet media. I’m a big believer in that. It’s true that in different conflicts I’ve worked around, some of the media, but not all of the media, tend to focus and want to focus on conflict – they even foment conflict. The media is sometimes used to feed conflict, and that’s a real problem. Some of the work I’ve done over the years, including in Venezuela, was working with the media because they would like to shift. They would like to change. If you talk to individual journalists, there are no demons out there. The question is how do you get them involved? There is a shift that needs to take place, and I believe the media have a very important role to play in the third side.

ML: How can we address the conflict between humans and nature?

WU: The world’s population has soared. The way we’ve dealt with nature has often been at the least neglectful and in many cases abusive, and what’s happening is nature is a system that responds. I think the problem of climate change is inappropriately named. A friend of mine suggested it should be called “Catastrophic Climate Disruption.” That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what we’re facing. At no time in the last 30 years have I seen more need in this world – in this time of not only economic crisis but a deep and profound ecological crisis – for us to come together. We’ve got to come together and create a third side to protect the natural environment that we share and that all of our descendents – our children and grandchildren – will share. The opportunity that’s facing us right now is to become a third side.

ML: You may have just answered this question. What motivates you to continue the work you do?

WU: I’m a devotee of peace. And by peace I don’t mean some utopian outcome. I mean concrete, hard, often painful transformation of conflicts that are genuine. I think we need to surface more conflicts and engage constructively with them. We’re dealing in a very conflictual world right now, and we have this opportunity to shift it. As Martin Luther King put it, peace is not so much an outcome. It’s a process. It’s the process of engaging with our deepest differences, and out of that can come great things.

If you think about democracy for instance, what is democracy? It’s a process. It’s a system of managing conflicts when people used to engage in civil wars instead. Now we use ballots, not bullets. The genuine opportunity is to see what’s before our eyes, and our genuine achievements in democracy and in the world. I think sometimes we forget those achievements and forget the common human heritage that we can build upon at this particular moment when these methods are needed more than ever.

ML: Before I ask my last question, I’d like to thank three people who have been fundamental to this. Diana Kutlow is a senior program officer from the Institute for Peace & Justice. She conducted the negotiation with Dr. Ury. And I’d also like to recognize Melissa Lucas who works with us in making sure that all this runs smoothly, and was just recognized by the Community of Human Resources at the University of San Diego’s 2010 Employee Recognition. And the Greening Borders Conference has been one of the products of the ceaseless efforts of Ilze Dzenovska.

Final question: Dr. Ury, don’t you find the University of San Diego to be a spectacular place where you would like to spend more time?

WU: Without question. You know, peace is kind of an orphan. We spend so much money on war, and we spend so little on peace, investing. This place is here thanks to the generosity of many of you and of Mrs. Kroc. I would normally have thought I was in a business school or a law school, but never would I have imagined I’d be in a school of peace. Such a beautiful, beautiful place. The setting is gorgeous and it’s an appropriate temple for the Greek goddess Eirene, the goddess of peace.

Let me just leave you with one last American poem that I’ve always loved, which was told to me by a man who actually heard the poet back in a rural Tennessee high school, maybe 70 or 80 years ago, declaiming this poem. The poet was a man by the name of Edwin Markham, and I think his poem has some real truth and resonance today. If I can remember it, his poem went:

They drew a circle and shut me out – heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
 But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle and brought them in.

That’s what the third side does. It’s an inclusive circle, and that’s what is needed. That’s what this conference is about. That’s what this place is about. And so I wish you all much success in all your negotiations. Thank you very much!


  • e-Parliament. www.e-parl.net
Fisher, Roger and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Greening Borders: Cooperation, Security and Diplomacy. Conference of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies. November 2009. www.sandiego.edu/peacestudies/ news/events_calendar/greening_borders/
  • Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. www.pon.harvard.edu
  • Spencer, Dayle E. and William Spencer. “The International Negotiation Network: A New Method of Approaching Some Very Old Problems.” Carter Center, 1992. www.cartercenter.org/documents/1224.pdf
  • The Third Side. www.thirdside.org
Ury, William. Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations. New York:
    Bantam Books, 1993.
  • —. The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No & Still Get to Yes. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007.
  • —. The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
  • William Ury: Helping People Get to Yes. www.williamury.com

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